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Exclusive Interview Dr Zhang Jiamei

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Exclusive Interview

Dr Zhang Jiamei

Associate Professor at the Department of
South Asian Studies, School of Foreign Languages,
Peking University

Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): How did you develop your association with Urdu language?
Dr Zhang Jiamei (DZJ): I got associated with the Urdu language in 1997 when I got admission to Peking University for learning it. Since then, this association has been prospering.
JWT: When did you decide to learn Urdu language?
DZJ: In China, we have to learn one foreign language, besides English, as well. I had to choose one language from Japanese, Mongolian, Vietnamese, Korean, Arabic and Urdu. So, I opted for Urdu. Since other languages were from our region and had, to some extent, similarities with Chinese language, I preferred choosing a different one, Urdu.
JWT: How did you learn Urdu language while living in China?
DZJ: As a student of Urdu department, I learned most of this language here. At that time, Pakistani movies like “Mera Naam Hay Mohabbat” and “Awaraa” were exhibited in China. Watching them also helped me in this regard. Moreover, frequent exchange of delegations between Pakistan and China also proved very helpful. The love for Pakistan also was also a major reason behind my decision to learn the Urdu language.
JWT: How many times have you visited Pakistan?
DZJ: I visited Pakistan first time in 2004 and my last visit was in 2018. During this period, I went to Pakistan for eight times and visited all of its big and major cities like Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Swat, Mardan and Saidu Sharif.
When I met with different people in Pakistan and talked to them in Urdu, they often got surprised seeing a Chinese lady speaking Urdu fluently. Then, all barriers would end at once and people would become friendly with me; even shopkeepers would give huge discounts to me. It is said that when you talk in your mother tongue, you talk from heart but when you talk in a foreign language, you talk from brain. I have experienced that in Pakistan; drivers, passers-by or common men talk to me in Urdu and respect me a lot.
JWT: Which Pakistani dishes are your faves and what are your observations about Pakistani dresses?
DZJ: Pakistani food is very delicious. My favorite dish is chicken pulao and mutton. I eat paratha less. I like the milk available in Pakistan.
As for the second part of your question, I would say that I have observed differences between urban and rural areas in Pakistan. There is diversity in cities whereas rural areas have their own dresses and style. Pakistani dresses are very beautiful especially those worn by females have diversity and different variety of colours. Personally, I like handmade dresses with embroidery work on them.
JWT: What kind of difficulties did you initially face while learning Urdu?
DZJ: There were so many of them. First of all, at that time in 1997, the internet was not so fast and easily available. Urdu text was also not readily available. We used to read only textbooks but there was a huge difference between Urdu and Chinese grammar. So, we would often visit Pakistan embassy in Beijing so as to talk with Pakistani officials in Urdu. However, later, with the availability of the internet, learning Urdu became much easier. The availability of Urdu newspapers, movies and books on the internet has facilitated us a lot.
JWT: Who were your teachers?
DZJ: My teachers were Prof. Thong Mong Shu, Prof. Leo Shu Shu and Prof. Hong Zhu En. Prof. Thong Mong Shu has been associated with the construction of the Karakoram Highway. He knew a lot about Pakistan.
JWT: How long did it take you to learn Urdu language?
DZJ: I have done graduation in Urdu and learned it in around four years.
JWT: Who is your favourite author or poet of Urdu language?
DZJ: I have studied many authors of Urdu and I especially like Bano Qudsia, Saadat Hasan Manto and Imtiaz Ali Taj. As for contemporary writers, Umera Ahmed is my favourite. Although Urdu poetry is quite difficult, I have read Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz.
JWT: It is rightly said that when someone learns the language of another country, the culture of that country also becomes known to that person. As you know Urdu language very well, how do you view Pakistani culture?
DZJ: The culture and history of both Pakistan and China are different. The remnants of ancient civilizations are found in Pakistan. There are cities like Harappa and Moenjodaro in Pakistan which are center of ancient civilization and culture. Moreover, there is cultural diversity in Pakistan. Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan have their own beautiful cultural traditions.
In Pakistan, we find Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu civilizations. The reflection of this cultural diversity is found in Pakistani people who are open-hearted, friendly and hospitable. Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, so Muslim culture is dominant here.
JWT: How did you think about doing PhD in Urdu?
DZJ: My interest in Urdu language developed gradually. So, I started teaching Urdu. During my teaching career, I availed myself of an opportunity to know more about Urdu. So, I did a PhD in that.
JWT: What was the topic of your PhD Thesis?
DZJ: It was “The Religious Approach of Mughal King Akbar”. My PhD supervisor was Prof. Thong.
JWT: How many students were there when you started learning Urdu? After graduation, how many of them remained associated with Urdu? Did any of them get job due to learning of Urdu langauge?
DZJ: We were 11 students (four girls and seven boys) who got admission in Urdu department of Peking University in 1997. After graduation, three of us got admission in MA. One of my classmates is working at Urdu Service of China Media Group. Another one is working in a mobile company. Due to his proficiency in Urdu, he has visited Pakistan and India many times. Rest of my class fellows joined other fields.
JWT: How has been the journey of the department of Urdu at Peking University? And, what courses are offered here?
DZJ: Since its establishment in 1954, as many as 200 students have graduated from the department. Although its activities remained suspended during Cultural Revolution in 1960, it has continued its journey and, today, students can do graduation, MA or PhD from the department.
JWT: Are there Chinese teachers who teach Urdu or the University has hired teachers from Pakistan?
DZJ: There are three Chinese people who teach Urdu at the department. Teachers from Pakistan have been teaching here but they remain here for a specific period and then they go back.
JWT: You yourself are a scholar and very familiar with Urdu literature as well. What kind of similarities or differences do you find in the subjects chosen by writers from both countries?
DZJ: There are many similarities as well as difference between the Pakistani and Chinese writers. Subjects related to literature are same as they are almost similar in every society. In my personal opinion, there is difference between Pakistani and Chinese literature because of modern novel. The characters of Chinese novel are more complex and are described in detail. The nature, sense of humor, attitude, face features, dress, what is going on in heart and every brief and minute detail associated with a character is described by the writer. However, in a Pakistani novel, there is more dialogue. The character describes his/her thoughts through dialogue. As far as subjects are concerned, there are different issues of religions, social and domestic issues, love affairs, attachment with surroundings in China. When a writer in China writes about them, he tells the readers how to solve these problems.
In Pakistan, religion matters a lot in a societal fabric, so it affects a writer as well. Like in the novels of Peer-e-Kamil and Hasil La-Hasil by Umera Ahmed, religious matters have been discussed. Then, literature fades away which is strange a bit. However, we can understand Pakistani society through it.
JWT: Has some Chinese literature been translated into Urdu language, and vice versa, under the Urdu department?
DZJ: Translations are done. It is a continuous process. When the students of Urdu department graduate, they have to write a thesis to obtain a degree. Translation is part of this thesis. Every Chinese student, who is learning Urdu language, has to translate a literary work of his/her own liking. It can be poetry, a story, a novel or prose. So, in this way, many translations have been done.
JWT: What kind of activities are arranged to familiarize Chinese students with Pakistani culture?
DZJ: Different activities are arranged like cultural festival is held on different days. Mushaira is arranged on Iqbal Day. Students visit Pakistan Embassy to participate in functions held in connection with important days. Students visit Pakistani restaurants in first and last semester to have a taste of Pakistani food.
JWT: Has CPEC motivated youth of China to learn Urdu?
DZJ: Yes, it is true that the popularity of Urdu has increased manifolds in China due to CPEC. Many young students are taking interest in learning Urdu. Pak-China friendship has also played an important role in this rising trend. We also arrange orientation for them before admission in university.
JWT: How many Universities in China are teaching Urdu?
DZJ: There are, at present, seven such universities; three out of them are in Beijing whereas four are in different cities of China.
JWT: How do you view the future of Urdu in China?
DZJ: The future of Urdu is very bright in China and it will be even brighter after 10 years from now. Due to CPEC and cordial Pak-China relations, many people and young students want to know more and more about Pakistan since it is a neighbour of China. So, the importance of Urdu will remain there in China. I would say that pure Urdu would be found in China only as people in Pakistan mix English words in Urdu while speaking. Because of this, Urdu has not been pure in Pakistan. When we speak Urdu, we speak pure Urdu.
There is another reason as well. When I started learning Urdu, very few people knew about Pakistan at that time. People would ask me questions live what would you do after learning Urdu, what is this language, where is Pakistan, how are the people? In which field will you work or find a job? But when I started learning Urdu, slowly I came to know about Pakistan. Then, I started telling my family and friends about Pakistan. So, people came to know about Pakistan. I can say that many people came to know about Pakistan because of me.

The interviewer is associated with Radio Pakistan as Senior Producer. He worked for three years as Foreign Language Expert (Urdu) with China Radio International, Beijing. He is the author of two books, and the translator of one, on China.

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