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Senior citizens go back to the old school

Update: March, 17/2013 - 09:01
Light learning: The studying atmosphere of Ba's Han - Nom class is relaxed and comfortable. VNS Photos Nguyen Duy

Despite many participants being well into their 80s, a group of former teachers in Da Nang still retain their thirst for knowledge and meet regularly in a classroom to educate each other on their specialist topics. Nguyen Huy reports.

At 7:30am twice a month, 85-year-old retired colonel Huynh Phuong Ba's living room in Hai Chau District in the central provincial city of Da Nang becomes a classroom for grey-haired students.

Ba starts his lecture on the alphabet, grammar and difficult phrases while the more advanced students enthusiastically raise questions.

After nearly an hour, Ba leaves the "stage" for another "teacher" and student", Nguyen Dinh Ngat.

Ngat passionately talks about the history of Viet Nam and China. For each historical phase, Ngat writes the Han – Nom (ancient ideographic Vietnamese characters based on Han Chinese scripts) characters on the blackboard so that the students can get used to both the stroke and the meaning of the word.

During a break, the older students enjoy cups of tea while taking advantage of the time to discuss what they have learnt.

"There is no specific curriculum for the class," says Ba. "Each student is a teacher himself. Before class, each choose a topic to study and present to the others."

Ba, who is the director of the Han-Nom Centre in Da Nang, has spent over ten years studying the Han-Nom scripts.

His enthusiasm for the ancient scripts has inspired him to knock on retired civil servants' doors in the area for their participation in his lessons.

"Many times dropping by my family's house of worship, I often wonder what the ancient parallel sentences and documents in ideographic characters in the house mean. I keep tossing and turning all night in bed thinking about how to study and understand them", Ba says.

Role reversal: Each student is also the teacher of the special class. They are very keen on both learning and teaching in class.

His first class started in 2006, with fewer than ten students. Many initially did not show interest, while others pleaded hard work or learning difficulties. Not discouraged, Ba patiently kept persuading the students and organised more flexible classes.

He says the class must be made as relaxed and comfortable as possible instead of following a rigid syllabus. Attending the class is also a way for the students to relax. The main teaching method is self-study and each student can choose for himself an appropriate learning method.

"Up to 30 students have enrolled in the latest class, which just started last year. It took the students only two years to be able to read and write smoothly, as well as translate the epitaphs or family backgrounds."

One student, Nguyen Hien, has diligently travelled 50km over the past three months from Duy Xuyen District in Quang Nam Province to attend the Han-Nom class. One of the youngest students, Hien, a farmer, is about to turn 60.

During his first days of study, his neighbours and relatives were very surprised, and even tried to prevent him from studying because of his "old age".

But Hien says: "Only after I have studied and gained knowledge can I help and set a good example for my children. Furthermore, attending the class also improves my mind and health."

Outside of the class, Hien spends most of his time self-studying until late at night. He also takes advantage of his free time while farming to practise writing – on the bare ground with a stick.

"Up to now, I have got hold of the basic vocabulary," Hien says cheerfully.

Another student, 60-year-old Phan Thi Le Ha from Da Nang's Hoa Vang District, can now recognise strokes and explain their meanings.

"Learning by heart and keeping practice will help the students get familiar and remember a new word for a long time," Ha says.

Vital work: Ba (L) and Dan (R) are completing the document confirming Viet Nam's sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

Although Ha had got used to waking up early to catch the bus downtown, then hitching a ride to the class, she persuaded her husband to take her there on his motorcycle and study with her.

"It makes us happy to recall the memories of our students' days," she says.

Last September, Ba's small class was recognised as the Han-Nom Centre by the local Study Encouragement Society, which aims to study Han-Nom scripts, translate ancient documents and apply feng-shui science.

Ba has also held many extracurricular activities and visits to cultural relics like temples and pagodas where the ancient epitaphs and documents are kept, which allow the students to study family histories and manuscripts.

According to Ngat, the centre's vice-director, up to 12 family annals as well as many manuscripts, have been translated. And all this has also led to the students discovering the history of Viet Nam's sovereignty over the islands in the East Sea.

Ba says proudly: "We are completing the work of translating and clarifying historical documents about Viet Nam's sovereignty since the French domination. According to the weekly newspaper L'Eveil Economique de I'Indochine, the French colonial authorities should have had the responsibility of protecting Viet Nam's interest and territorial sovereignty. However, according to the author of the article Cucherousset, the French closed their eyes, colluded with Japan and China to exploit the archipelago during the 1924-34 period."

According to Ba, during that period French journalists and researchers visited Viet Nam to study the issue and found documents confirming the country's sovereignty over the islands – for example, Emperor Gia Long (1762-1820) assigned people to fly the national flag on the islands from 1816, and the emperors Minh Mang (1791-1841) and Duy Tan (1900-1945) published books for children to learn about the nation's sovereignty over the Paracels.

Nguyen Truong Dan, a historical and cultural researcher – and also a student at the Han-Nom class for two years – emphasises that ancient Han-Nom maps and manuscripts have confirmed that the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) islands belong to Viet Nam.

"Thorough understanding of the sovereignty and meaning of the ancient documents will improve the consciousness and responsibility of young Vietnamese," he says.

Dan adds that during a fact-finding tour, his students read and translated successfully four lines of poetry engraved on the throne of the Nguyen dysnaty showing that protecting the national sovereignty has always been a priority. — VNS

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