Dan from Asia Options recently sat down with Rebecca Morrison to talk about the worldwide Chinese Bridge (汉语桥) competition, which challenges contestants with their knowledge of Chinese culture, history and, of course, their proficiency in Mandarin Chinese. The annual competition is broadcast throughout China, with the high-placing contestants being flown to Changsha for the final rounds.
Out of 800,000 contestants worldwide, Rebecca was ranked No. 1 in the Oceania continent, meaning she was put head to head with finalists from the other four continents. She also won the ‘Most Popular Online’ award. She was nice enough to share some inside tips with us and detailed her experience in the competition for your benefit.
When did you start learning Chinese, and where did your interest come from?
I started learning Chinese when I was thirteen at high school. I think my real interest was sparked particularly by a Chinese teacher whose teaching methods really resonated with me. She really encouraged me to compete in speaking competitions, as well to as apply for different scholarships. An example of a scholarship I won through her encouragement and support was the 2010 Shanghai Youth Camp. It was only a year later that I competed in the high school division of the Chinese Bridge language competition in Chongqing.
Why did you become interested in the Chinese Bridge competition? Were you previously familiar with the format of it? How far did you get in the competition?
I first heard about the China Bridge Competition when I was in high school in 2011. I competed in the high school version of the competition, from which I made so many friends from around the world and was also awarded a six-month scholarship to study in China. I used this scholarship in my first year of university at the University of Queensland (and received credit it for it because I am doing a dual degree in Arts/Law). During this time I competed in the University version of the competition.
Most people think it is crazy to do the competition twice because it is so stressful and full on, but the reason I wanted to compete again is that, in a way, I wanted to prove myself. When I competed in 2011 my Chinese language ability wasn’t very good because I had never lived in China for an extended period, and so even though I had many opportunities to do television interviews, I wasn’t really able to utilise these opportunities because I couldn’t express everything I wanted to say. While I won the preliminary rounds in Australia, going to the finals in China made me realize that I still had a long way to go to achieve fluency.
I suppose the best thing about the competition is that not only your understanding of China deepens, because you have these great opportunities to experience, for example, porcelain making, and to sample some of the delicacies of rural villages (these were some of the tasks from the competition this time), but also because you are competing with people from every continent. They all share the same passion for studying Chinese and often have similar career goals, which mean the friendships you make are really meaningful and real. In this competition, I won the Oceania continent and won the ‘Most Popular Online’ award. This meant that I competed until the very end – where it came down to the top 5 – (i.e. the champions from the five continents).
Tell us about the performance aspect of the competition. Do you have any tips for potential contestants on how to do well? Throughout the competition, you have to do a lot of seemingly random activities, like running around trying to find a restaurant. How much emphasis is placed on actual Chinese ability rather than your ability to ‘put on a show’?
In Changsha where the competition began, we had to do a 90-second speech on our “Chinese dream” or “about interesting aspects of learning Chinese” etc. We also had to do a cultural performance for 90 seconds – I did a comedy skit. Finally, we had to perform a written and listening exam. From these 3 tests, 126 contestants became 30. Then we flew to Xi’an where we were split into our respective continents and continued to do competitions. Australasia got the chance to go to a rural town famous for its food and do various things like running around trying to find certain foods as well as performing on stage. Alot of the competition involved performing, acting and singing in Chinese – a bit like ‘China’s Got Talent’. As it is a TV show, they are obviously looking for outgoing people who will make the show different and engaging, so I suppose the key thing in being successful in the competition is not doing things the ordinary way.
The top 30 then became the top 15 and we flew to Jingdezhen. There we competed again within our continent but this time the challenges involved porcelain. It was a lot like ‘amazing race’ where basically we had to find the person with the next clue to where we were going so we had to sprint around the town asking people until we found the person who knew the answer. Then we went to a pottery village and learnt about making clay pots and vases. In the top 10 competition, we went to a city famous for its black tea and had to create a thirty-second advertisement for black tea and present a speech about what this trip to China had taught us. Upon making the top five (where all five champions of the continents competed) the competition got even more intense. We not only had to memorize pre-written skits that were highly complex but also had to prepare for the ‘sudden death’ round where we would randomly be given one of ten topics and have to give a 90-second speech on it. We only had a week to prepare for this show and this week was exhausting – a lot of long nights and even when we got back to the hotel we couldn’t really rest because we were had to memorize lines and do television interviews.
Do you think the exposure gained from being a part of the competition might benefit you someway in the future? What is your plan for the future?
I think clearly the most challenging part of the competition was the testing of our language capabilities during high pressure and with limited preparation time. At the same time, I think this exhaustion and hard-work was also very rewarding because we pushed ourselves to the limit and saw massive improvements in our Chinese language abilities in just five weeks that we were there. Of course, the other contestants who shared the journey with us will remain an important reason why I encourage everyone studying Chinese to aspire to participate in this competition. I think if you look past the fame on Chinese Twitter and new Instagram followers and consider the longer term, I think these people are the ones that may shape future career paths. I envisage all of us meeting again someday simply because our common aspirations will undoubtedly lead us all back to China at some point.
Finally, would you be a part of the competition again? And do you have any final tips or comments?
If I did the competition again, the only thing I would do differently is to bring some more sore throat lozenges! The competition’s fast pace means you need good medication to combat daily flu symptoms and fatigue. Otherwise, I am very proud that under the pressure we were faced with –I still managed to remember to enjoy the ride – because it certainly was one hell of a ride!
You can see a video of the competition here:
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