The importance of contemporary cultural resources

china culture elt modern china Oct 22, 2021

By Lottie Dowling

In January 2017, I returned to Beijing, China for work after a two-year absence.  I left Beijing in 2015 after living there for nine and a half years to move to Australia.  Having arrived in Beijing pre-Olympics and lived through the incredible transformation of the city in the lead up to the Olympics, I was well aware of China’s capacity for speedy development. However, the developments in just a two-year period still surprised me.

WeChat, the social media app, was used to pay for and do practically everything. Everyone—from young Chinese teenagers to older ayis (aunts)—runs their life from the app. Mobike, the newest option in shared services, means you can hire a bike from virtually any location in Beijing, scanning a QR code to unlock the bike, paying online through Alipay or WeChat, and once the trip is completed, drop it off anywhere, from a street corner to a subway station.  And the fastest way to get a taxi in the city is to book through Uber or similar app, paid for (of course) via WeChat rather than cash or a credit card.

Upon my return, it struck me that people in the West are familiar with a modern portrayal of China, but there is a disconnect between this and their impressions of Chinese culture. When people think about Chinese culture, traditional subjects such as tea ceremonies, calligraphy and Chinese Opera usually come to peoples’ minds.  Few people in the West can name a Chinese celebrity, realize the enormous prevalence of the NBA in China or name a few social media platforms used daily by 1.3 billion people in China.

In education, whilst building students’ intercultural understanding and Asia Capability, using contemporary resources about modern China can avoid developing inaccurate and only traditional understandings of Chinese culture.  These resources are certainly not plentiful; when I look at the available resources for educators, I am reminded of the three years I spent working in Beijing’s state schools, where English textbooks often included outdated vocabulary such as ‘a video phone’. Publishing and education companies seem to struggle to keep up with how fast the world is evolving—or perhaps are clueless about what modern Asia actually looks like—forcing educators to be resourceful in their search for suitable contemporary resources about China or other Asian countries.

With this in mind, I have outlined a list of suggested resources, well matched to build students’ intercultural understanding, and focusing on modern or contemporary China.

Culture Agents

Culture Agents is a Chinese language and culture program for students aged 9-12 and focuses on developing global competency skills. Different units of work focus on various aspects of daily life in China and contemporary Chinese culture, providing not only relevant cultural knowledge about modern China but also modern Chinese language. For example, a unit on ‘shopping’ looks at bargaining and the hand signals for numbers, ‘music’ vocabulary includes downloading, uploading and sharing music files, and ‘food’ includes modern popular foods such as ‘fangbian mian’ (instant noodles). The accompanying app means that students can also access the program remotely and use the online chat feature to practice their Chinese with peers in China, finding out more about daily life there.

Virtual Excursions

Virtual Excursions are the closest thing to being in China without the cost of a plane ticket. Students can roam the streets of China, through the old hutongs of Beijing, explore a local market with their tour guide, or visit the Great Wall of China.  They can ask and answer questions with locals, practicing second language skills and building intercultural understanding. Virtual Excursions allow participants to see real-time China and ask their guide questions about daily life that they may not have previously thought of.

My Education Group runs virtual excursions into China.

White Rabbit Gallery

Many galleries around the world hold one or two pieces of contemporary Chinese art. However, the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney, Australia holds one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary Chinese Art.  Exhibitions change fairly regularly and, although they do not take school groups themselves, they do run two tours a day, which educators may join, and have an online collection of artists’ works.

Television Shows

Today, access to a variety of Chinese TV shows is available to everyone due to the internet. The hugely popular If You Are the One has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon with 50 million viewers, and it provides unique insights into specific aspects of Chinese culture around dating, family and marriage. For primary students, Smart Tiger’s dialogue is a decent speed, and Shi Yang Yang may have episodes or sections that are suitable; however, the violence between the wolf and sheep is reminiscent of the relationship between Road Runner and Cyote or Tom and Jerry and the Cat—not acceptable for many by today’s Western standards.

The internet

Yes, this sounds obvious, but all the Chinese teachers I’ve spoken to indicated that the internet is the best place to find out about modern Chinese culture via social media, news articles and blogs. Take the social media superstar twins Chufei and Churan, who recently visited Australia.  Through blogging about their experience here, young Chinese in China learnt a lot about Australian life and culture—and were astonished that Australians can drink tap water! These kinds of insight tells us a lot about daily life, values and culture in China and students can learn a lot from these sources. Music videos, which can be easily sourced online, give glimpses into modern, popular Chinese (and Asian) culture through language, social trends and fashion.

Ongoing professional development

There are a number of organisations in Australia and New Zealand hosting events relevant to contemporary China that educators can attend. Most of these organisations have social media accounts that share resources and promote other related events:

The Confucius Institutes (nationwide Australia and New Zealand)

Asia Education Foundation (Australia) or Asia New Zealand Foundation

New Zealand China Friendship Society

The Center for Contemporary Chinese Studies (Melbourne University, Australia)

Australia China Young Professionals Institute

The Australian China Business Council

Asialink, Australia.

Lowy Institute, Australia.

Of course, the need to expose students to contemporary culture is not unique to China. In an increasingly globalized world, with the rise of Asia, Asia Capabilities, intercultural understanding and global competence are essential in preparing students to be ‘future-ready’. This includes ensuring they have a good grasp on the contemporary cultures of the region where they live and will work in the future.


Lottie Dowling has worked in education as a school practitioner and professional learning leader on a global, national and regional level for over 16 years in a number of roles including; educator, designer and deliverer of professional learning, capacity building, curriculum development, global competency program content development and education management. Follow Lottie on Twitter @LottieDowlingNZ.