English in China: A Miraculous & Conflicted Encounter

by Joel Heng Hartse

That more people speak English in China than in the United States has become a gospel truth for pundits who favor grand pronouncements about globalization and the future. We should care about this, we are told; it’s as if somehow the newfound “Englishness” of China is the final puzzle piece needed to crown it Best, Richest, Most Powerful Country in the World.

Frankly, this China-English thing is a lot more interesting than the vague signifier for capitalist achievement it is made out to be. Yes, English has firm roots in China. I learned this in my time as a university English teacher there, waltzing into a job with my blonde hair, big nose and American passport. But leaving two years later, I had the sense that the encounter between English and China is bigger and more complicated and more important than we yet know.

China’s leaders have made English a pillar of its educational system. While the impetus for this choice, historically, has been the acquisition of knowledge from abroad and the development of the country, it plays out in millions of fascinating personal ways. I think of my former students now studying in Wales, Hong Kong, California; sending emails to Vietnamese colleagues; negotiating unwanted (or wanted) advances from travelling Westerners; teaching kindergarteners the ABCs; listening to the new Death Cab for Cutie single. I marvel at the ways in which English has affected the lives of many young Chinese. I am grateful for the way I’ve been able to learn so much about “my” language (I’m learning to share), and continue to be challenged as a teacher, reader and writer, by the China-English encounter.

Trading first brought English to China, and perhaps China’s current economic boom has also contributed to the scholarly publishing industry taking more interest in the phenomenon. In the last decade, we have seen historical overviews like China’s English by Bob Adamson and Chinese Englishes by Kingsley Bolton. The editors of Cambridge’s English Today journal commented in 2004 that “if we published every publishable paper we receive from the People’s Republic, English Today would become English in China Today.”

Three recent books offer a picture of different yet overlapping areas of English in China: a) the English language itself and the way it is changing as 300 million Chinese learn it; b) the pivotal role of English in the country’s education system and c) conflicts involving culture and identity arising from China’s sometimes ambivalent embrace of English.

The most recent, Xu Zhichang’s Chinese English: Features and Implications, is a straightforward linguistic study of Chinese English (think of it as analogous to “British English” or “Indian English”). Xu’s book is rooted in the assumptions of the World Englishes approach to the language, a concept popularized in the 1980s by the Indian linguist Braj Kachru. The theory suggests that as English has spread across the globe, it has become decentralized, existing now in many different forms which can be described and understood on their own terms rather than simply as error-riddled versions of the Queen’s English. This is relatively uncontroversial in contexts like India and Singapore (Singlish notwithstanding leh), but few seem to be able to agree about China. Is it a country of learners failing to correctly grasp American and British pronunciation, able only to produce the sentence “fine, thank you, and you”? Or is China an important force in adding new features to English vocabulary and style? Without Chinese English there is no “paper tiger,” “no one country, two systems,” even (according to some) “no long time no see.”

Xu sees Chinese English as a legitimate variety, and though he argues that it is “developing” rather than fully formed, Xu finds, through interviews with Chinese students, articles in the China Daily, and the short stories of expatriate writer Ha Jin, numerous linguistic features which are unique to the Chinese context. His book is a compelling argument that English in China goes much further than the poorly translated “Chinglish” of restaurant menus and street signs. After reporting the results of his study, Xu argues that this linguistic reality should translate into educational policy: Chinese English should be embraced in order to meet students’ needs—quite simply, China is not Britain or America, and English education should follow a more realistic local standard.

The question of how English (specifically writing) is taught in China is also central to You Xiaoye’sWriting in the Devil’s Tongue. You uses the term “devil’s tongue” not because he argues against the use of English in China, but because he takes seriously its history in the country. While English education has existed there since the Opium Wars, its role in the education system and society at large has shifted from a reluctantly learned “devil’s tongue” to a “daily tool” to, in You’s words, “our tongue.” You is a scholar of rhetoric and composition studies, a field traditionally interested in teaching writing to university students at English-medium institutions, and the book is a response to what he calls “the indifference in American composition studies shown toward worldwide teaching of English writing.” The 150-year evolution of English writing pedagogy in China has been driven, You argues, by “the Chinese pursuit of modernity.” He therefore rejects the ti-yong dualism which Chinese scholars of education posited in the early days of English—that Chinese and traditional subjects should be learned for humanistic essence (ti), while English and other Western subjects should only be grasped for their utility (yong), implying perhaps that the ti of English should be rejected.

Instead, You shows that English, rather than being merely an encroaching ti or a utilitarian bridge to knowledge, is an important part of Chinese society itself, and that it plays an “anchoring role” for identity in the era of globalization: English is, in fact, a Chinese language. You’s perspective as a rhetorician rather than a linguist or social scientist seems to give him freedom to explore the many facets of Chinese English writing; he quotes from student essays, textbooks, speeches, websites and newspapers, offering many glimpses at English as it is used in China. One of the book’s strengths is its exposition of English in the pre-PRC era; it is easy today to forget the efforts of scholars like Lin Yutang, a friend of Pearl S. Buck, who wrote several American bestsellers in English or Ge Chuangui, who sometimes wrote to English lexicographers to point out their mistakes.

Like You’s book, China and English places the language at the heart of what its editors call “the Chinese quest” to modernize. Edited by the Australian education scholars Joseph Lo Bianco and Jane Orton, and Peking University English professor Gao Yihong, the book is a compilation of chapters by the editors and Chinese graduate students, mostly associated with Peking University. The ti-yong question, rather than being rejected, is at the heart of many of the contributions; Lo Bianco sets the tone for the volume by describing the mutually transformative encounters between Jesuit missionaries and Chinese literati as a precursor to the encounter with English, while Gao asserts that the ti-yong dilemma will continue to be a struggle for years to come.

Contributors take a number of approaches to the sociolinguistic study of English in China, including English teachers’ narratives, surveys and interviews with learners and studies of pop-psychological-English phenomena like Li Yang’s entrepreneurial “Crazy English” courses and Communist youth leader Zhang Haidi’s book Beautiful English. What emerges, however, is a profound ambivalence at the core of English in China in the 21st century. Nearly every chapter focuses on people or groups in China for whom English is important—students, teachers, writers, policymakers, government officials—and to whom the necessity of English and the possibilities for economic and personal development it offers are often combined with a fear that continued socio-political investment in the language may be harming social and individual identity. If Xu shows that English can become linguistically Chinese, and You that it can be used for Chinese rhetorical purposes, China and English reveals the conflict that many still feel about the baggage of culture and identity that accompanies China’s official embrace of English.

Things of beauty, however, continue to emerge from this conflict: the novels of Ha Jin and Guo Xiaolu do things with English I never thought possible; the linguistic playfulness of Chinese rock bands is a delight; the raw self-expression that sometimes spills out in the Chinese English classroom can be stunning. To be sure, there is an orbit of money, language and power around English in China, but there are also uncharted territories being explored with it daily. I’m biased, but I think any English-knowing person will benefit from delving into the world of Chinese English. Another of my writing students in China produced a sentence so lovely I have memorized it, and will deploy it here: “It makes think that these sort of little miracles are happening everywhere.”

[This review was first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.]

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Xu Zhichang, Chinese English: Features and Implications, Open University of Hong Kong Press, 2010. 252 pgs.
You Xiaoye, Writing in the Devil’s Tongue: A History of English Composition in China, Southern Illinois University Press, 2010. 237 pgs.
Joseph Lo Bianco, Jane Orton and Gao Yihong, editors, China and English: Globalisation and the Dilemmas of Identity, Multilingual Matters, 2009. 315 pgs.