Thursday, 2 July 2009

English Language Boom in China/Two

The fabric of the English learning boom, of course, is a pattern of many textures, only a few threads of which are represented by the likes of Fong. The place to look for the dominant pattern is in the Foreign Language Institutes, like the one where, turning the tables on us, the Chinese teach us their language. Ours, with a student population of over 13,000, a staff of 1,600 of whom 700 are teachers, but only 70 professors and associate professors – the Cultural Revolution did not look with approbation on such honorifics.

Some forty are “Foreign experts”, not all of whom come to do what they’re expert in, as I found when I was “Shanghaied” into service to give a lecture on Whitman and Emerson to 140 Chinese students of English for a visiting professor who was not only an eighteenth century Brit Lit specialist, but who could scarcely mask her contempt for Whitman to me, a certified Whitmaniac. She and her husband, a John Donne specialist teaching modern English novels, were “recruited” because their state’s governor, after a royal progress through China looking for international prospects, casually promised to send them some badly needed professors.

The FLI teaches ten languages – English, Japanese, Arabic, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Russian – not always in that order of preeminence. In the 1950’s the Cultural Attaché of the British Embassy in Peking told me Russian was the dominant second language in Chinese FLI’s. Now that influence is almost vanished, certainly less palpable than, say, the Shanghai Trade Exhibition Centre, an architecturally ambiguous gift of the Sino-Russian Friendship era, a building so depressingly Early Wurlitzer or Late Bowling Trophy in its Comm-Comm Baroque style that a visitor from Mars could infer that Communism was an esthetic mess just from walking through that building once.

We studied from texts made by the FLI staff, fairly modern in pedagogical tactics, though a non-smoking class of seven puzzled over our long drilling in cigarettes, lighter, matches dialogue while we never, ever learned the word for toilet, some more primitive local examples, some of which you’d wish you didn’t have the need for! The Shanghai FLI also has started a flourishing textbook division, which has just published a creditable introduction to twentieth century American literature by a visiting American professor at a provincial university.

When I went out to Fudan University to see what a “real” university was like, I was puzzled at first to see that my old reading matter – American Literature, College English, and The English Journal, for example, were in uncharacteristically simple covers – until the librarian quite unabashedly explained they were “pirated” editions. Whether Taiwan or Hong Kong was the source, I didn’t have the cheekiness (or snoopy mentality) to ascertain. American authors, I was instructed as my writing an introduction to media for them was broached, are paid in blocked currency, which you use for every purpose but flying back home – the only really expensive item in being an itinerant Western scholar in China.

The FLI in Shanghai has been in operation since Liberation with the usual hiatuses and interruptions of the CR – professors who survived public humiliation during the CR now wield an upper hand over those “Gang of Four” types who harassed them.

But its Chinese Training Department has been in operation only since 1981. Two classes of Japanese inaugurated this service (and set impossibly high standards, which decadent Westerners of several stripes are going to have to hump to come even within hailing distance of their performances). West Germans followed the Japanese, and their Herzog playfulness mercifully softened up the demanding Chinese for the likes of us. This is not to fault our group of 22, aged 19 to 63, and representing every part of the United States because there wasn’t a tourist in the whole carload of us.

Our pioneering group got there through the rather charismatic eloquence of Dr. Joseph Kennedy of the Durham, N.C. based U.S.-China Education Foundation. Kennedy, who escalated to his present prominence as international cultural consultant, achieved credibility with the Chinese through the remarkable route of having fought Communist students for control of the international youth movement in the 1950’s. When the New Pragmatists achieved power in 1979, Kennedy was flabbergasted one fine Washington day in the new Chinese Embassy to see his old adversary smilingly asking him to advise them – because they knew they could trust him for telling them how it really was – a precious commodity for cadres who have just survived ten years of Newspeak in China.

The package put together by Kennedy and his counterparts in Shanghai was astonishingly High Cal. Except for a highly touted Open Forum, a two-and-a-half hour charade in which our pointed, prepared questions were studiously ignored in favor of partyline lectures by “political science” professors (one’s specialty was the history of the Chinese Communist Part, another “ethics”) – in Chinese, with (mercifully, probably) shorter glosses in English by our Chinese “foreign affairs” contact.

My only major recommendation for this superb orientation to China was a mandatory subscription to China Daily, the year-old, six-day-a-week, six-page newspaper produced by a staff of 150 in Beijing (in the buildings of a technology institute rusticated during the Cultural Revolution). It has forty editorial people, seven “foreign experts” (five Americans and two British). It is typeset by a bank of 10 Compugraphic MDT 359’s plus two film machines and an RCP 101 Photo developing system, both the first in China. (The “Foreign Affairs” sprightly new four-color poster touting CD at points of purchase proudly displays two women compositors hard at work at their spanking new VDT’s.

Deputy editor, Madame Zhang Defang, was exceedingly candid in her conversations with me about the fledgling newspaper in the standard armchair-accoutered reception room over the mandatory cups of steaming tea. When we went over that morning’s issue, story-by-story, she didn’t hesitate a whit at my increasingly pointed questions. When I asked her why she headlined on the front page the execution of an embezzler in Canton, she conceded that that was government policy – to crack down on those violators of public trust. When I praised her for covering the recent airplane crash in Canton, she pleaded “self-criticism”: the crash was on a Friday, but they didn’t cover it until Monday.

Why? Because Xinhua, the Chinese News Agency, wouldn’t verify the story until they got top government approval. She had gotten the story off the wire from foreign news agencies. The paper has direct wires from AP, UPI, Reuters, and Agence France Presse; she gets the Communist bloc wires (Tass, East German, and Czech) through Xinhua. They use UPI features like crossword puzzles. The paper was started, she explained, to relieve the claustrophobia of Western (mainly American) tourists who needed a vent for their news junkiness.

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