The common mind: the politics of English education in China

The great wave of English education in China is slowly affecting the educational system as a whole. And the centrality of education in Chinese society means that this transformation is having an influence not only on what people can say but perhaps also how they think.

David Volodzko
17 September 2014

A classroom in Xijiang, Guizhou. Flickr/Thomas Galvez. Some rights reserved.

Picture a cozy row of cottages all dressed up in an elegant Tudor architecture: sober half-timbering with pillared porches and pretty chimney pots, a fish-and-chips shop at the end of a cobblestone street and the requisite corner pub. To look at a photograph of this place, one might think it a scene from Downton Abbey or a Thomas Hardy novel. But this village, known as Thames Town, is not tucked into the English countryside. It is 30 kilometres west of Shanghai.

Part of a decentralization plan to alleviate overpopulation in the big city, Thames Town now lies largely vacant, a failed business venture thrown up in 2006 like a set on a studio backlot. Writing for the Telegraph in 2011, Peter Simpson described Thames Town and a similar site recently assembled outside Beijing, complete with a castle, as places where speaking Chinese is prohibited. This may seem farcical, but not if one considers the fever pitch English education has reached in China in recent years. A 2010 Guardian report by Tessa Thorniley explains: "Chinese children with affluent parents are packed off to classes staffed by American, Canadian and British teachers as soon as they can speak. High school students are frequently enrolled in extra-curricular classes to cram for the English component of the university entrance exam. And young professionals aspiring to a more interesting and lucrative career flock to classrooms and online lessons and even stadiums alongside tens of thousands of other evangelical linguists."

Since 2010, demand has shown no sign of abating. Last month, People's Daily reported that "along with Chinese and mathematics, [English is] given equal importance in major exams. It is perhaps the most influential subject, considering the ubiquity of its exams and the gigantic market it has generated." These days, whether one has designs on rocking the field of pure mathematics by disproving the Golbach conjecture or translating the Thai epic Ramakien into Italian, English is mandatory. What is more, People's Daily adds: "research by the Shanghai International Studies University shows that of China's foreign language learners, fewer than five percent are capable of using the language proficiently in transcultural communication."

This recalls Lucius Seneca's observation that we learn not for life, but for school. In other words, while English transforms the milieu of a nation comprising 19 percent of the world's human inhabitants, the exiguous number who can actually use it in any meaningful way suggests its role is significant yet dysfunctional. English does not operate as a tool for communication but as a means for conspicuous consumption. Its function as a social marker has made English important in a capacity external to its role as a method of human communication. It has as much to do with actually talking to people as a Patek Philippe wristwatch has to do with simply telling time. In a way then, it is about communication after all.

But this is a status symbol unlike others in that its display is increasingly required. The largest private education provider in the world, the Swiss company EF Education First, operates English schools in China through its test-preparation center EF English First, whose website notes that while English initially replaced French as "a marker of the well-educated upper class", matters have changed: "It is certainly no longer a marker of the elite. Instead it is increasingly becoming a basic skill needed for the entire workforce, in the same way that literacy has been transformed in the last two centuries from an elite privilege into a basic requirement for informed citizenship."

This means that even as English more firmly grounds itself as a status symbol, its burgeoning occupational value is driving a great shift within China's English education system from prestige by association to value from application. It is no longer enough to simply buy that bottle of Pétrus. Now you ought to know how to drink it.

One measure of this shift towards fluency is the Fourth National Foreign Language Teaching Competition that ended in Shanghai this November. The Ministry of Education and the Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press sponsored the six-month-long event, which according to China Daily reporter Wang Hongyi drew the participation of over 1,500 universities and colleges. But more significant than the sweeping popularity of the event is the kind of teaching it prizes. The contest itself, Wang writes, "explores innovative teaching models and aims to improve the overall level of China's foreign language education." The winning contestants, Tao Xin of Beijing's Capital Medical University and Dai Jiaqi of the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics (SUIBE), were awarded for their innovative ideas. SUIBE's news page announced the victory, enthusing over how Dr. Jiaqi won by using "cutting-edge foreign language teaching theories and multi-media technologies."

It is a promising wave of reform, but in China the government still controls the tides. That is why it is such a relief that, cementing this trend, last month the Ministry of Education proposed the elimination of certain English tests with an eye to making English education more practical. And more recently, Beijing decided to implement changes to the National College Entrance Examination or 'gaokao'. According to a report by CCTV's Su Yuting, starting in 2016 more weight will be given to listening skills in the English portion of the exam. Beijing Municipal Education Commission spokesperson Li Yi commented: "We do not want students to devote too much time to the repetitive learning of English grammar. This kind of learning process makes students weaker in their spoken and listening ability. That means the English education method and the entire structure of assessment programs need systematic reforms."

So as English education in China evolves from the granular memorization of vocabulary and grammar to real-world communicative methods, it begins to deliver more promising returns and reinforces its social value. It is a welcome development, for as anyone who has taught English in China can attest, the established system's hidebound emphasis on reading and writing generally produces students who score high on aptitude tests such as the TOEFL or IELTS but cannot manage to reconcile their expansive vocabularies with any semblance of cogent thought.

Yet Beijing may have already taken too long to see the problem. Meanwhile the private sector has compensated, mopping up subsequent profits and attracting a bushel of money-hungry bad apples in the process. This has led to corruption at all levels, from morally indigent managers to caitiffs in the classroom passing as teachers. A 2011 China Smack piece by Monica Tan reports on a day in the life of Michael Weiler, an inexperienced and untrained 20-year-old Austrian teaching English in Beijing who conducts his Saturday morning classes hungover: “Sometimes I’ll go straight from partying to teaching, and because I stink I spray on loads of cologne.”

Because Michael's students prefer a native speaker, the school told everyone he was from America. What would make someone like Michael Weiler an attractive candidate for employment? As Tan explains, one immutable requirement is “a white face”. Tan relays the story of a teacher named Sonia who pretended to be Irish: "I used to find it weird that the parents are always telling me how I’m beautiful. Then I realised these lessons are just about giving them status. In China, if your kids go to school and they have a foreign teacher – a beautiful Irish teacher – everybody in the neighbourhood knows and you gain face. So it doesn’t really matter what happens in class."

Stories like this are all too common. In fact in the early part of 2013, I took a position as an education consultant in Nanning, a city in southern China known for its lush abundance of tropical flora. I was happy to be in a neighbourhood surrounded by parks with a modern shopping centre just down the road and cheerful vendors selling pineapple slices and coconuts along the sidewalk. But then I got to know the foreign English teachers.

One director of studies at a local school habitually assaulted his co-workers, even beating one unconscious. A local university instructor told me he rarely woke up before dinner time because the bars were not open during the day (he was later fired for failing to teach 82 of his scheduled 100 classes that semester, though he found another job almost immediately). 

The upshot of all this is the demand for English in China has reached a frenzy and private academies have subsequently sprung up everywhere, hiring practically anyone, offering McDonald's-grade fare at Masa-level prices while customers confronted by the 'gaokao' or the pangs of status anxiety willingly pay the extortionate fees. For those seeking prestige, it suffices that others will know they have paid a fortune when they see the logo on their child's backpack. For those facing the most important test of their life, they scarcely have a choice.

Two of the most important social forces in China are 'mianzi' and 'guanxi'. The former refers to 'face' or social status. The latter refers to social influence, particularly with regard to calling in favours or being taken into account by others. Both are profoundly influenced by education, which itself tips with the pitch of the titanic 'gaokao' it is not hyperbole to say that this single test determines the course of one's professional life. Admittance into a prestigious school such as Beijing University is the blessing supreme, building 'mianzi' and 'guanxi', and determining not only friendships and marital prospects but one's children's probable opportunities as well.

This incredible regard for education is nothing new. It can be traced back roughly 2,500 years to Confucius, who believed it was nothing less than the art of soul-crafting. Therefore the culture of learning in China has always curved towards the principle of learning for its own sake. In this, the traditional method has been one where the pupil learns to flawlessly reflect the master's choreography with little or no room for individual expression. Yet when few Chinese instructors of English can converse in the language, this sacred dynamic no longer makes sense.

Furthermore, individual expression is a necessary part of a communicative teaching method. There will never be a Mr Miyagi moment when all the strenuous hours of apparently menial labor suddenly coalesce, though this is what many instructors have in mind. Memorize the word lists now because you never know when they'll suddenly come in handy. One day someone might just ask you to rattle off eight synonyms for 'exhausted'. Assuming you can understand the question. Wax on, wax off.

In Epistles to Several Persons, Alexander Pope writes: "education forms the common mind, just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined." And where could this be truer than in a nation where the great focus of one’s formative years is schoolwork? And in a culture where learning has consciously been understood to mean the crafting of the soul? Therefore with the growing value of English education in China, one wonders what affect English is having on the Chinese soul. Change the method of production and you change the product.

Dr Guangwei Hu, Doctoral Program Director of English Language and Literature at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, addresses how the method of production has been changing in his 2002 paper 'Potential Cultural Resistance to Pedagogical Imports: The Case of Communicative Language Teaching in China': "The traditional approach to ELT in the PRC has been a curious combination of the grammar-translation method and audiolingualism, which is characterised by systematic and detailed study of grammar, extensive use of cross-linguistic comparison and translation, memorisation of structural patterns and vocabulary, painstaking effort to form good verbal habits, an emphasis on written language, and a preference for literary classics. The approach, however, has failed to develop an adequate level of communicative competence."

Dr Hu argues that Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has failed to catch on in China as it is fundamentally opposed to the Chinese pedagogical approach. For one, CLT emphasizes the active role of the student whereas in Chinese classrooms students are expected to play a passive role to teachers who, venerated as 'engineers of the human soul', take centre stage. In CLT, games are used to raise student interest while in China education is regarded with too much reverence to allow playing around. CLT also emphasizes role-playing and interaction. By contrast, Chinese language education usually consists of a teacher explaining a particular grammar point in Mandarin. Dr Hu continues: "It is difficult for Chinese teachers and students to accept any pedagogical practice that tends to put teachers on a par with their students and detracts from teacher authority. In particular, it is against Chinese expectations to adopt a pedagogy that may put teachers at the risk of losing face. In this connection, many Chinese teachers of English find CLT highly threatening because it requires a high level of proficiency in the target language...which they lack."

Since Dr Hu's paper, CLT has indeed caught on, to which the ubiquity of private English schools and events like the Foreign Language Teaching Competition are testament. And because the government has furthered an expository learning system that fails to address the need for communicative proficiency, while also stressing the central role of English, more and more Chinese have turned to private institutes for their English, where clownishly unprofessional instructors provide better education than their sombre Chinese counterparts.

Foreign instructors accomplish this by coming to the classroom armed with nothing more than games and subjects of topical interest. But it just so happens that if communication in a foreign language is the goal, playing and chatting are highly effective techniques. Games keep children engaged and chatting gives adults the best kind of practice for improving in a language. The simple act of playing and chatting, as amateur teachers are prone to do, is better than the methods employed by trained and experienced Chinese teachers practising traditional pedagogical approaches.

As a result, private schools continue to grow and in the process, students learn to express their own ideas and opinions. They learn to work in groups rather than passively receive doctrine. They become familiar with western culture and, rather than shying from interaction, they learn to engage westerners in English without the stumbling block of saving 'face'. Students begin to see that although the government tells them education must be treated with reverence, learning comes faster and with less effort when learning is fun. Perhaps most importantly, they learn that a teacher is not always a master or unquestionable authority figure, but merely a guide, one among many, or in the Chinese formulation 'yuanding', a 'gardener'.

The great wave of English education in China is slowly affecting the educational system as a whole, and the centrality of education in Chinese society means this transformation is having an influence not only on what people can say but perhaps also how they think. Does this mean English is changing Chinese society? Probably not, at least not yet.

However the process of communicative instruction is inherently expressive and interactive and requires critical thinking, risk-taking and creativity not taught in the Chinese school system. The communicative approach supplies skills necessary for the kind of thinking that runs cross-grain to the mindset of the obedient citizen. Simply put, it is not that English education is training people to question authority or think outside the box, but it is giving them the tools they need to do so.

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