December 2000 — Volume 4, Number 4
Culture, Literacy, and Learning English: Voices From the Chinese Classroom
Kate Parry (Ed.), with Su Xiaojun (1998)
Portsmouth, NH: Heineman Boynton/Cook Publishers
Pp. xii + 270
ISBN 0-86709-448-6 (paper)
There is little doubt that the study of English is currently extremely popular in China. Language schools (even famous foreign ones) are flourishing in the big cities, Chinese TV and radio have daily English language programs, there are now more “foreign experts” teaching English in the country than ever before, and recently Beijing, for the first time, had an international ELT book and education fair. Last May, I visited the annual Beijing book fair, held on the grounds of the ancient Imperial City, where more than 800 Chinese publishers and bookstores had booths showcasing their numerous publications, and by far the most popular booths were those showcasing English language books.
Unfortunately, in spite of this strong national interest in learning English, there still is very little in print on the topic of teaching English to Chinese students. A new book, Culture, Literacy, and Learning English: Voices From the Chinese Classroom, carefully and well edited by Kate Parry with the assistance of Su Xiaojin, is now available. The most interesting and remarkable thing about this anthology is that all the essays in it were written by young Chinese graduates who teach English in Chinese colleges and universities. They all participated in a year-long teacher training course taught by Parry at Nanjing University in China. The essays are revisions of the ones they actually wrote for their class. As the subtitle of this book puts it, these are voices from the Chinese classroom, voices which are rarely heard in discussions about English language teaching in China.
The general topic addressed in the book is the question of the relationship between culture and individual behavior. It attempts to answer this question by focusing “on a particular set of cultural practices–those involving literacy–and a particular aspect of behavior–learning through reading–and it describes such practices and behavior in relation to a defined social group–educated Chinese in China” (pp. vii-viii).
The book is broadly divided into 2 parts: “The Culture of Chinese Literacy,” and “The English Language in China.” The essays in the first part are divided into three sections. The first contains ten short essays on “Literacy at Home,” covering topics such as literacy and the Chinese family, education at home, and differences between literacy acquisition in rural and urban areas.
The second section includes six essays on “The Social Context of Schooling.” As Parry notes in the introduction, this topic is key since “In China, as in Western countries, the major work of acquiring literacy is done in school, within a formal education system; in China, even more than in the West, this formal training in school literacy has been historically an important means of transmitting the cultural values that sustain the political structure or promoting a degree of mobility within it” (p. 33).
In this section there are good brief essays by Su Xiaojun on the historical development of the famous Chinese examination system, and Wu Liangzhe on Confucianism. Including these is important, for any attempt to adequately discuss the current Chinese (and also Korean and Japanese) educational system needs to start with a good understanding of the lingering influence of Confucianism and the place the exam system has historically occupied in this country. Gu Tientxia also gives a very telling analysis of how onerous today’s educational system is on Chinese children because of the pressure of constant demands and the severe expectations of parents. [-1-]
The third section contains six essays on “Learning the Written Language,” explaining the laborious way in which Chinese learn written Chinese. As Parry says, “this set of essays reiterates a theme . . . namely, the powerful ways in which the Chinese writing system, and the literature that is enshrined in it, connects those who learn it with the past” (p. 65). Among these essays, Zhu Minghui gives a very interesting account about how Chinese students are taught Chinese characters in primary school through songs, story telling, and descriptive writing, and Wu Lili shows how students are instructed how to read classical Chinese texts in junior-secondary school. She also includes a rather ingenious exercise by which students are shown how to punctuate Classical Chinese.
The second part of the book begins with 8 essays on “The Social Meaning of English.” Liu Yuanyan analyses the ambivalent attitude many Chinese feel toward English, “based on feelings of superiority and inferiority combined” (p. 106). For as she astutely observes, “Talking about Chinese attitudes towards English is actually talking about the nations where the language is used, towards the culture it carries, and towards the thoughts it reflects. The language itself does not matter that much” (p. 106).
Among these essays, Zhu Minghui writes about why English is now so popular, Wu Lili talks about English loan words in Chinese, and He Yue describes her trying experiences attempting to learn English during the Cultural Revolution, when the study of English was viewed with deep suspicion by Chinese authorities. Du Qunhua discusses the negative aspects of “The present craze for English,” namely that many students are now forced to study the language even though their future work will have nothing to do with it or they simply have no interest in mastering the language.
The rest of the second part includes essays divided into three sections: “English in the Chinese Classroom,” “Strategies for Reading in English,” and “New Directions in English.” Included are papers covering 15 writers’ experiences teaching English, studies of how the communicative approach is employed in China, and various strategies and techniques they have found useful for the teaching of reading, vocabulary, and English in general. Some of the most interesting essays are by Gu Tiexia, who writes about the cultural reasons for the big gap between Chinese secondary school and college English language teaching, and Du Qunhua, who discusses the effects of the ubiquitous College Entrance Exam (CEE) and the College English Test Band 4 (CET-4). The CET-4 is the only unified test that all students are required to take; it measures the English proficiency of university students, and they are required to pass it if they want to get their degrees. Du Qunhua argues that the two exams do not adequately measure listening and speaking ability, and ultimately prevent students from developing oral English skills.
A constant sub text that runs through almost all the papers in this book is how the enormous weight of the Chinese past, in spite of the influences of communism and the recent stress on modernization, still exerts a powerful and exacting cultural pull even today on issues of literacy and education in China.
As mentioned earlier, the unique thing about this work is that it opens a rare window upon Chinese students and teachers, and on what they really think about literacy issues and the study and purpose of English. An added advantage of this work is that it is good background reading not just for those who teach Chinese students, but also other Asian students such as Koreans and Japanese, who share cultural attitudes towards the learning of English and the question of literacy which are similar to those of the Chinese. [-2-]
I found one small drawback in the book: General readers may initially find the numerous Chinese historical and cultural allusions made by the essayists problematic, but Parry provides many informative footnotes explaining any confusions, and her introductions to each section are clear, precise, and educational. She also provides an excellent eight-page bibliography of additional readings.
In conclusion, this anthology is an excellent general introduction to the Chinese educational system, culture, and to the general topics of literacy and English language education in China.
University of Petroleum, Beijing, China
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