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  • China's English: A History of English in Chinese Education
  • Harold Swindall (bio)
Bob Adamson . China's English: A History of English in Chinese Education. Hong Kong University Press, 2004. v, 241 pp. Hardcover $39.50, ISBN962-209-663-8.

This volume recounts the varying fortunes of English teaching (and teachers) in China from the 1950s to the 1990s. Bob Adamson explains its origins in an anecdote of how, while teaching in Shanxi in 1983, he met an adult student who, as a young Red Guard, had helped hurl his English teacher to his death from a dormitory window (p. 1). Not all of Adamson's examples of English teaching's vicissitudes under the communists are so grisly, but he illustrates convincingly how dicey an issue it has been, and remains. Well before 1949, he reminds us, English was the language of foreign barbarians, imperial aggressors, exploitive profiteers, and menacing missionaries, yet its utility for diplomacy, trade, and modernization made it a necessary evil, and the communists inherited this quandary (p. 2). Very little of the material presented in Adamson's study is surprising, but it does offer an in-depth look at the workings of a totalitarian state's efforts at controlling an unavoidable-but potentially subversive-body of knowledge.

In the 1990s, Adamson became involved in textbook writing in Beijing with the venerable People's Education Press (PEP), which was responsible for junior middle school textbooks during the period in question, and discovered its archives, which, along with the reminiscences of present and former PEP staff, provided his primary material (pp. 5-8). The bulk of his study is close analyses of PEP English textbooks, with commentary on how PEP curricula, syllabi, and pedagogy were altered by shifts in education policy deriving from whatever straits in which the Party found itself. What PEP personnel went through-steering a course through treacherous ideological and practical waters to produce textbooks approved by cadres-will assure today's spoiled Western educators that they don't have it so bad. This study is inadvertently amusing for its soberly academic explications of facile political content which does not require such lengthy treatment.

Adamson's introduction includes long quotes from various theorists attesting to the value of textbooks as socio-political artifacts meriting close scrutiny. He also explains his analytical method, which breaks the textbook material down into pedagogy, linguistic components, and content. He provides tables and detailed explanations to show how he evaluates these elements, the most exhaustive of which is his approach to extracting supposedly elusive political messages from [End Page 333] material such as dialogs and vocabulary items (pp. 6-20). Throughout the book, Adamson emphasizes PEP's use and nonuse of E. L. Thorndike's 1944 thousand-word vocabulary list, on which it relied more or less until the 1980s. The five phases covered by the main chapters are 1949-1960, 196.-1966, 1966-1976, 1977- 1993, and 1993 to the present, each of which marked a new direction for the Party that precipitated a new curriculum from PEP.

To illuminate the background of these phases is chapter 2, titled "Barbarian as a foreign language," which describes the Qing policy toward the culturally threatening but practically necessary tongue as a sluice gate designed to let in as little or as much water as desired (p. 2.). Adamson illustrates his analogy with such Qing efforts to regulate the study and use of English as Common Foreign Expressions of the Red-Haired People in the 1830s (p. 23). Despite official ambivalence, modernizers who advocated the study of foreign devilspeak nonetheless grew in strength until 1911, after which English study enjoyed a brief sunshine of official encouragement and popularity that it would not recapture until the 1980s.

Predictably, English was rarely in the curriculum at any level in the early 1950s, given its imperialist association and the Soviet alliance. Instruction in Chinese to achieve mass literacy was the priority, and the major foreign language studied was of course Russian; indeed, so many erstwhile English teachers switched to it that by 1957 there were only seventy-three junior middle school English teachers in the entire country. Nevertheless, technological and diplomatic needs...


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