Making the Grade in China, Part 2

I have decided to compile the China posts into a book and then decided to be as inclusive as possible, adding other things I’ve written and published about my life in China in the 1980s. 

When I came back from the Peoples Republic of China in 1984, I had a lot to say. A magazine — the EastWest Journal, long defunct, published my article about teaching in China.

SO — I found the magazine in the garage in a bin and started typing the article into my lap top. Yeah. It was typed on my Smith-Corona back in the day. 

Here’s Part Two. Part 1 can be found here


It is very difficult for a teacher to get a class of Chinese students to participate in class discussion. A Chinese student will seldom volunteer an answer to a question. Chinese teachers prepare seating charts and call on each student, one by one. The Chinese perspective is that if someone voluntarily speaks out in class, he or she is “putting him/herself forward.” This is offensive, not only to Communist ideals but to Confucian ideals. It was not li (the Confusion word for “dignified;” the proper behavior for an educated person) to behave in that way. Confucianism also stressed obedience to teachers. The student so single dout has no choice but to obey the teacher, stand, and give the proper response. Even if the answer is very brilliant, the student is not putting himself about his peers. 

I had seven classes and five of them became comfortable talking. One class actually felt “liberated” by the new system. Their discussions began before I arrived in the classroom. Another class in the same grade (seniors) never spoke unless they had to, but their written work was always excellent. On paper each of them could freely express themselves to only me. The monitor of the class explained, “You will have a hard job getting them to talk. They’ve been silent for four years now.” That was so funny to me and to the class that we all laughed. From then on, I just looked forward to their essays. 

There is Confucian residue in the way students answer questions. Even the Cultural Revolution could not eradicate “old customs” completely. Related to the “not-putting-oneself-forward” theory of learning is what we call plagiarism. How can a simple college student improve upon the thoughts of a famous critic? Chinese academia can resemble the practice of law. Students find the “precedent setting” criticism and then “copy the language.” When I marked the first mid-term I gave the seniors, I discovered that more than half had “used” the language from the book. What wasn’t in the book, they found in the department reading room and copied from a larger critical anthology. I couldn’t flunk everyone, especially since it looked like I was the one out in left field. From then on, I just gave questions no book could help them answer. I gave them examinations that made them answer from their own imaginations, thoughts, understanding.


One great treat for the English teacher in China is that students are familiar with poetry and like it very much. There is little need to do a pitch on the wonders of beautiful language. In fact, English expressions are not beautiful enough for Chinese. They want our language to do what theirs does; they want the beautiful poetic allusion, the two words capturing forever the unwordable moment. They might also like words that resemble objects to bring the beauty home on a visual level. I emphasized poetry with all my classes because poetry takes advantage of all the attributes of words — sound, picture, and meaning. 

Traditionally the most important class in language learning in China is “Intensive Reading” which might more accurately be called “Intensive Dictionary.” Students find the meaning of the “whole” by tearing it apart, using the dictionary to find the literal meaning for each word — echoes of Confucius who said that an educated man could evaluate the whole piece of cloth by looking at a swatch. Intensive reading is a slow, laborious way of reading and between the printed word and the dictionary most of the spirit of the original work is lost. A poem becomes a fractured painting that has been taped back together, with colors missing. 

To combat this, I gave them poems with comprehension questions like, “What color is war?” I wanted to appeal to their intuitions, not their dictionaries. I wanted them to respond to works written in English with more than their knowledge of the alphabet. They read Chinese poetry with all their hearts. I wanted them to learn that English poetry requires the same involvement for its beauty to emerge.

One of my experiments was to have the students write Haiku or five-line stanzas (Tangkas) in English. I showed them how easy it was by explaining the rules and then writing one on the blackboard on a topic they chose. It had been raining for four months so, inevitably, the y told me to write about rain. The tight forms were familiar to them, but they had not known that English words could be used in nearly the same way as Chinese words. They were surprised to learn that Chinese poetic forms had influenced twentieth century English poetry. But, best of all, they wrote beautiful poems. 

I Always Remember
One night, with no stars,
we sat in the unstirred darkness,
heard crickets sing. — Lucy

Oh Love
Oh Love
cried love-bound soul
like the beautiful cloud
tempting, hopeful, fantastic, yet
remote. — Susie

The moon shimmering
on the still lake…a fish stirs
becomes fragments. — Cora

For the first time I
Begin, with fast-beating heart
here lies a poem. — Violet

(Lucy, Susie, Cora and Violet are the English names chosen by my students to use in my class)

11 thoughts on “Making the Grade in China, Part 2

    • I was just a kid — 30 years old. It was my first real teaching job. I don’t know — now I know that my TRUE goal was to get them to see that English is a LANGUAGE, not a subject in school. Reflecting on all this has been interesting after my 30+ year career.

  1. I have always enjoyed Haiku. I have not read or heard as many Tankas.

    A faint clap of thunder,
    Clouded skies,
    Perhaps rain will come.
    If so, will you stay here with me?

    A faint clap of thunder,
    Even if rain comes or not,
    I will stay here,
    Together with you.

    Man’yōshū vol. 11, verse 2514 – 2513,

    Are you familiar with Karuta, perchance?

    • Not really. My Japanese poetry moment passed a long time ago. I do like this by Ezra Pound, though.

      The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
      Petals on a wet, black bough.

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