China jettisons English

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So they say, but I wouldn't count on it.  We've heard this patriotic, isolationist tune sung countless times during the last thirty years or so (in fact, it happens every time preceding a national political meeting, but nothing ever comes of it).  The wealthy, privileged, elite, right up to and including Chairman Xi, keep spending a fortune to send their children to the comfort, safety, and English environment of the USA.  I know, because I've taught hundreds of them during the last twenty years and more.

"‘Reversing Gears’: China Increasingly Rejects English, and the World:

A movement against Western influence threatens to close off a nation that succeeded in part by welcoming new ideas."  By Li Yuan, NYT (9/9/21)

Selected passages from the article:

It’s hard to exaggerate the role English has played in changing China’s social, cultural, economic and political landscape. English is almost synonymous with China’s reform and opening-up policies, which transformed an impoverished and hermetic nation into the world’s second-biggest economy. That’s why it came as a shock to many when the education authorities in Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city
in the country, last month forbade local elementary schools to hold final exams on the English language.

Many call the phenomenon “reversing gears,” or China’s Great Leap Backward, an allusion to the disastrous industrialization campaign of the late 1950s, which resulted in the worst man-made famine in human history.

Last year, China’s education authority barred primary and junior high schools from using overseas textbooks. A government adviser recommended this year that the country’s annual college entrance examination stop testing English. New restrictions this summer on for-profit, after-school tutoring chains affected companies that have taught English for years.

The Communist Party is intensifying ideological control and nationalistic propaganda, an effort that could turn the clock back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the country was closed off to much of the world and political campaigns overrode economic growth. A nationalistic essay widely spread last week by Chinese official media cited “the barbaric and ferocious attacks that the U.S. has started to launch against China.”

Even just a few years ago, the Chinese government still emphasized learning a foreign language. “China’s foreign language education can’t be weakened. Instead, it should be strengthened,” wrote the Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, in 2019. The article said nearly 200 million Chinese students took foreign language classes in 2018, from elementary schools all the way to universities. The vast majority of them were learning English

As the internet developed, a generation of Chinese learned English from TV series like “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

Some business people struck gold by teaching English or offering instruction on how to take tests in the language. New Oriental Education and Technology, a company based in Beijing, became such a cultural phenomenon that it inspired a blockbuster film, “American Dreams in China.” The hero taught English the way many in China learned it, such as memorizing the word “ambulance” as the Chinese for “I can’t die.” (“Au bu neng si.”)

Twenty years ago, an article like this would have mentioned Crazy English and Chinglish, but China's English has progressed far beyond those bastardized forms of the treasured language.  Now my M.A. students from China have excellent English skills, so good that many of them leave me gaping with amazement at their natural fluency and rich vocabulary.


Selected readings

These are just a small sampling of relevant posts on English in the Sinitic world.

[Thanks to Pranav Mulgund]


  1. fvkm said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 3:04 pm

    I'd read the article, but don't have a subscription. So this might have been covered there.

    Is this like the porous Great Firewall? In that it limits communication with the outside world for the masses, but allows the elites to play in that arena.

    I was just this morning listening to a podcast interview, where the interviewee described an architect of the firewall using a VPN during a presentation to CCP high-ups. So maybe I'm just poorly connecting things that aren't really related. Or maybe it's just a bit of nationalistic performance, as you clearly state.

  2. DCA said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 7:52 pm

    Sorry, is this the same country whose scientists and engineers have been flooding the English-language journals with papers because those are the journals with prestige? Hard to believe that they will stop doing this and also stop reading the international STEM literature—indeed impossible to believe.

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 3:11 am

    It depends very much, I think, on the current perception of English: do people think of it as "American / Western language" or as "Business language?"

    If it is the former, then I can easily imagine a stigma in speaking / learning / using English; but if it is more towards the latter, then it will go squarely against the practical considerations of every family and every Chinese corporate interest.

  4. ~flow said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 5:14 am

    Looks like 「学习」 is taking on a whole new meaning these days.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 7:40 am

    As a disyllabic word:

    xuéxí 学习 ("learn")

    As a phrase, morpheme by morpheme:

    xué Xí 学习 ("learn from Xi; learn Xi [thought]")

    Selected reading

    "The CCP's Learning / Learning Xi (Thought) app" (5/25/19)

    "The Dawn of the Little Red Phone", by David Bandurski, China Media Project (Feb 13, 2019)

    "Parsing 'Xue Xi Qiang Guo' for the Deeper Meaning", John Pasden, sinosplice (11/21/19)

    "Good good study; day day up" (1/14/14)

  6. Viseguy said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 10:00 pm

    There was a piece today on the National Public Radio daily program Marketplace about the "She Economy". I knew what they meant, but I couldn't help visualizing it as the "Xi Economy". Even if China is really jettisoning English, I don't think the opposite will be true anytime soon — au contraire.

  7. Linda Seebach said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 12:05 pm

    A very general tip: If your public library subscribes to ProQuest, you can read articles from a huge selection of newspapers i(and other media) including the paywalled ones like the NYTimes and the WSJ.
    (Probably most university libraries too, I don't know.)

  8. Potomacker said,

    September 18, 2021 @ 1:09 am

    I once had my own English referred to as bastardized so I can speak with some degree of authority when I aver that Chinglish is still very much part of mainland education and to varying degrees is part of everyday slang and hep speak.

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