The Chinese Learner: A Neo Globalized Learner – or the Re-Birth or an Old Culture

| June 30, 2002
The Chinese Learner: A Neo Globalized Learner – or the Re-Birth or an Old Culture

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James Brett
The writer is currently teaching English in Taiwan.
What is the “Chinese learner and are there social phenomena acting upon this entity that is changing the way the Chinese government determine future educational curricula to meet China’s changing needs? In this work Chinese learner is basically defined as a Chinese national living within mainland China who falls inside the broad category of ‘student.’ But could we say a ‘Chinese learner’ is also an ‘Asian learner’, which encompasses other “Asian” countries such as Japan or Korea, as W. Lee (1996) argues? J. Lee (2002:27) suggests in relation to Asia, “The culture of youth and children are domains of fierce contestation…” whilst Lozada (2001) emphasizes, with respect to China’s youth, “The Chinese education system in particular, a system that caters to a new elite, is an essential element to process social stratification in that Chinese children themselves participate both as subject and symbolic objects for adults.” The Chinese education system in particular, a system that caters to a new elite, is an essential element to process social stratification in that Chinese children themselves participate both as subject and symbolic objects for adults.
[private] What is the “Chinese learner and are there social phenomena acting upon this entity that is changing the way the Chinese government determine future educational curricula to meet China’s changing needs? In this work Chinese learner is basically defined as a Chinese national living within mainland China who falls inside the broad category of ‘student.’ But could we say a ‘Chinese learner’ is also an ‘Asian learner’, which encompasses other “Asian” countries such as Japan or Korea, as W. Lee (1996) argues? J. Lee (2002:27) suggests in relation to Asia, “The culture of youth and children are domains of fierce contestation…” whilst Lozada (2001) emphasizes, with respect to China’s youth, “The Chinese education system in particular, a system that caters to a new elite, is an essential element to process social stratification in that Chinese children themselves participate both as subject and symbolic objects for adults.” The Chinese education system in particular, a system that caters to a new elite, is an essential element to process social stratification in that Chinese children themselves participate both as subject and symbolic objects for adults.

Thus may we argue, as Dobson, (2001), firstly that the Chinese learner has become the focus for renewed Chinese traditional culture versus a neo-globalized culture that is installing market socialization, and secondly that the divisions are in fact becoming clearer through the medium of English L2 classroom instruction. This view, argued below, initially raised by Dalton and Seidlehofer (1994), although in a different perspective, may be the hidden factor in the emerging distinction of the entity known as the Chinese learner.

This work will proceed by an examination of the external forces of globalization to determine if there is any credible evidence to support the view that globalization changes a countries inherent culture. Eagleton (2000) quoted in Salih (2001) argues that everything in the world is culture and impliedly in flux. This is at odds with Hellsten (1999) who argues that culture is “…a static phenomenon.” The preliminary inquiry will show that globalization is altering the macro levels of Chinese culture and that the evidence will suggest that the Chinese government is aware of the negative concepts of globalization on culturalism, and have taken steps to shield the Chinese learner, to some degree, from any interference. The second part of the inquiry goes on to establish if the Chinese learner is susceptible to this macro change. However, at the heart of the debate is just what is ‘culture’ and does this inquiry to lead to undesirable power plays by the inquirer?

Watkins and Biggs (1998) note the negative aspects of uncritically applying western concepts and methods to a non western setting, “When Confucian heritage culture people are viewed through the lenses of familiar western polarities, such as memorizing versus meaningful learning, the focus becomes blurred and even distorted.” This view, supported by Hoffman (1999) indicates the unwiseness of ‘categorizing the Chinese earner’ yet may be the most viable option if cultural constraints are rigidly enforced.

Does the concept of globalization now mean that the multicultural differences are narrower for example, or does the concept of globalization mean that a Chinese learner, per se, is a unique entity colored by traditions and culture that are only Chinese in origin and these differences are becoming more dynamic as a result of globalization? If globalization and cultural conquest go and in hand as suggested by Fukuyama (2001) then is the Chinese learner entity becoming one with the non-Asian learner for this would impliedly suggest the Chinese learner is losing that identity. This supports W. Lee’s (1996) view. Contrary is the view that developing nations are not a homogenous group, (Tsang, 2002) thus negating wholly or party at least this view. But as argued Oonk (2000), that the ‘Chinese learners’, with the embodiment of Chinese cultural traits, through deterritorialization, now exist in countries far removed politically and culturally from their home land thus defying change even via in-situ osmosis, a priori, that mainland Chinese nationals will likewise be impervious to alien cultural influences? Given China’s march towards educational privatization (Mok, 2000) and coupled with China’s very low comparative GDP expenditure on education, (Beech, 2002: 51) then arguably these newly privatized schools with their superior form of education (Tsang, 2002) will, according to the human capital theory, (Schulz 1971; Beceker, 1975) quoted in Tsang, (2002) further exacerbate the uniqueness of the Chinese learner which seems impliedly understood in the State Education Commission of the People’s Republic of China 1996 document wherein the document says at II., “… that educational development may better respond to the needs of social and economic development in China.” This conforms to the human capital theory.

Or finally, if we view ‘culture’ as the primary basis of this inquiry, is the concept of Chinese learner one that is susceptible to Chinese oscillations of the cultural pendulum that present us with different answers at different points of time? This work will establish that the concept of a Chinese learner is a valid concept, does not necessarily invoke the self other concept, and that forced globalization tends to strengthen their identity clearly and separately them from other Asian learners, let alone other nations. The interests served will be argued to be mostly political.

The Chinese Learner
‘Chinese learner’ assumes a meaning to encompass a Chinese national student and not the contrary meaning, that is, some other foreigner learning about Chinese.
The Chinese learner, and thus the Chinese Education system, including formal, non-formal and informal education, (Penguin Macquarie Dictionary, 1989) is taking on a stronger cultural meaning within the framework of China’s marketization of education. Globalization is the catalyst for the Chinese culture to identify themselves clearly from other nations, with their renewed market socialization project, especially in the educational sphere, (Mok, 2000:114) protecting and enhancing Chinese culture, and thereby, the Chinese learner. Skutnabb-Kangas, (1995) quoted in Hellsten, (1999) argues further that there is a “… renaissance of nationalistic and ethnic sentiments and imperialism…” developing around the world. If this is so, the Chinese learner likewise strengthens his identity.

It is necessary to have a framework for working definitions of the terms ‘globalization.’ Globalization is presented as meaning the world is a much easier place to transmit ideas and data at a moment’s notice, and that boundaries, and borders, are more porous and transparent to outside policy making influences. It has been noted by Oonk (2000) and Appadurai (1996) quoted in Oonk (2000) that the concept of globalization is in fact five hundred years old. However, he goes on to suggest that it is only the last two decades in which this concept has developed long distance nationalism.

In his work Amin (2001) argues that true democracy is necessary for a cultural identity, yet notes that military dictatorships (as recently seen in Korea) can only give rise to essential successful economic expansion, thereby limiting or denying culture. Thus cultural identity is not equivalent to advanced industrial status.
Yet the Asian IMF (1) crisis of 1997 suggests his theory is very wrong, for it was a direct result of the policies of those military dictatorships that led to the Korean bankruptcy. He does however conclude with the question whether cultural identities can survive globalization. It was not until the 1990s, that South Korea intentionally embarked upon a planned course of globalization. Hoffman, D (1999) suggests this embarkation was because the government believed Korea was in need of upgrading the cultural attitudes of the South Korean populace which were deemed insufficiently international and in need of remediation in order for Korean national cultural development to progress, (1999:9).

This view overlooks issues on curricula changes in education, rivalry between Japan and Korea, and a known looming financial crisis, and was not, as Hoffman (1999) argues, a planned exercise to develop culture within or outside education. Upgrading cultural attitudes was a byproduct of urgent economic reform, not a means in itself. Did the Korean people lose their cultural identity or was their identity strengthened? J. Lee (2002:135-138) suggests that the Korean cultural identity, embodied in Confucianism, remains as before. This may provide a useful guide precedent for the uniqueness or otherwise of the Chinese learner.
The decision to start English education in Elementary schools, in Korea, contrary to Hoffman’s (1999) belief, was based on the view that Japan had been running a successful English education program called JET, (Japanese English Teacher) (2) and Korea felt the need to copy their program, as since Japanese Korean Colonial rule ended in 1945, Korea has attempted to not fall in the shadow of Japan but to be superior. Ahn, S,. Park, M., & Ono, S., (1996). Similarly, China, following its ascension to WTO status, has embarked upon a large scale English in Elementary schools project, (Beijing Review, 2001) but the distinction with Hoffman’s (1999) Korean culturalization project is clear.

Fukuyama, F. (2001) lecturing on whether any aspects of globalization lead to greater homogenization reports, “…homogenization and an affirmation of distinctive cultural identities will occur simultaneously” especially at the macro level of large economic and political institutions which he believes are becoming culturally homogenous. This requires globalization to occur. Conversely, it is argued that the era of globalization is over, (The Economist, 2001), however the evidence at large does not seem to support this view. A more moderate position is offered by Olds, K. Dicken, P. Kelly, P. Kong, L. and Yeung, H. (2001) that globalization is being ‘resisted at various scales throughout the Pacific.” Whether it is part of the Oonk (2000) belief, or the opposite notion of macro culturalization applying, they both conform to the belief of Olds, K. (2001) et al.

But if we accept Fukuyama’s (2001) view of some form of cultural homogenization occurring, then this begs the question whether the political institutions that run government education programs will be susceptible to this homogenization thus detracting via a top down approach from the concept of a Chinese learner. The answer, it is submitted, is seen in The Ninth Five Year Plan For Educational Development and the Long Range Development Program Towards the Year 2000. Clearly, as enumerated in Sub Paragraph 11, Basic Guiding Principles for Developing Education in the Next 15 Years, we can see the overriding concern is that the education needs respond to the “…needs of social and economic development in China.” Whilst the prima facie evidence suggests concerns for saving and promoting cultural roots, the opening to the Outline for Reform and Development of Education in China (1993) provides further suggestions, viz, “In accordance with the theory of building socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The emphasis, it is suggested falls on the last two words. Whilst Chinese characteristics is arguably encompasses a wide notion, it likewise must assume the absence of globalization characteristics.

Faced with the dilemma of globalization and loss of culture, the document urges that Chinese learners leave the country to receive international study and learning, but then they explicitly and repeatedly demand that the government’s duty is to “…encourage them to return on completion of their study and to participate in the socialist modernization drive in many ways.” It is suggested strongly that the recent implementation of English in Elementary schools (Beijing Review, 2001) with an ethics based component, as in Korea, is the Chinese Ministry’s response to an accepted degree of globalized intrusion yet shielded by an increased level of cultural identity training starting from the elementary years.

L2 learning is not without its own fears for the L2 country. Dalton and Seidlhofer (1996, 7) suggest that by the learning of a foreign or second language, the learner may build up a ‘negativism’ towards to the second language, and impliedly, its culture and note it “…may be objectionable to oblige learners to conform to an alien code of conduct. …students may prefer to keep their own accent deliberately, in order to retain their self-respect …” To this extent, it is suggested that learners must be asked what they want, (Porter and Garvin, 1989,15) But as Dalton and Seidlhofer (1996, 7) note though, learners do not usually know what they want. But their attitudes should be taken into account. Hence it appears from the Chinese Ninth Five Year Plan For Educational Development and the Long Range development Program Toward the Year 2010 that the Chinese Education Ministry with its introduction of English as an L2 into Elementary schools, is taking Porter and Garvin’s (1981) caveat under serious advisement as seen in their market privatization. It may be, as suggested at the outset, if Dalton and Seidlehofer’s (1996) hypothesis is correct, then the teaching of English as and L2 in China may, if we take their view one step further, be a plausible back door method of reinforcing China’s cultural ethics using English education as the medium. Not only does the Chinese learner learn an international language, but they also build up a resistance to its culture and reinforce their own.

Further, the above document suggests a strengthening of education with an emphasis on the “…Party’s basic line, patriotism, community spirit and socialist ideology.” (see point 4 Implementing Educational Policies and Improving the Quality of Instruction. Sub point 28) However, contrary to this enhanced cultural learning which is arguably to block the perceived negative effects of globalization, Fukuyama (2001) argues that quite the opposite result has occurred thanks to globalization at the macro level, whereas at the micro level it is the modern mass media that has presented a clearer picture to ‘Asia’ as to what American culture is, and Asia does not find this an attractive model. Thus although homogenization of culture at the macro economic and political level seems to have occurred, globalization had an exact opposite effect on the deeper cultural traits. However, Fukuyama’s (2001) definition of just what deeper cultural traits are is vague. He does though, equate globalism as a euphemism, for ‘Americanization.’ Amin (1996) argues that this concept needs to be controlled “by developing an alternative humanistic project of globalization consistent with a social perspective.” Given that the evidence indicates that external social phenomenon directly (media) and indirectly (globalization) impact on the Chinese learner, in both positive and negative ways, an analysis of how these impacts affect, if at all, the Chinese learner is required.

Varying definitions exist as to what culture may be. As communication is the link between Chinese learners and English-speaking persons then cross-cultural communication is the medium for cultural confusion. Jayasuriya (1990) says culture is not a fixed entity but a mixture of past present and indeed future concoctions. Hellsten (1999) notes more restrictively that culture is a static phenomenon yet whilst agreeing with the self-other argument propounded by Hoffman, D. (1999) she contradicts this static phenomenon scenario by stating culture is visible in “…practice and every day actions…” which clearly must include the concept of Globalism that is not in a static state. Yet she does reinforce the view of Lozada (2001) supra. In Hellsten’s (1999) view, education planning implementation and production rely on theories of culture. Bourdieu and Passeron (1994:8) quoted in Hellsten, (1999) impliedly argue that language is a sub unit of culture but that it is “the most active and elusive part of cultural knowledge which each individual owes to his background.” Eagleton (2000) quoted in Salih (2001) opposes the notion of post modernists who say that everything is culture. What is left is a fierce debate as to what the notion of culture means and entails.

If we return to the notion of the term ‘Chinese learner’ and what value there is in conferring such a title, it appears in the negative that we are succumbing to the self-other view espoused by Hoffman (1999). However we are then left with an inquiry in what ways to rename the term, such that the self-other scenario does not appear. Yet to rename the term raises a secondary argument as to why we non-Chinese should even attempt to change the term, for that is the basis of the argument. Given her strong arguments, it is suggested that we do not have an acceptable alternative to avoid the distinctions. What is clear is that the Chinese learner is subject to extensive sociopolitical influences from within China, on the one hand to reinforce the Chinese-ness of the learner, whilst on the other hand present the Chinese learner as an entity that can break free of the Chinese-ness to promote Chinese social and economic development.

China is in the process of installing a socialist market economy (The Ninth Five Year Plan) however they aware that the critical issue facing them is that, the overall educational level of the population is relatively low… and progress made in the reform of educational structure is not yet well adapted to the needs of the socialist market economy and is far from being adequate to meet the needs of the 21st century. Conversely to the negative opinion, we can say the Chinese learner’ is one who falls within the four corners of the Chinese Ninth Five year Plan and its implementation. As to whose interests are being served by the concept of a ‘Chinese learner’ we can argue the sociopolitical interest of China are being served well, but from an outsider’s view, the term presets a conflict of ideas and emotions that are not readily comprehensible.

Are better ways of thinking about cross-cultural education as discussed above? The question may be moot if we consider three views; firstly that of Oonk (2000) who notes the Chinese-ness of ex-patriot Chinese who live far removed from their homeland, and combined with the political interference espoused in the Ninth Five Year Plan to educate the Chinese abroad, then coax him or her home to put into practice what he has learned. Combine this with the theory of Kramsch (1991), (quoted in Crozet and Liddicoat, 1999) who says there is no evidence that living in a foreign country introduces that countries culture to the foreigner, then we can argue that if the Chinese learner is not specifically taught another culture, then he or she will not absorb that other culture, but merely notice it.

Conflicting with this is the argument that Globalism is installing cultural traits on macro level societal components, with the implication that these traits filter down somehow, thus indirectly confirming that an Education policy is specifically teaching that foreign culture, and changing or modifying that culture within which that learner operates, but yet within the parameters of the developing Chinese market socialization. The final conflict appears in the Dalton and Seidlhofer (1996) view that L2 education instills a negativeness towards the L2 culture. Cross cultural education needs to, on the one hand, avoid the self other notions whilst promoting the value of each culture (Crozet and Liddicoat, 1999) and then introduce it at the education micro level such that any conflict with the top down theory of Fukuyama (2001) is accommodated.

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