Writing in the Devil’s Tongue: A History of English Composition in China

Xiaoye You. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010, Pp. xi + 237.

Reviewed by Jamie Elizabeth Marko
State University of New York at Buffalo, New York, U.S.A

English instruction has long been part of a global love-hate relationship, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in China. Colonialism, Maoist thought, national pride, economic growth, and deep-rooted education traditions have perpetuated the pro- and con English movements to the present day. Xiaoye You details this contentious affair in Writing in the Devil s Tongue, a valuable resource for historians, linguists, educators, or those simply seeking to understand part of the complicated cultural dynamics of two world powers.
Divided into six chapters and arranged chronologically, You guides the reader from the initial hostility against the foreign devil s tongue (p. 15) to the current attitudes that see English as a necessary tool for international competition. Through an in-depth analysis of traditional pedagogical principles, historical context, and concrete artifacts, You shows the ever-changing attitudes, influences, techniques, and consequences of formal English instruction in China.
The exploration opens with chapter 1, Encountering the Devil s Writing, set just after the Chinese ports were taken over by Great Britain following the 19th century opium wars. English education was introduced in Chinese universities, much to the disdain of prevailing intelligentsia. Seen as the language of the foreign devils, English composition was considered lacking in the discipline and refinement of traditional Chinese rhetoric. At the time, Chinese composition was based on Confucianism, and good writing adeptly applied Confucian philosophy to everyday life. Original self-expression was irrelevant. Since English was originally and continuously taught through direct translation, Confucian structures appeared awkward and disjointed.
Such direct translation was abandoned in favor of full English instruction, as is detailed in the second chapter, Writing and Decolonization. English schools proliferated throughout decolonization as the Chinese embraced English to modernize and liberate themselves from the traditional mindset that had previously contributed to defeat.
This idea of liberation from foreign, or Western, influence contributed to the Cultural Revolution, and English was increasingly depicted as the antithesis of such liberation. Russian became the important foreign language, and English was demonized as poisonous to Maoist thought. Chapter 3, Writing and the Proletarian Revolution, depicts the near-extinction of English instruction as fewer students were permitted to study English, and those who did were limited to translating the treatises of Mao Zedong without personal interpretation.
Due to the revolutionary goals of Maoist China, English instruction remained stagnant until the death of Chairman Mao, as detailed in the fourth chapter, Writing and the Four Modernizations. China was already in the process of loosening restrictions, and foreign language education was quickly reintroduced as a tool for global competition. French, English, and German were all taught in universities as China sought to prepare to compete in the global market. Western ideologies were welcomed, and students were encouraged to compose more personal narratives instead of the regurgitations of Marx, Zedong, and Confucius.
This push for globalization is furthered in chapter 5, Writing and Socialism in Chinese Characters, as the digital age exploded. Once tightly-closed and monitored, China s triumphs (Beijing Olympics) and tragedies (Tiananmen Square) were suddenly broadcast around the world. Increased global visibility gave China the opportunity for major economic reform. Education took center stage as university enrollment ballooned. English instruction logically changed as well to accommodate China s push to become a world power.
China s ambitions are becoming reality, and its economic might has drastically changed political dynamics. Writing in Our Own Tongue, chapter 6, explores the theme of English as no longer being the restrictive tongue of others; it can be useful, but it is no longer dominating. English has evolved into a global language and pedagogical practices have similarly changed to accommodate all of its speakers in all of its countries.
Dr. You s book is an important contribution to the understanding of Sino-Anglo relations. By focusing on composition and education, he provides us with a section of history that might otherwise have remained unknown. There are, however, points through the text in which more context would be helpful. While the Cultural Revolution is certainly addressed, its devastating effects are not discussed until further in the text and then only to show how English was a useful means of expression for traumatized survivors. It may be assumed that readers are familiar with the effects of the Revolution, but we should not underestimate the book s appeal to a broader audience. Writing in the devil s tongue is a fascinating and informative read that will serve a wide readership well.