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China has raised the language barrier again

For LIJIA ZHANG, learning English helped her broaden her horizons beyond the missile factory where she worked. The language is a vital way for the world to better understand her country, she says. Yet the Chinese authorities seem increasingly suspicious of it.

Browsers at the Songpo bookstore in Shaoyang. Literature helped Lijia Zhang learn English, but there are recent government moves to ‘push back’ against the language. Photo: VCG via Getty Images

“For…for…for.. rin.” I stretched my mouth into alien sounds. “Foreign language is a tool of class struggle,” said Marx, according to our night school teacher, who then made our class parrot the words back to him. I was a 21 year-old factory worker studying English in my spare time.

The English sentence was the second I ever learned. I had come across the first “Long live Chairman Mao!” five years earlier when I started out at my junior middle school in Nanjing.

I was intrigued by this language system so different from Chinese characters. Sadly, I didn’t learn much English as my mother dragged me out of the school three months after I started it.

She had retired early so that I could take over her job at a prestigious state-owned factory, which produced intercontinental missiles capable of reaching North America, among other products.

Mother wanted me to be grateful for having handed me an ‘iron rice bowl’ – a job for life with cradle-to-grave social welfare. But I was utterly miserable. A student with an excellent academic record, I had dreamt of becoming a journalist and a writer.

My assigned job was to test pressure gauges – a simple and repetitive task – while the factory itself was ugly and depressing. Black chimneys rose out of the tall workshop buildings, interrupting the skyline like legs of a spider dead on its back. At ground level, a tangle of pipes hissed as the gas fought to escape.

A communist state in miniature, the factory provided workers with dormitory, dining hall and bathhouse, but it also controlled every aspect of our lives: no dating for new workers; no lipsticks and no trousers with flares.

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Every month, female workers had to visit the so-called hygiene-room to show the ‘period police’ that we were not pregnant.

For the whole decade that I slaved there, I felt like a frog, trapped inside the factory well.

To jump out, I decided to teach myself English. The tool of my struggle.

It was the mid-1980s, a few years after China introduced the reforms and opening up policies. A craze for learning foreign languages, forbidden under Mao, was sweeping the nation.

It was not easy back then, unlike today with many learning-devices and Hollywood movies easily available.

To start with, I borrowed a radio from a cousin and followed an English-learning program called New Concept English. Later, I signed up at a night school.

Once started, I became obsessed, so much so that I often found myself talking English to myself or singing English songs. And I spoke loudly as if the sheer volume could compensate for my lack of fluency.

Some of my fellow workers laughed at my efforts, calling me “a toad who dreams to eat swan’s meat”. But I didn’t care as the concept of individualism took roots in me.

After my English improved, I began to listen to the BBC, which reported real news instead of our government propaganda. Due to the interference – listening to foreign radio stations wasn’t allowed – the sound from the BBC station crackled. Yet amid the static, the walls of my factory well started to tumble, and I could begin to glimpse the great world beyond.

Reading novels in English deepened my passion for literature. I stayed up late, reading newly translated works such as Nietzsche. I grew political. With my friends, many of them keen English-learners like myself, we talked about politics all the time.

Would there be political reforms? Would western-style democracy be the answer to China? In 1989, I organised a major protest among factory workers in support of the democratic movement led by students in Tiananmen Square.

Following my dream, I have become a writer and a journalist, writing in English for international publications. In my adopted tongue, I’ve found freedom: I don’t have to endure the censorship imposed by the Chinese government.

Besides, without the inhibition that comes with my mother language, I can take a literary adventure in English.

Still a huge fan of the language, I am upset by the on-going debate about the importance of English learning and the government’s effort in downgrading it. Last spring, two legislators proposed to cancel English translation services at government press conferences and reduce English lessons at school, in order to promote Chinese.

In August, Shanghai’s educational authorities decided to ban local primary schools from holding final exams on the English language. I see it as another example of the authorities’ efforts to push back against the language.

What is wrong with English? These days, the neutral word has become tinted with ‘western influence’, which itself has become a dirty word. At a time when the hostility between China and the west is intensifying, Beijing seems increasingly concerned that western values may corrupt the minds of the Chinese youth. Xi Jinping repeatedly urges them to “adhere to the correct socialist ideology”.

There have been lots of fears about China and China’s rapid rise in the west. The pandemic has only aggravated such fear. Some are justified, while others are generated by ignorance.

It is time for China to behave graciously and open up more channels for better cultural understanding. English is paramount in achieving that. It should be promoted instead of demoted, in my view.

After all, Marx was more or less right: foreign language is a tool of struggle.

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