A Foreign Teacher in China

Audrey Johnson

For four months in 1991 I taught English in the South China city of Changsha, the only Foreign Teacher at Hunan Normal University, where the province’s future high school teachers take a four year course. I was teaching writing to third year undergraduate English majors – one hundred and fifty of them in six classes – and literary criticism to a smaller postgraduate class. The University – ‘Shidan Daxue’ in Chinese, and shortened familiarly to ‘Shi Da’ – lies over the Xiang River from the city of Changsha, and at the foot of Yuelu Mountain, the highest point in a wooded line of hills, where wild red azaleas bloom at the end of winter. The University is built into the side of the mountain, and the campus, crowded with trees, rises steeply into the hills.

Changsha, once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Chu, is not a large City – it has a population of 1.3 million – but it is Hunan’s largest, and its capital; it stands on the wide Xiang River which is navigable, via the Yangtze, all the way to the sea. In the night you can hear the sound of boats coming up the river to anchor, or passing on to the north under Changsha’s two long bridges. The road from the city across one of these leads directly to the university district at the foot of Yuelu Mountain, and the ancient Yuelu Academy, now a museum, from which the present universities claim direct descent. The Yuelu Academy was one of four, established one thousand years ago, during the Song Dynasty; on either of its front doors a classical Chinese couplet is inscribed. ‘Only the State of Chu can boast such large numbers of talented people’ reads the translation of one line, and ‘Most of them come from this academy’ reads the other.

Near the Yuelu Academy is Dong Fang Hong (‘The East is Red’) Square, with its giant statue of Mao Zedong, one of his poems on Changsha carved in stone at his feet. Mao spent his student years here while training as a teacher, and walked the same river banks and mountain tracks where my students spent much of their leisure time. The wooded hills, familiar to generations of students, show many aspects of Chinese life and history: old stone steps lead past a pavilion ‘for admiring the dusk’ to memorials for local revolutionary martyrs; civilian graves from a past time are on one slope of the hill, and those of Guo Mintang soldiers – some killed fighting the Japanese, some fighting the Communists – on another; on one peak is a Daoist temple and on another the transmitter tower for Hunan T.V.

Hunan Normal University is the principal teacher-training institution for the province’s sixty-one million population and six thousand middle (high) schools. Entrance is competitive and depends on the double requirement of high marks in both oral and written examinations. The oral examination took place while I was there, and for a week high school students flooded in, with their teachers, from all over the province, and were accommodated in makeshift dormitories all over the university. Students I spoke to who were from mountain villages in the far west, had travelled for six hours by bus to reach the nearest railway station, then made an eight-hour rail journey – their first – to Changsha, and arrived at their university billet, chattering like a flock of excited birds, past midnight. Next day, the presence of an English-speaking foreigner in the same building as the rooms they were allocated caused great excitement; they had never met, or even seen, such a person, and took the opportunity to practise their English and have their questions answered. Such country applicants, especially those from poor areas, are at a disadvantage compared with those from city schools, some of which are endowed with books and learning equipment by prosperous local factories to which they are attached.

But some reverse discrimination is practised in choosing the successful applicants, as there is a quota to be filled for each county of the province. Since graduates return to their home area to teach, the quote ensures that there is, for all high schools, a supply of teachers who understand local conditions and the local dialect. For although students must use standard Chinese (‘Mandarin’ or ‘pu tong hua’) at University, the province of Hunan is home to many dialects, and the speech of some is unintelligible to their neighbours.

Teaching methods at the University differ quite a lot from those in Western universities. The great shortage of books in English means that teaching is done from model extracts, not often from the best writing, which many students learn by heart. There is a heavy emphasis on grammar. Teachers favour a didactic lecturing style, with a lot of blackboard use for emphasis of the points they are making; this is all copied down by the students, who have no experience in note-taking. Since every class is two hours long, there is some strain on the concentration of both teachers and students.

The few language teachers with experience in education systems abroad have tried to introduce such innovations as some class discussion and more creative writing, but although the value of overseas study is recognised in the university, it is impossible unless there is foreign currency to pay for it. Hunan Normal University used to run regular, successful short courses in Chinese language, culture and art for travellers from the United States and Australia who liked to combine education with their sightseeing. The post-l989 Western embargo on China has put a stop to these, and so to the financial feasibility of further training abroad for language teachers.

Teaching in an unfamiliar system was hard, even exhausting at first, and I couldn’t match the Chinese teachers’ virtuoso performances. The problem in teaching written English was that the students’ over- anxiety about observance of grammatical rules made their writing stilted, and their habit of literally translating familiar Chinese expressions laced it with over emphatic and flowery phrases. My task became to encourage a direct, concise and personal style while demanding a great deal of writing practise and giving students as much individual attention as possible; and I was pleased with their work in the written examination at the end of the semester.

In teaching literary criticism I tried to demonstrate the contrary to the students’ belief that there was only one correct interpretation of a piece of writing, and was eventually unexpectedly successful with Patrick White’s Tree of Man and David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter. The themes of these two books probably helped. Students responded sympathetically to Malouf’s contrast of the beauty and serenity of nature with the horror and waste of war, and to White’s story of the poetry behind ordinary lives on the land.

Many of the students I taught (one third to a half of some classes) came from peasant families, and so had had a close relationship with the natural world and its seasons and weather, and this was evident in their writing. They were born and had their early childhood during the years of the Cultural Revolution, a time of great hardship and poverty, and the experience seems to have led to recognition of their good fortune at being able now, to live much easier lives as students.

Yet life is not really easy for anyone. Hours are long – I taught sixteen hours per week, with some occasional general lectures as well; Chinese teachers usually have other duties beside their teaching; students use the classrooms to study till late at night. Accommodation is poor for both students, who live eight to a dormitory, and staff who live, with their families, in cramped flats and in buildings often in need of repair. Teaching salaries are notoriously low, as government employees have not yet shared the prosperity that has come to other sections of the population. In Winter, one day a week is without electricity; there are frequent interruptions to the water supply.

But there are also shared delights – the beautiful campus with its huge camphor trees, stone retaining walls, and steps that curve upwards among the trees to residential buildings or the wooded hills beyond; the scent from hundreds of flowering trees in late Spring; the variety of fruit and vegetables from the peasants’ markets at the gate; and the traditional and melodious cries of the shoe and umbrella menders and the vendors of hot steamed bread as they hawk their wares through the university paths.

This is a tranquil and prosperous time for Changsha, compared with the not-so-distant past, and present hardships seem mild to the old and experienced teachers, now retired, but still ‘ teaching some classes for the love of their subject. They have lived through tumultuous events. Changsha was occupied three times by the Japanese who bombed and set fire to the city, and massacred those civilians who had not fled the city and the surrounding countryside. After the war some, as students, took part in the underground activity against Chiang Kai Shek and the Guo Mintang. When the Provincial Governor declared for the Communists Changsha was bombed again, this time by the Guo Mintang. During the Cultural Revolution all the University teachers were sent away for four or five years to labour in the rice fields.

Perhaps the university is an example of that much abused concept -a community. Everyone who works at the university lives there, and shares the disadvantages and the delights – about one thousand teachers and the same number of other workers (builders, gardeners, cooks, cleaners, electricians, drivers and carpenters) and their families, often including grandparents and in-laws, as well as seven thousand students. There are three thousand correspondence students as well.

I’m grateful to teaching colleagues and to students at Hunan Normal University for such insights as I have gained into Chinese life and history.