Teaching English in China
Hua Ti

BEIJING — After months of public debate, China’s Education Ministry has finally decided that the college entrance exam will no longer include the subject of English. Instead, students will take several English tests spread over the course of the school year.

This recurring topic is once again heated, bitterly dividing those with starkly divergent viewpoints. People who wanted to eliminate English from the college entrance exam believe that teaching the language in China emphasizes only reading and writing while neglecting speaking and daily use. They argue that China’s English instruction has become entirely exam-oriented.

Meanwhile, opponents are convinced that axing English from the college entrance exam represents a terrible regression in China’s approach to the rest of the world. They also believe that this decision will lead to English instruction being neglected in primary and secondary school curriculums, which would be particularly harmful for rural children. They note that while urban children from economically stable backgrounds could supplement their education with off-campus courses to boost their English, children from rural regions would have even less to offer in the future job market.

What sometimes is lost in the debate is that the the original vision of the Education Ministry was to relieve at least some of the heavy studying burden on Chinese pupils.

I too am circumspect about repealing English from the college entrance exam, though my reason is different from those described above. First, it is highly improbable that this measure will lighten the load of studying for Chinese children. As long as the future of students “is fixed for life with the college entrance exam,” as is the common refrain about this all-important test, the time saved from studying English will simply be used to reinforce other subjects. Talk of “relieving the students’ burden” is just empty rhetoric.

Besides, from a pragmatic and rational perspective, English is the world’s dominant language today. Whether in scientific, commercial or cultural exchanges, English is the most universal and useful language. The better our students master it, the more advantageous for our country’s scientific, technological and cultural development. Learning English well is not a question of ideology but simply a critical part of self-development. Because English is so important globally, it is of course better to learn it as early, as systematically, and in as institutional a way as possible.

Morning exercise for schoolchildren in Xi'an — Photo: Tom Thai

The strength of the English language is historic, and from a linguistic perspective, it is also relatively easy to learn. Certain countries — in particular those that attach great importance to competitiveness and ambition, such as South Korea, Japan and Singapore — pay a lot of attention to English learning. After Singapore became independent, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew made English one of its official languages, which provides a great boost to Singapore's economy.

China should be more like Singapore

In the book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World, Lee praises China’s achievements since instituting reforms and opening itself up to the world. But Lee is convinced that the Chinese language hinders Chinese exchanges with the world because it is too difficult to learn. He thus strongly recommends that Chinese people learn English well. The advice of Lee, who led and lifted Singapore out of poverty to become a country with a per capita income of more than $30,000, is worth considering.

There are indeed problems with the way Chinese children learn English today. But there are many ways we can improve English learning — for example by creating an English college qualification test if its scores are not counted in the college entrance exam. English instruction needs to attach greater importance to reading and real practice rather than vocabulary and grammar.

As this debate has played out, there has been some predictable rhetoric: “Why should we have an English exam if foreigners do not take a Chinese test?” This is the same mentality that drives Chinese people to boycott media coverage of the Oscar awards. Why doesn’t the foreign press come and report on the Chinese Golden Rooster Award or the Hundred Flowers Award, the thinking goes?

This is essentially a very intolerant and narrow-minded attitude. In modern China, Chinese people tend to swing between two extremes: Either the heritage of our ancestors is absolutely immutable or it should be overthrown completely. We seem to have great difficulty in finding a balance — protecting our own culture while at the same time learning that of others.

It is this mentality that we must nourish.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.

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