“The Chinese economy will be in trouble soon.” Irene Chung ’17 spoke in Chinese, half-joking yet pronouncing each syllable with the correct tones. “But for my oral exam tomorrow, I’ll have to say, ‘Reforms will improve China’s economy.’” With this formula, Chung knew she would ace another oral exam in her Level 5 Chinese class.
A veteran of the Chinese program at Yale, Chung is accustomed to the fast pace of the courses: classes that meet each weekday, an in-class quiz every other day, scores of new characters and vocabulary every week and dozens of written assignments every semester. Moreover, besides learning technical skills, she has had to internalize the narrative of her textbooks. Like it or not, she has to parrot the voice of the textbooks to get good scores.
Since Yale does not require language courses beyond L3, the students who make it to the difficult, intensive and time-consuming Chinese L5 courses are those who look beyond mere academic requirements and seek further personal fulfillment. Most L5 Chinese students interviewed have specific plans for how they will use Chinese in the future. Chung, a Korean-American student who double-majors in political science and East Asian studies, plans a career in diplomacy and hopes to use Chinese in that work. Pascale Bronder ’19, a sophomore planning to major in environmental studies, hopes the language can help her take on environmental projects in China.
But not all have a clear goal in mind. Kevin Salinas ’19 comes from a Spanish-speaking community but chose to take advanced Chinese because he “just [thinks] it’s cool.” With or without a plan for the future, L5 students want to prepare themselves for any opportunity that puts their Chinese to test. However, many of these students have noticed the problematic nature of the textbook that introduced them to formal Chinese and relevant topics in Chinese history, culture and society.
The textbook Yale uses for Chinese 150 and 151, “Discussing Everything Chinese,” is also popular at institutions such as Stanford University and the University of Chicago. Neither of the two Yale instructors who participated in the writing of the Chinese 150 and 151 textbook, Rongzhen Li and Yu-lin Wang Saussy, responded to requests for comments about the specific contents of the textbook. Organized into 22 lessons, the textbook introduce topics from gender equality to NGOs, from Chinese rock music to Chinese food, and from economics to the media. The textbook also includes Chinese literature, idioms and movies. Although this lineup of topics aims to make a transition to a formal and complex understanding of Chinese language and culture, the style of many passages is uncritical, inaccurate and propagandistic. Such a phenomenon, while not uncommon in China, is peculiar in an American university that purports to provide an unbiased perspective on world events.
THE UNTOLD STORY OF LEI FENG
The textbook opens with a lesson on heroes in the eyes of the older and younger generations in China, pitting Lei Feng, a model soldier whom China’s notorious leader Mao Zedong personally endorsed, against Yao Ming, China’s most famous basketball star and NBA Hall of Famer. While it’s easy to look up information on Yao Ming, Lei Feng is little known in the United States. Therefore, the introduction in the textbook is especially important for students’ understanding of this figure.
In the paragraph introducing Lei Feng, the textbook states, “Speaking of his whole life, there’s actually nothing momentous. His story includes either carrying luggage for grannies or donating his savings to the Party. But his selflessness and his love for the Party seem deserving of emulation and eternal respect.”
The textbook presents this passage as fact, but most students — however advanced — miss the nuance of the word “Party” (dang), an endearing term, used instead of the more objective term for “Communist Party” (gong chan dang). This word choice suggests that the passage is in line with the rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party.
Most students knew it was not the whole story. The textbook did not explain how the government used Lei Feng as a propaganda, granting him the money that he donated to the Communist Party. Salinas remembered that his teacher alluded to a more complex narrative but the whole story remained untold.
“THANKS TO THE COMMUNIST PARTY”
The textbook’s second lesson discusses women in China. After describing women’s lowly status in feudal societies, the textbook says, “Today in the 21st century, speaking of gender equality, the social status of Chinese women is not a bit worse than women in the west. As a matter of fact, all this is thanks to the Communist Party.”
When asked about this passage, Chung exclaimed, “Dude, this whole book is propaganda!” Most of the book is not so explicit in its propaganda, but the obviously politically charged statements often provoke unfavorable reactions from Chinese L5 students.
“There are grains of truth. I do know that the Communist Party put a lot of women into the workforce,” Chung added. “[But] based on these little grains of truth, I feel like they are crafting stories about how amazing the Party is.”
Students generally acknowledged that the Chinese Communist Party has contributed to the improvement of women’s social status in China, but cannot agree with the textbook’s claim that Chinese women have achieved the same gender equality as their Western counterparts. In fact, when asked about this subject one student mentioned recent government censorship of webpages containing the phrase “women’s rights.”
A South Korean student who spoke on condition of anonymity, observed during a language program in Beijing two summers ago that “the social status of women in China is higher than that of the women in Korea.” Nonetheless, she acknowledged, “It might be an exaggeration to say that it’s all because of the Communist Party.”
Yet some students did not notice the slanted nature of the passage. “I wouldn’t say China has gender equality. I would say it still doesn’t,” Salinas commented. “It still has a lot of problems, but I wasn’t skeptical about this [when I read the textbook]. I didn’t think about it in a bad way.”
Another questionable sentence appears in a chapter on Chinese food. The textbook reads, “A great scholar knowledgeable both in Chinese and Western culture once said that the life people look forward to the most in the world is to live in the British countryside, own an American house with the most advanced water and electricity systems, marry a Japanese wife, have a French lover and employ a Chinese cook.” The textbook proceeds to focus on the Chinese cook, but the phrase “marry a Japanese wife” elicited negative reactions from students. The South Korean student said “I think that any Japanese girl reading the textbook would be offended.”
Yumi Koga ’17, from Tokyo, still remembers that sentence three semesters after first seeing it. “I don’t think I was offended exactly, although I definitely felt uncomfortable,” Koga said. “In Japan many people still think that it is women’s virtue to be a good wife and a good mother, and what is implied here is that women should become nothing more than a housewife.” In addition, she pointed out that misogyny is a global problem, so picking “wife” as a country’s specialty is disrespectful towards women and homemakers in all countries.
For Chung, more surprising than the quote in the textbook was her teacher’s nonchalance toward the misogynist attitude of the speaker. After class, Chung challenged her teacher on why the scholar would want a Japanese wife. She remembered her teaching saying it was because Japanese women are known to be the most submissive.
WHEN WIKIPEDIA FAILS
The factual inaccuracies in the textbook are often less obvious than biased statements. In a lesson on China’s NGOs, a paragraph describes Fa Lun Gong, a folk religious group which the Communist Party cracked down upon in 1999. The textbook uses a neutral tone and the passage presents the following as fact: “The legality of Fa Lun Gong is a controversial topic in China. This religious group does not belong to China’s traditional Daoism or Buddhism and has little to do with Christianity in the West. Many people practiced Fa Lun Gong because they believed it could cure diseases. Some are so possessed that they even gave up eating and sleeping, and they wouldn’t see the doctor even when they were sick.”
All students interviewed said they were unfamiliar with Fa Lun Gong and quickly looked it up. However, they had not noticed anything unusual about the passage in the textbook, probably because most casual research involves a quick Wikipedia search in the middle of a busy school day, and is insufficient to uncover subtle problems with the textbook.
According to a writer who has garnered recognition for his research into the Fa Lun Gong, and who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Chinese authorities, two points are clearly inaccurate in the textbook’s introduction of Fa Lun Gong. “I think the text is not accurate, primarily in that it makes FLG seem like a nontraditional Chinese religion, when in fact it’s a very typical folk syncretic religious phenomenon,” the writer said by email. “These sort of ‘redemptive societies’ were typical in the Republican era and through Chinese history.” He also pointed out that the description of Fa Lun Gong practitioners’ attitude toward modern medicine is also misleading. “In terms of medical care, there’s no independent verification of this,” he added.
Chinese repression of Fa Lun Gong allegedly resulted in illegal harvesting of group members’ organs and is thus a controversial topic, but the textbook fails to represent this. Thus, most students remain unfamiliar with the effects of the government crackdown. When informed of the inaccuracy of the paragraph and the alleged organ harvesting, Bronder was very surprised. Asked if she objected to the way the textbook is written, she replied, “I think they do a good job of giving an overview. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known any of that.”
TECHNIQUES FIRST, CONTENTS SECOND
Still, not every part of the textbook contains biased content; the apolitical topics tend to be more accurate. Students’ favorite topics include Chinese movies and directors, a short story by China’s 20th-century literary giant Lu Xun, and a series of three lessons on economics. Overall attitude towards the textbook is positive, especially since students tend to regard its content as secondary to the mastery of technique.
While introducing the topics is part of the textbook’s goal, students tend to focus more on the technical aspects of the book. Bronder said that she would always read through the passages and look up new vocabulary first but wouldn’t always look up the topics online.
Ben Martin ’18, who is currently taking a gap year to learn Chinese in Taipei, did not show much concern toward the controversial narratives and inaccuracies in the textbook. “I didn’t read it for the content. I didn’t feel like my Chinese was at the level where that was my goal,” he said. “I’ve read it for vocab, grammar, how do I use it in context, what sort of perspective a Chinese person has.”
Students all emphasized the importance of vocabulary and grammar. The propaganda, misogyny and inaccuracy in the textbooks have simply become an alternative narrative representing what students believe is a Chinese perspective.
Salinas summed up this attitude when he commented on the “Japanese wife” reference: “In the textbook you want to know how Chinese people think, right?”
An instructor who wished to remain anonymous in order to not to offend colleagues said the viewpoint of the textbook is not the most important part of Chinese language instruction. “What’s important is that students need to learn the words and sentence structure necessary for discussing the topic,” he explained. “Every textbook needs many revisions, and you can always find flaws in the final product.” Another instructor, speaking anonymously for the same reason, also downplayed the influence of the passages. “All words have content. Since there is content, not everyone can agree with its ideology. Yale students should have the ability to make their own judgments. It doesn’t mean the students believe in whatever the passages say.” However, even if the students remain skeptical about the contents of the textbook, in many cases, such as those Lei Feng and Fa Lun Gong, it is difficult for them to investigate further without assistance from someone knowledgeable about Chinese culture.
LOOKING BACK FROM AFAR
“To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever had a single Chinese book that didn’t have propagandistic content,” said Georgia Smits ‘18, who studied in Beijing last year. “I guess that one could say that without reading the ‘propaganda,’ a lot of perspective on China would be lost. So I’d rather have it than not.”
When asked if she worries about the knowing the truth behind doses of propaganda, she said, “I don’t look to Chinese language classes to teach me the truth.” Instead, she regularly follows Western media outlets such as BBC, and she often asks Chinese friends to provide her with an alternative narrative to official propaganda.
Looking back, Smits said that Chinese 150 and 151 provided “a good foundation” and were the reason why she chose to study abroad in China. “Yale classes made me stop hating Chinese,” Smits said. It was her parents who pushed her to learn the language in high school.
Meredith Derecho ‘18, who also took a gap year last year in Taipei, still feels ambivalent about the L5 textbook. “The writing is ku zao wu wei but the content is interesting to know,” she said, using a Chinese idiom that means “boring and tasteless.” “I wouldn’t know many of the topics if I didn’t learn from the textbook.”
She recalled having doubts on certain contents in the textbook, but could not remember any specific topics. Immersed in a Chinese language environment in Taipei, Derecho was more aware of the importance of class materials than her classmates who remained at Yale. “I think that learning about a language and learning about the place where it’s spoken are sort of inseparable,” Derecho said. “And for a lot of people who take Chinese, the textbook might be a major source of their information about China, so misinformation would be really bad.” Derecho also stressed the helpfulness of the technical aspect of the textbook.
Like Smits, Derecho was largely satisfied with the technical aspect of her Chinese learning. In retrospect, for Smits, Derecho and perhaps many other Chinese L5 students focused mostly on gaining competence in the language, the problematic contents of the Chinese textbook have become an almost negligible detail. “At times I kept asking, ‘Why are we learning and reading this?’” Derecho confessed. “But looking back now, my entire Chinese education, especially at Yale, was planned out super well.”