This essay appeared first in College English 49.7 (1987): 827-830. as a response to "Contrastive Rhetoric: An American Writing Teacher in China," by Carolyn Matalene in College English 47:8 (1985), 789ff

An American Teacher Reflects on Teaching Writing in China

By Louie Crew

Like Carolyn Matalene, I want to "inspire the extraordinary syntheses that are possible" between Eastern and Western rhetoric, but fear I must cut out my tongue if I accept her reduction of the two traditions.

Few places have ever changed so radically as has China in this century, yet Carolyn Matalene attends to none of the rhetoric by which Chinese unbound feet, dethroned an Emperor, cast out religion, and seized all private property, nor to the rhetoric by which gangs of the victors later vandalized most libraries and temples, plastered "big character posters" across the land, closed schools, massacred thousands of intellectuals and sent thousands more to farms for "re-education."

I agree that contrastive rhetoric "can provide us with a clearer understanding" but not if we ignore the discourse which reshapes the cultures.

Carolyn Matalene says nothing of the rhetoric of Mao the outsider, the teacher, the polemicist, and the poet. Instead, she selects a moment of rare taciturnity, when with a plunge Mao confirmed a million of his words.

Nor does she attend the rhetoric of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, acknowledged in Beijing and Taiwan alike as the Father of Modern China. A teacher explained what he tells students in Shaukiwan, a squatters' section of Hong Kong:

Every new dynasty began by saying to the last, "You no longer please the GODS. The GODS appoint us."

Sun Yat-sen said something new [sic]: "You no longer please the PEOPLE. The PEOPLE appoint your successor. Be gone, and take with you any gods who do not support the people."

"Do you have a term for this rhetoric" I asked. "Gong hoi fau ying," my friend answered, "speak out to overthrow. Sun claimed new authority."

Stereotypes forge no change. The ba gu which Carolyn Matalene urges us to respect, interdicts change. Ba gu rhetorically equates with kowtow. Rebels often restore kowtow when they win, to obstruct other rebels. But kowtow does not characterize genius anywhere, certainly not literary genius in China.

Protest abounds in Chinese poetry and music. Operas and poems celebrate clever individuals who thwart tyrants and powerful fools. Tang war poetry echoes through Western songs of the 1960's, popular now with students in China.

At the autumn festival Chinese the world over eat moon cakes. As they nibble the thick, sweet crust, many talk about how the Mings rid China of the Mongol dynasty with rhetoric. The Mongols sneered at native food and would never see the slivers of paper slipped into the cakes to announce the time and place to revolt. As rebels proved again in South Carolina, not everyone who sings "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" sings of a god in the skies.

This delicious stinky tofu, Carolyn Matalene misnames cheese, and suggests that "sensitive," "responsible," and "civilized" Western teachers should leave such produce at home. I disagree.

I concede that only a minority ever think for themselves. I readily acknowledge that those who do, risk reprisals. Every culture has fat fools to substitute for "the better part of valor" a coward's proverb.

But Westerners do not monopolize original disputation. Several beat the socks off me when I debated every one of my 150 students in Beijing, alone at night, in my office, 20 minutes each. Two days ahead of time, each had to announce the topic and the side for me to take.

The night before the first debate, a colleague stole to my apartment:

"Your friends fear for you. What will you do if a student announces she or he will debate for communism?"

"I will fiercely argue against it."

"Don't do that," he said.

"I argue as the students tell me. I happen to be a socialist myself, but even more, I am a teacher. I have debated every student for years...."

He looked wounded. "What would you have me do?!" I said.

"Tell them they win, that you can't come up with an argument to defeat them. It's the safe way." "Never!" I said.

Late that night I relented. I had learned in my teens how to kowtow in hetero Alabama; why not in China? In a note to all student monitors, I declared politics off limits, and reminded them that I had already stressed that students must choose topics reasonably accessible to me. I had not lived in China very long...... Finkery international.

Half-way to the building to sneak my notes under their doors, I came to my senses. Not one had yet asked to debate communism. Why not wait?

Late the second week, when all had announced topics, no one had picked communism. I waited in my office for the next debater. The weakest student out of the 150, knocked. "No, you come tomorrow," I said. "Yes, teacher," she said, "but I have decided to change my topic." "To what?" I asked. "YOU will argue against communism," she smiled.

"Fine," I said, "but remember that everyone will have to write a neutral paper on the subject debated. I can argue as you tell me to, but can you write such a paper?"

"I will keep my original topic," she smarted.

Critical analysis prompted no problems when I asked my students in Beijing to describe "the causes of bad teaching." Although I had given them Bertrand Russell's essay with that title, no one referred to it. No one copied a single model, Chinese or Western. No one needed to. I had found what every writing teacher should look for, the nerve.

Western writers whom China officially respects do not use ba gu. I found Engels, Lenin, and Marx leather-bound even in the yurt of a Mongolian herdsman, the Party's prize when he became the champion wrestler.

Nor do the Chinese eschew individualism. Many told me proudly how once Ding Xiaoping picked up an egg, held it out to Western journalists and asked:

"Do you believe I can make this stand on end?" The rhetoricians shook their heads and smiled politely at the "dictator's" arrogance. Ding took the egg and knocked it on the table. Boiled, it stayed put, on end. Ding explained, "You must know your egg."

Where reside the "authentic voices" whom Carolyn Matalene identifies as Western? I have found only a few anywhere I have taught in the past 28 years--in the United States, England, China, and Hong Kong. If Western rhetoric monopolizes the authentic voice, as Carolyn Matalene claims, how can she also describe Western writing teachers as "used to the abstract vocabulary and mindless generalities of many undergraduate essays"?

My ignorance has shocked me in Asia. I grieve that my teachers never introduced me to the world beyond the United States and Europe. Many Americans whom China hires do not discover until we get here how egregiously Westerners before us abused Chinese people, how we confiscated territories, sold opium and warred when China objected.... I applaud Carolyn Matalene when she warns about the risks of ignorance. But guilt serves no one.

Any lazy student knows how to re-copy an essay she submitted to another teacher last year, or to claim as his own the story which he guesses the foreigner will never have read. When the teacher has read nearly the same passage in 8 out of 150 papers, the student, caught, knows how to retreat into the last refuge of the scoundrel: "We Chinese are not like you. We value copies." Ba gu indeed!

We cease to teach if we allow visions of Lord Elgin burning the Summer Palace to silence us. The person who hushes in guilt will dwarf to the cartoon which Chinese specify for foreigners--the "big nose" or "white devil." An educator redeems such times.

A Chinese person abuses 4000 years of rich Chinese creativity when the person mindlessly copies. A Westerner abuses "Make it new" if the person ignores the traditions Pound's friend Eliot insisted upon in "Tradition and the Individual Talent."

Recently a don from Cambridge and I discussed the rigorous Chinese examinations which Carolyn Matalene describes. "We have a similar problem," he said. "Good students arrive at our door not because they have discovered their brilliance, but because they have memorized vast amounts of the brilliance of others. We use tutorials to challenge that."

Buddahs cease to be Buddah when they validate what their pupils copy.

When graduates in Beijing write to me about what they fear most should they study in America, like many American graduates, they say GRE, LSE, GTE, TOEFL...., not that someone will expect them to think.

Chinese persons who manage the computers at one of the most dangerous airports in the world and at one of the 10 largest banks in the world recently asked me, "What do you think of our universities?" Embarrassed, I had only cheese to offer, the same cheese that I catered in Wisconsin: "Citizens of Hong Kong deserve more. Our students arrive as some of the best in the world.

Four years later, only those who have resisted us can compete well. The universities should wean..."

"We know," they bemoaned. "If we hire a graduate, the person does well at first, exactly what we tell the person to do. But when we promote the person to manager, things fall apart. They know only how to give the orders someone gave them. They know about power, but not about empowerment."

I do not become Japanese when I buy a Toyota. Chinese do not become Western, when they think for themselves.

--The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1986