Chasing Success: China’s Relationship with English

by Kelsey Larson

“We speak good English!”

The private dining room in Changzhou No. 1 Middle School rattles with the shout, shaking the 22 American students within awake.

“We will conquer English!”

The roar is coming from the throats of several hundred Chinese students attending the Li Yang Crazy English Camp.  Marching to lunch in uniform, they roar out their sayings for the day.  They’ve all signed up for ten days of a very, very literal boot camp for language learners, where English is tattooed into their skulls by waves of shouting back and forth, all led by uniformed men who wouldn’t look that out of place in the front lines of a war zone. We Americans shrug and go back to our meals. English is just a language; what’s the big deal?

Strange English translation (Kelsey Larson).

English labeled maps, English movie titles, even English fire extinguisher labels in buildings that may never have seen a native English speaker before me: it doesn’t take long in China to realize the importance English has in Chinese minds. In a country fiercely proud of its language and culture, the Chinese infatuation with English seems somewhat out of place. English adorns T-shirts and signs, advertisements and TV channels. Nearly every Chinese person under the age of thirty (and a good share of those over it) can at least manage a few accented sentences, and many can speak it nearly fluently. In a country fiercely proud of its language and culture, the Chinese infatuation with English seems somewhat out of place. However, the Chinese have reshaped the idea of the international language as a symbol of power and pride.

Students lining up in drill formation (Kelsey Larson).

First of all, mastery of English is a source of power in the eyes of the Chinese. As the banners of Li Yang Crazy English Camp declare, a country’s English level decide its international competitiveness.  This perception extends to individuals as well: a student’s mastery of English is seen as a crucial factor for success in high-level jobs.   To the Chinese, English isn’t just the language of Americans or Englishmen: it’s the language of scientists, of businessmen, of diplomats. It is the language that represents wealth, glamour, the international life. English, in a word, is power.

The Chinese love of English manifests itself constantly in clothing. The slogans that adorn Chinese T-shirts are all in English, bearing statements like “we are they”, “She stoically conquered adversity,” and “I like to do things that give me pleasure.” The exact words don’t seem to really matter that much; the English language itself is a declaration to other Chinese of their connection to the modern, exciting lifestyle associated with mastery of English. More than clothing brands capitalize off of this love of English, though: my new Chinese notebook declares that “You will feel like writing with it all the time,” and the malls pipe in the latest tunes from the American top 100 charts.

Inspirational Chinese signage (Kelsey Larson).
However, China is still a country desperately in need of a proofreader. Only a minimal number of native English speakers work or teach in China, so most Chinese kids learn their English from other non-native speakers, who may themselves never have even been to an English speaking country. Therefore, no one along the chain of command catches typos before they become memorialized in signs warning about “danderous” roads or recommending “lover’s” family restaurants.  The “Please keeping off to the grass” signs betray the use of services like Google Translate that tend to get the literal meaning across while utterly massacring grammar and the subtleties of connotation.

Determined, enthusiastic, eccentrically independent: nothing embodies China’s international lunge more clearly than its relationship to English. China has taken English and used the language how it wants to, as a declaration of power, of independence, and of energy.  The kids marching through Li Yang’s Crazy English Camp are urged to push to be their best, to succeed, to throw themselves into life as well as into the English language. As quirky as Chinese English might be, it has grown into a central aspect of modern Chinese life.

Kelsey Larson ’16 is in Silliman College.  Contact her at