Beware of Chinese Language Programs in the US

This is from last week, but it just came to my attention. It’s written by Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor at my alma mater NYU, who fears Chinese language courses for US college students may have embedded propaganda in their curricula, a trick used by Mussolini back in the 1930s. China’s government developed the Adanced Placement course for Chinese language and culture to be administered by the US college board, and Zimmerman’s not happy about that.

The same regime that has brought us public executions, forced labor camps, and Internet censors will soon be funding a language and culture class in a school near you.

…The regime, I suspect, will probably follow Mussolini’s model and try to use the new AP course to play up China’s economic achievements and play down its crimes. But if any Chinese citizens protest, they’ll risk prison, or worse.

So it’s up to the rest of us to monitor the program. Any school district offering this course should also make its textbooks and lesson plans available in English, so parents and other concerned citizens can read them. What, if anything, will the texts – officially, written by the College Board – say about the Tiananmen Square massacre? About the jailing of Chinese journalists? The abuse of psychiatric patients? We have the right to know.

Of course, American students desperately need to study non-English languages. Everyone who cares about our national future should consider this appalling fact: Less than half of American high school students even take a foreign language. Compare that with almost every other developed nation, where foreign-language study is compulsory. Our problem is especially embarrassing when it comes to Chinese, which is spoken by 1.5 billion people around the globe – and studied by fewer than 50,000 Americans. More than 1 million American students study French, by contrast, while only 70 million people in the world speak it.

So yes, absolutely, more Americans should take Chinese. Our economy, our cultural life, and our national security all demand it.

But we should study the subject on our own terms, making sure that it also reflects our best civic language of freedom, open discussion, and democracy. Now, more than ever before, it’s a tongue that we all need to speak.

Mandarin on OUR terms. I like that. (Is there a copyright infringement here?)

I have no idea if Zimmerman’s claims have any merit or if he is a chest-thumping Cold Warrior who still thinks the Commies are trying to compromise “our precious bodily fluids.” But I’d love to have a look at the curriculum to make my own judgement.

Update: As a side note, this is a most unusual blog I stumbled upon while searching for what other blogs are saying about the Zimmerman column. And you think I have issues with the CCP?

The Discussion: 36 Comments

I bet they won’t be able to resist slipping in a reference to Taiwan (in the context of “Chinese provinces”) somewhere…

September 13, 2006 @ 11:19 pm | Comment

I dunno, I think this is kind of overstated. I’m using the new version of Practical Chinese Reader from BLCU. The old version teaches you all kinds of useful vocabulary, like “4 modernizations” and “building socialism.” The new version is toned down significantly, though in Vol. 4 at least, just about every essay talks about “development,” even when the topic is New Year’s – ya see, this little country town really knows how to celebrate, unlike boring old Beijing, and at the end, the father asks the foreign guy who married his daughter – yep, there’s a Western guy married to a Chinese girl – if he thinks their village can further develop their “holiday/vacation economy.”

So, the texts aren’t going to talk about repression of dissidents and censorship – that’s kind of a big damn “duh.” And we get a laugh out of some of the essays. But I can’t say there’s any pernicious propaganda, and I really don’t know that it’s the job of a language text-book to present a nuanced version of history. It’s to teach you the language in a systematic way. The new “Practical Chinese Reader” presents a pretty rosy picture of modern China, but I can’t say that I find it offensive or inappropriate.

As a side-note, I’d also say that this is one of the better textbooks I’ve seen. Really logical, repeats new vocabulary so you have a shot of actually remembering it, and nice big print.

As for controversial subjects, we talk about those in class discussion, which I think is where such topics belong.

September 13, 2006 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

I see Peter beat me to it…. LOL.

I think it is useful to think about foreign languages in the context of need. Do we really need every American to study a foreign language? Look at Taiwan’s English programs — low quality, useless to most of the takers, etc.

I’m not coming down one or the other. But I think “the ignorant American” stereotype is a bit overblown. If less than half the US high school students take a foreign language, there are probably 100 million who have taken foreign languages in the US…


September 13, 2006 @ 11:41 pm | Comment

One of my classmates is thrilled because her son, who is attending Venice High, a public school that’s a language magnet, is going to be able to take three years of Chinese.

I think it’s great, and I really do wish that American high schools would require a foreign language. Even if the instruction is substandard, there’s still the possibility that a student will get something out of it, maybe a glimmer of understanding that not everyone talks – and thinks – like an American.

September 13, 2006 @ 11:45 pm | Comment

I’m not coming down one or the other. But I think “the ignorant American” stereotype is a bit overblown. If less than half the US high school students take a foreign language, there are probably 100 million who have taken foreign languages in the US…

Compare that to Western Europe, where every high schooler is at least bilingual, if not trilingual.

September 14, 2006 @ 12:12 am | Comment

I don’t think I’ve heard such Cold War idiocy since the controversy over one of Li Ka Shing’s companies running the Panama Canal. He’s the most famous HK businessman in Asia — but from the way American politicians were playing it up, he was a PRC stooge planning on putting PLA tanks on shipping containers to seize control of the Canal. (I’m not making that last bit up — that was what McLaughlin of the McLaughlin report was seriously suggesting on PBS.)

This Zimmerman guy is talking about what MIGHT be in the textbooks. And he seems to expect that introductory Chinese language texts should discuss human rights abuses.

Tell me — how many American ESL books discuss Abu Ghraib? Does the British Council’s intro English texts discuss the 1919 Amritsar Massacre? Give me a fricking break.

“Hello. My name is Dave. What is your name?”

“Hello. My name is Mike. I am ashamed of my government’s torture of prisoners in violation of the Third Geneva convention and its continued eradication of the civil liberties guaranteed under our own Constitution. Do you like football, Dave?”

“Yes, I like football Dave. But we call it soccer!”

I’ve used more than half a dozen Mainland texts in my study of Chinese, probably the same ones you’re all familiar with from BLCU and Peking University. They of course try to show Chinese culture in a positive light, but they were pretty much apolitical.

Even assuming the Confucius Institutes (or whatever Chinese body is going to select the materials) decided to slip in something controversial, does he really think the College Board is just going to blindly accept it?

September 14, 2006 @ 12:21 am | Comment

@Danfried: funny post. Cornflakes. Shooting out nose.

Still, they’ve come a long way from WWI. Jonathan Spence has an anecdote in one of his books about the laborers sent by the Chinese government to Europe. The language books for the English officers in charge of the labor camps offered helpful translations for things like:
“I want you to go over there and dig,” “This tent is very dirty.” and “You are not very clean, you must take a bath every day.”

On a more contemporary note, the Chinese language boot camp known as IUP (what used to be the Stanford Center on Taiwan and is now based at Qinghua) is a rite of passage for most academics in the China field. Until a few years ago their textbooks were an art unto themselves–lots of bookish language and terminology about the feudal agrarian society. Great if you’re heading for a struggle session or meeting with the Planning Committee #3, not nearly as effective if you’re looking to chat somebody up in a pub. They started revising them in 2003 and I think they’re a bit more ‘user-friendly’ these days.

September 14, 2006 @ 1:01 am | Comment

Yeah, I had a similar “cornflakes shooting out nose” reaction, except in my case it was tempranillo.

Agree completely, Danfreid. You said what I meant, only you said it a lot funnier.

September 14, 2006 @ 1:04 am | Comment

Yeah, I saw this thing last week. Zimmerman’s a hysterical crank, and this is utter bullshit, pure and simple; if people want to rail against what Hanban is doing, there are much better reasons – like the fact that they wouldn’t know what proper pedagogy was if it shit in their mouths – than the fact that they happen to be communist. This is a great deal for schools in the States: people want their kids to learn Chinese, and the Chinese government is pouring trainloads of money into developing textbooks for them.

Even if the textbooks do contain propaganda, so what? I learned using the PCR, which is pretty dated, but have got a habit of collecting old textbooks whenever I find them. I’ve got one Beijing University textbook from 1956 that introduces the passive construction like so: “A worker was burned by molten steel. Instantly, he was sent to the hospital by his co-workers. The doctors said that he could not be saved by medicine, not even by medicine in developed, capitalist countries. But they were told by the factory Party secretary that they must think of a way. The doctors’ thinking was liberated by the Party secretary’s words.” etc.
I read that, and I read another old Beida textbook from the 1970s that’s full of dialogue like “That comrade enjoys watching Soviet movies very much.” Don’t feel myself developing any particular apologist tendencies. No urges to go and liberate Taiwan.

September 14, 2006 @ 1:22 am | Comment


I think I have one of those textbooks. Is it the yellow one?

September 14, 2006 @ 1:25 am | Comment

Yeah, the professor should take a deep breath and count to ten. Nothing to make such a fuss about.

What is it that makes members of the academic world on both sides of the Pacific be so jumpy these days? Perhaps the body fluids? Who knows. ๐Ÿ™‚

September 14, 2006 @ 1:46 am | Comment

But…but…he’s a professor…from NYU… and still you would call him a crank??

I’ll bet Brendan was one of those people who lobbied for fluoridation of our drinking water.

September 14, 2006 @ 1:46 am | Comment

The “the comrades were told by the worker, ‘Steel needs me!'” one was old and greyish-green, as I recall. Unfortunately, I left it back in the States. I did scan the chapter in question before I left, though; it’s in a PDF available at . Kind of interesting from a linguistic perspective too, as this was written before characters had been fully simplified, so it’s a kind of weird mix of 繁体 and 简体.

September 14, 2006 @ 1:49 am | Comment

No; I lobbied for mandatory implants of CIA listening devices in Ivan’s molars.

Speaking of which, where is he? It’s a lot saner quieter without him.

September 14, 2006 @ 2:06 am | Comment

I did lobby for the Fluorid. Just love the smell in the morning.

September 14, 2006 @ 2:11 am | Comment

OK, the guy seems a bit cranky, but I can’t really blame him. His take on textbooks borders on paranoia, but for those of you currently residing in the US, take a look around you and think about what the AVERAGE american knows and thinks about today’s China. They are fully blinkered by propoganda, not the CCP’s, but by the MNC’s, yes the good old multi national corporation making, or standing to make, billions and spewing shite left and right.

No, a language textbook should not be the medium for discussing human rights, but looking at the US population’s knowledge of China with a critical eye, I for one see a few problems. You take this situation of “hooray for China” and mix in some CCP made textbooks painting everything cute and cuddly for those who are the future link between the rest of the world and China and you’ve got some leverage. Those people go to china for work or study in an elite (by local standards at the least) setting and there you have it. There are some problems in China that they are working hard to solve, but the progress is amazing.

I’m just saying that I understand why the guy is a little belligerent.

September 14, 2006 @ 2:39 am | Comment

We had flouride (I think, but don’t quote me) whether we wanted it or not where I grew up in the Uk (damn waterboard!), and just look at how much better our teeth are than everyone else’s…….

However, on topic, I agree with other posters above in that beginners language courses are hardly the greatest springboard for commie brainwashing seen in our time: of course anything too overtly political will (most likely) be removed by the college authorities, and students of Chinese language will also probably be studying Chinese culture and modern history (if only out of personal interest).

The professor does indeed seem to be a little off his chump, can you imagine scores of concerned parents poring over english translations of dear Jimmy’s textbooks, a hawk eye out for any party propaganda, another watching the poor boy for signs of emerging communism? This appears to be what he’s calling for and it seems a tad surreal.

But he’s right about foreign language study. For Britons this starts at middle school or earlier and continues compulsorily until GCSE (high school) level, although unfortuneately many people take very little away from their studies, grasping only a few essentials. Most of my European friends speak fluently at least one language other than their native tongue (which, come to think about it is probably how they became my friends in the first place: “Bonjour! Je m’appele Tryfan, les temps ‘est tres bonne aujourdhui!” is hardly the basis for a firm long lasting friendship)

By the way, I wonder if the French tried that sort of thing in my Tricolour textbooks from school? Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! Down with the Monarchy!

September 14, 2006 @ 2:52 am | Comment

Compare that to Western Europe, where every high schooler is at least bilingual, if not trilingual.

I’m not arguing, Lisa. But watching the failure of English ed here — and of course a lot of that is implementation — and the fact that for many people a second language is not relevant to their lives — has caused me to rethink the automatic response that learning a second language is really a great thing and they should be required in every school. Yes, they are great, if you are planning to become one kind of person. But lots of people would benefit more from C++ or small engine repair than from French….


September 14, 2006 @ 2:55 am | Comment

Even if the textbooks do contain propaganda, so what? I l

I totally agree. I learned my mandarin from buying cheap 1960s textbooks at the Mandarin Language Center. I wish I still had them — their exhortations to retake the mainland were wonderful, and they were full of useful vocab like communist bandits and three principles of the people. LOL.


September 14, 2006 @ 2:58 am | Comment

Gee…if only there were some country of people who spoke Mandarin but weren’t under the jackboot of the PRC…a nice size of, say, 22 million or so and maybe located within cruise missile disance of southern China…

Yes, such a country would be handy. Oh well!

Anyway, as someone who is going through a university Chinese language program right now, I can say everyone in the class has no illusions towards the nature of Chinese government, and lose no opportunity to needle the PRC however possible through sentence exampes and a giant “just-try-and-prove-me-wrong-laoshi-bitch” grin

September 14, 2006 @ 3:30 am | Comment

Language itself is a form of propaganda – it is unavoidable.

It is for this reason Godfrey Reggio produces films with NO dialog.
(astounding and awesome films to say the least; please do check them out).

If you develop a program here in the US at say, Duke University, who is to say there wont be prejudice and propaganda built in?

It will just be a different sort of propaganda.

this then is a situation of “Knowing the score before going in”

It will be a matter of degree – and widely open to interpretation.

Just as it should be.

Eyes and minds that are open and AWARE will be less difficult to deceive.

How do we say “welcome to the spin zone” in Chinese?

September 14, 2006 @ 7:17 am | Comment

I can’t believe everyone is using such old texts…

Anyway, I personally believe that language learning doesn’t need to be vocational training. I think there is an intellectual benefit to learning almost ANY foreign language, regardless of whether you will have to use it for business later in life.

And Johnny — the government of Chen Shui Bian PROMOTING Mandarin and Chinese culture around the world? That’s about as likely as Bush using the Village People for a White House ball. (In case you are too young for that reference, their alternative lifestyle will condemn them to Eternal Hellfire.)

Quite frankly, if the DPP had won a majority in the Legislative Yuan, it wouldn’t surprise me if they had tried to BAN Mandarin for official purposes.

September 14, 2006 @ 7:24 am | Comment

I’m not worried about the texts as much about the teachers. My university chinese professor was a total propogandic bitch. Spouting off crap like the great leap forward didn’t happen the way we’ve heard, maybe only a few thousand died. Or the Tiananmen incident was started by the CIA. Everyday in class was like a war. I liked to piss her off by drawing a map of China without East Turkestan before she came in, that always led to a nice class discussion. The trouble is, she’s been an american citizen for 30 years. I can see very very nationalistic professors coming in, and only disrespectful students such as myself could keep them in check.

September 14, 2006 @ 8:51 am | Comment

Well, a little more than 70 million people spek french. Think about Africa…

Though I agree with the issue. With the current chinese bubble, we are in a simple market issue. Many people seem to ask for chinese courses : few can offer. Will adjust, no ?

September 14, 2006 @ 9:37 am | Comment

IUP texts kick serious butt. the best I have ever seen. Most chinese language materials are just too mind-numbing to get through….

September 14, 2006 @ 9:57 am | Comment

Michael T., that was Nausicaa with the trilingual comment – though I do agree with her and left similar sentiments.

I think we can have mandatory language AND C++ or engine repair for those who want to take a vocational direction. In fact, I’d say kids living in Southern CA would be well-served learning Spanish no matter what their employment ambitions are.

Retake the mainland indeed! Not if our program of socialist modernization proceeds according to the Five Year Plan, buddy!

September 14, 2006 @ 10:40 am | Comment

I have read a book called Ni ne C omm entaries on the c ommunist party. I know its published by the Epoch Times and I dont know who wrote it…. Some people say that the Epoch Times is not credible because it has a lot of involvment with the Falun Gong issue, but actually I see that as giving it more credibility because I see the Falun Gong issue as similar to the cultural revolution and all that the CCP stands for and against. If you look at the Falun Gong issue you can see so much of what has happened to China since the CCP. Although I am A Westerner, I consider The N ine Co mmentaries to be accurate. If anyone finds anything in that book that seems inaccurate, please discuss with me.



September 14, 2006 @ 11:12 am | Comment


I guess the falung trash has been beaten up here so many times that it worth no merit of more discussion.

September 14, 2006 @ 11:55 am | Comment

Compare that to Western Europe, where every high schooler is at least bilingual, if not trilingual.

Nonsense. That may hold true in the Netherlands and Belgium but that is about it. Your average German, Frenchman, Brit, or Spaniard not any more likely to be bilingual than most Americans. If you don’t believe it, try visiting rural Spain or central Germany and asking for directions in English. You will not get very far. Or for real grins go to England and speak Scottish English (or better, Scots) to a native of London; they will not have a clue as to what you are saying.

September 14, 2006 @ 1:50 pm | Comment

Lisa said,

“I think it’s great, and I really do wish that American high schools would require a foreign language. Even if the instruction is substandard, there’s still the possibility that a student will get something out of it, maybe a glimmer of understanding that not everyone talks – and thinks – like an American.

All of the districts in my area have a minimum foreign language requirement of two years. I agree with you that although two years won’t produce a fluent speaker, it will broaden the student’s worldview. There are few hindrances in strengthening foreign language education in the US:

1) hiring teachers – Spanish language teaching positions are usually full-time, even in small districts, since it is the language most in demand and instruction often starts in middle school. Teaching positions posted for less commonly studied languages like Chinese or Arabic are often only part-time. If a university freshman expressed interest in pursuing a career as a K-12 Chinese language teacher in the US, I would encourage them to add a second major like English or another foreign language, to make them more employable.

2) funding – during budget cuts, PE, art, music, and foreign languages, the so-called ‘electives’ are the first to get cut.

3) state and national accoutability testing – The 2001 NCLB act requires schools to test and report student achievement by socioeconomic status, race, and native/limited English proficiency. There are minimum passing percentages, and the minimum goes up every year. Even good, middle-class districts are under tremendous pressure to make sure that as many students pass as possible. US schools are too focused on these high stakes tests to spend much time and money on diversifying foreign language instruction.

September 14, 2006 @ 5:34 pm | Comment


“actually I see that as giving it more credibility because I see the Falun Gong issue as similar to the cultural revolution and all that the CCP stands for and against. If you look at the Falun Gong issue you can see so much of what has happened to China since the CCP. Although I am A Westerner, I consider The Nine Commentaries to be accurate.”

So you consider it more accurate because you find the Falun Gong “issue” to be central to understanding China, and therefore Epoch Times is more credible? What about considering it accurate because it has verifiable information?

The problem is not that the Epoch Times focuses on the Falun Gong “issue”, the problem is that the Epoch Times is made up of members of Falun Gong who make huge claims without providing any proven evidence and that have not been verified by any other source. And then there’s the fact that the number of CCP resignations they cite is based on webpages where anyone can “resign” by typing in a name. I’ve resigned already under the names “John Wayne” and “Bill the Cat”.

It seems you think its accurate because it supports what you already believe, which has nothing to do with whether or not it can be demonstrated to be fact.

September 15, 2006 @ 12:08 am | Comment

I’m with Dave, which is why you will rarely if ever see Epoch Times quoted here.

September 15, 2006 @ 12:27 am | Comment

As for Zimmerman, I’m with Danfried. This is Cold War style paranoia, and the next thing you know he’ll say anyone who thinks he’s paranoid is just another Owen Lattimore style sycophant to the Red Menace. His ominous warnings suggest that it’s either we indoctrinate our kids to villify the PRC, or they indoctrinate them to blindly love it. He doesn’t seem at all interested in teaching the kids to think critically and make up their own damn minds.

Zimmerman has written alot of other things about how the classroom should not be indoctrinating (he’s highly critical of DARE and abstinence programs for their claims to “open discussion”), but the fascism comparison is both a bad analogy and poorly timed, since the word is far overused in the current atmosphere. Curriculum planning always require selection and omission. You can endlessly criticize curriculums for political bias. For example, the College Board program is using simplified Chinese – much to the chagrin of Chinese Americans, many of whom are traditional character users (that article quotes Tian from Hanzi Smatter, BTW). Right there, there are political implications – simply the number of friggin’ strokes you use.

And never mind that maybe to actually talk to most Chinese people, you have to be exposed to the beliefs and concepts that they are inundated with.

In the end, Zimmerman goes after the wrong problem. Michael Turton has a good point – there’s alot of crappy second language training in the world (Taiwan and the Mainland aren’t the only ones). The curriculum will always be missing something or address something poorly. It will never be perfect. Zimmerman ought to have called on schools to hire good teachers who can openly discuss Chinese culture with American students in English, instead of calling on parents to go Woodward and Bernstein on the textbooks. The teachers, at the end of the day, make the classroom open or closed. Anybody who has taught English in China knows that.

September 15, 2006 @ 1:02 am | Comment

Finally, I add that the College Board is bureaucratic monopoly and for that reason I expect the program to go through a endless stream of revisions and criticisms, not unlike those made about it’s World History program. Every curriculum has failings, AP curriculums doubly so due to size, inefficiencies, and a business model based on quantifying examination performance rather than encouraging critical thinking.

September 15, 2006 @ 1:12 am | Comment


Do you really think its appropriate to call the Falun Gong trash? Its like the holocaust and all the propaganda would want you to call the Jews trash so that everyone would support the persecution, why in the world would you want to support that persecution by calling a whole group of people trash? Its really cruel


Yes I also see those problem with Epochtimes. They seem to not really foolow the journalistic standars. So far though, just on the nine c omm entaries thing, no one has been able to tell me anything unaccurate there. And the quitting CCP, well maybe its not the perfect way but at least they are doing something about the problem, I really dont want the CCP to exist anymore in China so even if their methods are a little loose, I still think they are trying to help the situation in China, maybe you can write to them and tell them about the problems youve encountered with their system or something…

September 17, 2006 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

You could always start your Mandarin Chinese learning online at which has a simple self-paced interface for learning simple vocabulary and pronunciations. No hidden politics or propaganda there! Thanks. – C-Bob.

October 10, 2006 @ 2:11 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.