This month, as you may have already read in other recent blog posts, Shanghai is having a Literary Festival from the 14th to the 27th. So in honor of this festival, I have decided to write a post talking about my favorite book, which just so happens to be all about China (and The United States). The book is titled The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom by John Pomfret, and it documents the centuries long relationship between my country of birth, The United States, and my country of current residence, China. I say “centuries long relationship” because the book opens with a detailed account of the very first voyage of the very first ship to leave an American port and land in China, a journey that took place before America was even an independent country!
Some of you may be rolling your eyes at this point, or you may be completely checked out, but I promise the book is worth a read, not least because it provides historical context for EF English First and modern English teaching in China more generally. The true value of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, aside from the obvious knowledge it imparts on the reader, is how it makes plain the role Americans have played in Chinese education for the two centuries leading up to our present moment. Speaking specifically as an English teacher, I found it fascinating to learn how some of the very first English teachers in China were Christian missionaries spread around southern China near Hong Kong. Pomfret talks mainly about the religious implications of this fact, but I find the educational implications much more relevant since missionaries went on to found private schools and educational institutions of all kinds in China. English speakers even had a role in establishing some of China's most prestigious universities, like Peking University.
Speaking of universities, Pomfret also does a beautiful job detailing the journeys taken by the first know Chinese students to study at American universities across the country. More students than I would have thought made their way from Imperial, Qing Dynasty China to schools across America. From wintery stints at New England theological colleges, to warmer stretches at early Hawaiian universities, Chinese students have been a part of American higher education for at least a century. This history, which I have so casually (and regretfully) abridged for this blog post, gives additional context for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who matriculate across U.S. colleges and universities every year. This history also helps me understand some of the reasons why so many Chinese students want to learn English, since a long history of education abroad has influenced them along with a rich history of educational exchange with America.
These themes of education as a key tie between China and The U.S. become obvious as you read Pomfret's book. If you'd like to know more, Pomfret has done us all a favor by having written such a richly sourced text. Footnotes abound throughout his book, each giving additional details about key points, and a long bibliography provides amble opportunities for additional reading should you desire it. I am ashamed to admit I never took advantage of the copious citations offered in The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, but they are there if you are interested in some personal enrichment. That said, the narrative on display and the expert way Pomfret plucks historical themes from the mists of time mean you may not need additional reading after finishing The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom. What will you find teaching English in China?