China’s English: Lessons for Asian literacy in Europe

Robert Damian ADAMSON

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


European countries are becoming increasingly aware of the complexity of social, economic and political engagement with Asian countries, and of the need to enhance Asian literacy in the populace. Moves in this direction have proven controversial as literacy can be viewed in terms of potentially hegemonic cultural capital (Kell & Kell, 2014), embracing connotations that go beyond language competence to “a plural notion [linked with] citizenship, cultural identity, socio-economic development, human rights and equity…” (UNESCO, 2004, p.10). This paper seeks insights into possible ways forward by looking at approaches adopted in Asia towards Western literacy. In particular, it focuses on one of the major Asian countries, China, and on how that country has handled the question of the English language—an important component of Western literacy. Fears over cultural hegemony have coloured debates concerning the role and status of English in China since the first contacts with speakers of the language. Policies were first instigated by the Imperial Government in the 18th century, to handle the vexed question of interacting with Western nations armed with gunboats and superior technology. Further contact ensued with traders, diplomats, missionaries, teachers, athletes, writers, artists, tourists and dilettantes, among other guises. Within China, Westerners were sometimes portrayed as barbarians who threatened the cultural integrity of the Chinese nation and whose new world order was based on very different principles from those of harmonious and benevolent governance that underpinned the imperial system (Adamson, 2002). To contain the barbarians and to regain a key position in world affairs, China has had to accommodate English within its education system as well as aspects of its legal, commercial and social interactions (Gil & Adamson, 2011). Using documentary analysis and interviews with key informants, this paper explores two aspects of China’s relationship with the English language: why the nation has invested in developing competence in the language and how it has gone about the task in order to identify lessons from China’s experiences that might be usefully applied in European contexts. It concludes that China has sought to integrate Western literacy with national political and economic goals, while using a process of synthesis in an effort to avoid cultural hegemony.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016


Adamson, B. (2016, June). China’s English: Lessons for Asian literacy in Europe. Paper presented at The XXVII Comparative Education Society in Europe 2016 conference (CESE 2016): Equity in and through education: Changing contexts, consequences, and contestations, University of Glasgow, Scotland.


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