Tuesday, April 29, 2008

China's Elvis of English

In a recent article, the New Yorker reports on cult figure Li Yang whose "Crazy English" -- a bizarre blend of ideology and slick marketing scheme -- has set itself loose upon China in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.

Evan Osnos writes: "China intends to teach itself as much English as possible by the time the guests arrive, and Li has been brought in by the Beijing Organizing Committee to make that happen. He is China’s Elvis of English, perhaps the world’s only language teacher known to bring students to tears of excitement. He has built an empire out of his country’s deepening devotion to a language it once derided as the tongue of barbarians and capitalists. His philosophy, captured by one of his many slogans, is flamboyantly patriotic: “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!”"

Li's idea of English is a strange one, to say the least, inextricably linked to ideology; the implication is that with the power of English you can gain prowess in the workplace, attract a trophy mate, and excel in all kinds of ways. These tantalizing promises have their appeal, of course. Osnos writes that "Li’s cosmology ties the ability to speak English to personal strength, and personal strength to national power. It’s a combination that produces intense, sometimes desperate adoration." Thousands flock to his sessions and, according to publisher's statistics, millions of his books and audio products have sold.

Unsurprisingly, Li's pedagogical methods are unconventional at best and bolster this myth of English as a uniquely powerful tool. His 'Crazy English' involved yelling. (Osnos provides the example of doctors brushing up on their English for the Olympic Games shouting after Li: "I! Would! Like! To! Take! Your! Tem! Per! Ture!" to what Osnos images would be the consternation of their patients.)

The fees Li charges for arena-filled sessions and private group meetings are extortionate and all his commercial efforts reveal the work of a savvy marketeer and demagogue. As Osnos writes, "Li’s name adorns more than a hundred books, videos, audio boxed sets, and software packages, such as the “Li Yang Crazy English Blurt Out MP3 Collection,” which sells for sixty-six yuan—a little more than nine dollars—and his motivational memoir, which costs twenty yuan." Osnos playfully adds that the original title of Li's memoir, I Am Crazy, I Succeed "used a word that implied “I Am Psychotic, I Succeed,” but the publishing house rejected it."

No comments: