China’s Fluctuating English Education Policy Discourses and Continuing Ambivalences in Identity Construction

  • Yihong GAO
Part of the Multilingual Education book series (MULT, volume 24)


Foreign language education policies constitute an important aspect of China’s reconstruction of its linguistic and cultural identities in an increasingly globalized world. China’s English language education policies in the past three decades have undergone fluctuations, which can be roughly categorized into the following stages: (1) the opening up of English education from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, and related to this, the euphoria for learning English. (2) The speeding up of English education from the mid-1990s to the first decade of the new millennium, and related to this, the anxiety regarding “too much time and too little effect.” (3) The slowing down or losing direction as shown in a recent debate over a proposed English education policy reform from 2013 to 2014. Related to this is the fear that English education will have a negative effect on Chinese language proficiency and cultural identity. These changes have been reflected in and constructed by policy related discourses, including those of the national policy makers, education institutions and experts, and ordinary learners and netizens. The above policy and attitudinal fluctuations over 30 years can be contextualized and interpreted as being emblematic of issues in China’s history over the last 150 years. An ambivalent psychological complex towards self and “the West” is revealed, situated in China’s semi-colonial and semi-feudal history, beginning with the Opium Wars in 1840, when China faced foreign invasions and was forced to open its markets and partially give up sovereignty. It was in that context that the ambivalence was developed, i.e., the strong desire for the English language through which new technologies can be learned to strengthen the nation, and the fear that this foreign language will threaten Chinese identity. A brief historical analysis shows that the status of English in China has been fluctuating for the past 150 years. Such ambivalences and fluctuations have become a “habitus” (Bourdieu, P. Language and symbolic power. (J. B. Thompson Ed.; G. Raymond & M. Adamson Trans.). Cambridge: CUP, 1991), i.e., durable “structuring structures” of the collective mind. English has become a screen with two sides: on one side is projected the Chinese dream of becoming strong; and on the other side is projected the nightmare of losing national identity. This self-perpetuating ambivalence helps to explain the fluctuations of China’s English language education policies. In the context of increased globalization, when English is becoming a de-territorialized resource, the habitual defense mechanism is no longer effective, and it may well hinder national and individual development. The durable yet not eternal habitus can be transformed, and alternative strategies are to be conceived. Instead of a screen, English can be taken as a mirror, from which we can perceive our complex needs, desires, and emotions. With a clear self-perception, we can probably be free from compulsory policy and mood swings, feel more confident about our native cultural identity, and be ready to take on the identity of a “dialogical communicator” (Gao, Lang Intercult Commun 14(1):1–17, 2014) in intercultural communication.



This chapter is based on an earlier paper in Chinese, “A Mirror for Reflection vs. a Screen for Projection” (投射之 “屏幕”与反观之“镜子”), Foreign Language Learning Theory and Practice (《外语教学理论与实践》) 149:1-7. Efforts are made to update the data and further the discussion. The author would like to thank Professor Roland Sussex and Professor Andy Curtis for their helpful comments, suggestions and editing work during the revision of this paper.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, School of Foreign LanguagesPeking UniversityBeijingPeople’s Republic of China

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