In 1983, I took up a teaching post in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Soon after my arrival, I was being shown around the city by one of my students, Mr Liu, and we chatted about his school days. They had been disrupted by the Cultural Revolution, a period of massive social and political upheaval, and at that time, Mr Liu told me, he had joined the local Red Guards, the juvenile revolutionaries, and participated in various activities. He took me to see his former secondary school, where he indicated a third-storey window in the teachers' dormitories. That, he said, was the window from which the Red Guards had pushed their English Language teacher to his death. 'Why?' I asked. Mr Liu shrugged, 'Because he taught English.' This was my first intimation of the historically controversial, even deadly, status of English in China.
This revelation was subsequently reinforced by colleagues in Taiyuan and educators from around the country, many of whom had suffered during the Cultural Revolution. One recalled how he was accused of being an imperialist spy, simply because of his competence in English. Another recalled hearing her neighbour being beaten to death by the Red Guards for refusing to burn his treasured stamp collection that included British and Australian stamps.
Several months after my tour with Mr Liu, I was crossing the college grounds after class when I met a little boy, aged about six, who lived in a neighbouring courtyard. He greeted me with a cheerful 'Hello!' and proceeded to chat for a while in Chinese. I was surprised when he suddenly asked, 'Are foreigners good people?' Not having the linguistic resources to cope with this question in detail, I replied, 'Most are good — and we're good friends, aren't we?' He paused for thought and then said, 'Yes … but why did you start the Opium War?' This was another forceful reminder that China has had a troubled relationship with English speakers: at different times in history,