The controversy surrounding English and the teaching of the language in China dates back to the late Qing dynasty, when the British, American and other trading empires sought access to Chinese markets and Christian missionaries access to Chinese souls. China's strategy to mitigate undesirable cultural transfer through selective assimilation has been in place since the mid-nineteenth century. It is akin to a sluice gate. At times, the gate has only allowed very limited contact with English, at others the inflow has been freer. In the former cases, English has not been ascribed a significant role in state policy; in the latter cases, the language has been promoted, most notably in education — in the curriculum of schools, colleges and universities.
The reason for these shifts lay in a change in the relations between China and the rest of the world, which have affected the role and status of English (Table 2.1, see p. 22). Before the mid-nineteenth century, these relations had been low key, with the main focus on trade and most crises being territorial. China had traded with the Roman Empire. She had been occupied by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and intermittently threatened by Russian expansion, but threats to Chinese cultural and territorial integrity had generally been negated — the Mongols, for instance, appeared to adapt Chinese ways rather than impose their own cultural norms (Mackerras, 1991). Foreign language learning had existed in imperial China since at least 1289, during the Yuan dynasty, when languages were learnt by aristocrats to enhance commercial and tributary relations with countries in Southeast Asia (Gu, 1996). Some Western missionaries, most notably Jesuit priests such as Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest, established themselves as scholars in the Imperial service in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but their technique for gaining acceptance was generally nonthreatening: they learnt spoken and written Chinese, adopted Chinese manners and contributed Western learning (most notably in science and mathematics) at the behest of the emperor.