History of Chinese language education and the development of textbooks in the United States.

Author:Li, Ying


Chinese teaching and learning in the United States has a long history. The first Chinese heritage language school was established in San Francisco in 1886. (1) Since then, Chinese language education in the United States experienced a rough and winding road. The effort of Chinese immigrants and the Chinese community is the biggest power to facilitate Chinese education in the United States. Thus the development of Chinese education in the United States has a closed-tie relationship with the development of the Chinese community and Chinese American history. (2)

Chinese immigration to the United States consisted of three major waves, with the first taking place in the nineteenth century. At the time of the Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants worked as laborers and farmers. The initial wave of Chinese immigrants that arrived in San Francisco were from Canton. (3) While being forced to live in segregated neighborhoods with few resources, these immigrants attempted to maintain and promote their language, and the curriculum consisted of a highly traditional teaching of Chinese classics written in traditional Chinese characters. Cantonese was the only dialect of instruction. (4)


By 1852 the number of Chinese immigrants had increased to more than 20,000. Most of them stayed in Chinatown in San Francisco. Many started new businesses, such as restaurants, laundry stores, and Chinese art stores. Meanwhile, the first Chinese newspaper, Gold Hills News (>), was published in 1854. (5) These ambitions indicated that the Chinese immigrants were here to stay and were serious about preserving their language and traditions. Nevertheless, the community's rapid growth also meant enduring discrimination and exclusion from other ethnic communities as well as by the U.S. government. In 1882 the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration from China for ten years. It was then extended by the Geary Act in 1892. Meanwhile, in 1884 Great Qing School ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), considered to be the first Chinese heritage school in the United States, was established by local Chinese community leaders. In 1905 a Qing official toured the United States and sponsored the transformation of the old scholar system to a new form of school system. (6) The school was then renamed Great Qing Overseas Citizens Public Elementary School ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). From there, the Qing government supported many more schools. By the end of the 1920s, there were over fifty Chinese language schools on the West Coast. (7) The purpose of these schools was to promote Chinese education abroad for its citizens, to reinforce sentiments of patriotism toward China, and to ensure a smooth transition when they returned to China.



These Chinese heritage schools used the traditional Chinese way to teach Chinese. The textbooks they used were The Four Books and The Five Classics ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (8) The content in these textbooks focused on students' reading and writing skills instead of listening and speaking skills. One of their purposes was to maintain the traditional Chinese language and culture in the community.

During the same time, a large number of missionaries were sent to China, particularly for religious and business activities. (9) The expansion of business and religion emphasized the importance of Chinese language. Samuel Wells Williams, who helped Yale University build the first Oriental Library and open Chinese courses and a study center, stated:

It is to be hoped that the study of Chinese will receive more attention than it has done.... The merchant and the traveler, as well as the philologist and missionary, should attend to it, if their pursuits call them to that country; and we hazard little in saying, that had this been done, most of the ill-will between foreigners and natives, and many of the troubles which have jeopardy life and property at Canton, would have been avoided; and threat the contempt which the people feel for their visitors, and the restricted intercourse which has been carried on for the past century, have been mainly owing to an ignorance of the Chinese language. (10) The frequent communication between Qing society and the United States encouraged the establishment of Chinese study programs in other American universities. Yale first opened their Chinese language seminar in 1876. By 1914 Chinese seminars had been launched at Harvard University, Columbia University, Clark University, University of Wisconsin, University of California, and University of Washington. (11) Sixty Chinese courses in these universities were opened in 1930.12 Many of the courses were taught by the missionar ies and scholars who had rich experience in China. The textbooks they used were the traditional Chinese classics. However, there were few qualified Chinese language teachers, so very few students could use the Chinese language. (13)


During World War II, the United States and China became allies. The social and political situation for Chinese Americans and immigrants began to improve gradually, but their new generation's interest in learning Chinese declined because of influences from the mainstream, such as the Americanization movement, English-only movements, and so forth. The younger generation and their families had been assimilated into the mainstream and English had become their first language after over fifty years of the Chinese Exclusion Act. (14) However, Chinese language education experienced a transition at this moment. During the Pacific War, based on the diplomatic and military needs, it was vital that the United States be able to communicate with and understand the Far East. Hence, the U.S. government developed East Asian culture and language training programs for military personnel who would serve in that area. The programs were very short, usually from 6 weeks to 9 months. They helped many Americans learn Chinese language and culture. This encouraged the development of a new Chinese pedagogy and curriculum. The Chinese language was no longer the difficult language in their ideology. This encouraged many to want to learn Chinese. After the war, the number of students who chose to enroll in Chinese courses increased dramatically. (15)

In 1943 Chinese immigration to the United States was permitted again after sixty years when the Magnuson Act, known as the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act, was proposed. However, because this act limited Chinese immigrants to 105 visas per year, large-scale Chinese immigration (the second wave) did not occur until 1965 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

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