Monday, January 16, 2012

Flashback – Zhang Yuan’s "Crazy English"

Li Yang, China's most infamous English teacher, works the crowd in Zhang Yuan's 1999 documentary Crazy English.

Flashback posts look back over older titles in Chinese cinema.

Like an airforce plane coming in on a bombing run, the scream of jets builds over the opening credits until Li Yang explodes onto screen. “Crazy English! Crazy Life! Crazy Work! Crazy study! Be crazy every minute! Everywhere! I love this crazy game!”

Welcome to the crazy world of Li Yang, China’s most famous English teacher, captured at the early peak of his fame in Zhang Yuan’s 1999 documentary Crazy English (Fengkuang yingyu).

Like many directors of the so-called “sixth generation,” Zhang’s work has moved between factual and dramatic filmmaking, especially in the first decade of his career. In 1994 he made the famed documentary The Square with Duan Jinchuan, while his early features Beijing Bastards (1993) and Mama (1994) blended drama and documentary in ways that have since been taken up and explored further by Jia Zhangke.

Zhang’s filmmaking since the 1990s has unfortunately taken a more conventional dramatic path, and Crazy English was his last documentary to date. It was also the first of Zhang’s films passed for release in mainland China, smoothing the way for the director’s acceptance into the mainstream film industry. Zhang was apparently required to make cuts to get the film passed, although I don’t know what the nature of the changes were. Never having seen the film before, I was delighted to stumble upon Crazy English recently on Youku (the Chinese equivalent of Youtube).

Watching Crazy English 13 years after its release is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there’s the thrill of watching documentary images from the recent past and comparing the sights and sounds of the 1990s with today’s China. In any other nation 13 years would be merely a blip, but given China’s rate of change it’s like an eon. The most obvious visual difference for me was people’s standard of dress. The crowds in Zhang’s film look noticeably shabbier than the average city dweller of contemporary times. English is also spoken a good deal more now in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai – a shift Li Yang may well claim to have played a part in.

For all the surface changes, many things in China of course remain the same, and perhaps one of the most surprising continuities is the enduring nature of the Crazy English phenomenon. I say surprising because “Crazy English” teaching seems so transparently gimmicky and Li himself seems like such a frankly dubious character.

So who is Li Yang? If you believe his own publicity, he was once a shy, mediocre student struggling with English and every other academic subject. Then he started shouting English words out loud and his world was transformed. Eventually he started taking his “teaching” methods on the road, addressing vast rallies of thousands with a mixture of nationalistic and ultra-capitalistic rhetoric stirred with healthy doses of racism. Between his pronouncements he has the crowds yell inane English phrases like, “I like it!”, “He is a bad man!” and “Never let your country down!” at the top of their voices. This, apparently, helps them learn English. Since the late 1990s, Crazy English has snowballed into a multi-million dollar nationwide mini-industry, complete with books, tapes, magazines and constant touring by Li.

PLA troops partaking in a Crazy English rally atop the Great Wall in Zhang Yuan's Crazy English.
Zhang Yuan was remarkably prescient in capturing the Crazy English phenomenon as its first wave of popularity was breaking across China at the end of the 1990s. The first 40 minutes of the film comprises clips from Crazy English rallies, often held in famous locations like the Forbidden City, atop the Great Wall, and the hall of Qinghua University (Qinghua is akin to Oxford or Cambridge in terms of reputation in China).

Li is the classic motivational speaker, playing with his audience’s insecurities and prejudices to cut them down, and then build them up again by generating mass euphoria. He makes fun of the way Japanese people sound when they speak English, and tells the crowd they can learn English better than any foreigner could ever learn Chinese. As is so often the case in China, when Li talks about “foreigners” and “the West,” he really means the United States, and the English he teaches has a distinctly American twang. Other nations, or other forms of English, barely register in the nationalist worldview.

Li even employs an elderly American fall guy at many rallies, on hand to speak a few Chinese phrases in an excruciatingly bad accent so that everyone can have a good laugh at the laowai. Meanwhile, I’m sure the laowai was laughing all the way to the bank.

Li encourages his listeners to learn English so they can attain riches, status and power – rhetoric that chimes nicely with the contemporary pro-market ideology of China’s ruling party. Li was even hired by the authorities to help teach Beijingers English in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Zhang intercuts footage from Li’s rallies with media interviews in which Li constantly repeats the same pat clichés, quoting the “Intel CEO” (apparently Intel equals big U.S. company, which equals money, power and world domination) and name-checking other “crazy” people like Nelson Mandela. I wonder what the former ANC leader would make of Li’s blatant racism?

The most fascinating moment in Crazy English comes around half way through the film, when a journalist from the U.S. magazine Time interviews Li. The journalist chats in fluent Mandarin – luckily there are no students on hand to witness that – while Li mostly speaks English. It’s the first time we hear Li converse in English – as opposed to yelling simplistic phrases – and it becomes clear that his English is, to put it bluntly, not that great. He makes numerous mistakes, telling the journalist he is “a crazy people” who teaches Chinese people “proudness.”

Don’t get me wrong – Li’s English is a million times better than my Mandarin and I’m the last person to criticise anyone’s ability to speak a second language. Hats off to anyone who can even make themselves understood in a language other than their mother tongue. Li, however, holds himself up as a fluent English speaker and repeatedly claims he was earning RMB 3-4,000 an hour (!) acting as a translator for foreign companies in Guangzhou before he launched his Crazy English concern. I’m not sure what that equated to in 1999, but in today’s money that’s between AU$460-615 an hour, or US$470-630. Even today that would be an incredibly high hourly rate – in the China of the 1990s it would have been an astronomical sum. Given his performance in the Time interview, I find it very hard to believe any foreign executive was handing out that kind of cash for Li’s translations.

Another day, another rally in Zhang Yuan's Crazy English.
Zhang Yuan’s film essentially shows that many Chinese people – like many people the world over – will pay almost any amount of money to be told what they want to hear. Li’s spiel perfectly captures the strange mix of inferiority and superiority, disparagement and envy, with which many Chinese people regard the outside world. He tells young Chinese people they can not only be like Americans – they can be better, richer and more powerful than people in the U.S. Even better, they can squash Japan while they do it.

The chanting in unison and endless yelling appears to create a powerful sense of euphoria and confidence for many at the Crazy English rallies, uncomfortably evoking scenes engendered by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, or even Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. Chinese commentators have often made similar observations. According to The New Yorker, maverick Chinese novelist Wang Shuo once wrote of Li Yang,

“I have seen this kind of agitation. It’s a kind of old witchcraft: Summon a big crowd of people, get them excited with words, and create a sense of power strong enough to topple mountains and overturn the seas… I believe that Li Yang loves the country. But act this way and your patriotism, I fear, will become the same shit as racism.”

In addition to the dubious psychology of Li’s approach, one wonders how useful totally disconnected phrases such as “I like it” and “You are a bad man” prove to be when rally attendees are confronted with English speakers in real life – assuming participants retain anything from their time in Li’s presence.

Li Yang was reportedly critical of Zhang’s film after its release, dismissing it with typically clichéd nationalist logic. “The movie was stupid,” Li was quoted as saying by the online publication China.org. “It was not a real documentary because its intention was to please a Western audience.”

Still, Li is right to the extent that Zhang’s film is not without its faults. The documentary is superficial in that it makes no attempt to probe its key subject, instead focusing entirely on Li’s public persona. Most of the film is taken up with clips from rallies, which quickly become very repetitive. The only quieter moments we glimpse are the media interviews and some scenes of Li lecturing his company staff. We see no interludes of Li socializing, no private moments, and no interactions with the documentary crew in which Li expresses his feelings or views.

On the other hand, delving into Li’s private life may have revealed an even more unsavoury character. In September last year Li’s American wife publicly accused her husband of beating her up – in the presence of their three daughters no less. A week later Li admitted to inflicting domestic violence on his spouse. His public apology was tempered by a statement to China Daily on September 13, “I hit her sometimes but I never thought she would make it public since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders.” The couple have since filed for divorce.

Perhaps Li should be grateful that Zhang’s film didn’t dig deeper.

Zhang Yuan’s Crazy English, complete with English subtitles, can be viewed on Youku here.

You can read more about Li Yang and his Crazy English in this New Yorker profile from 2008.

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