CHINA’S FIRST ESL TEACHER

With the Chinese name Ding Weiliang, William Alexander Parsons Martin (1827-1916) was a significant figure in the last years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Born in a Presbyterian family in Indiana, Martin made his mind to study theology and came to China as a missionary in the 1850s. Because of cultural and linguistic obstacles in spreading Christianity, he started to learn Chinese and read through Chinese classics such as ShangshuThe AnalectsBook of Changes, and Book of Songs, and thus became an old China hand.

I became an economic refugee to China just before the fall of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. I responded to a “Teach ESL in China” posting on Craig’s List and shortly thereafter I was confronted with 900 seventh graders in 21 batches of 45-60 students each week at Zhengzhou Foreign Language Middle School. My whole intellectual edifice regarding Mainland China revolved around Hop Sing in Bonanza reruns, until I read Jung Chang’s first two books, Mao and Wild Swan.

By 2015, I was no longer dependent on teaching English as a Second Language for my daily bread and chose economic migrant status in Antalya, Turkey.

Tucked away in our shipment of forty boxes from China was a paperback version of Jung Chang’s third book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. After polishing off two biographies of Ataturk and 900 pages of the Ottoman Empire, I opened the Empress Dowager Cixi to discover the history of teaching ESL in China.

Dr. Martin arriving  in NYC in full siege costume. Passport control  was more lenient with open carry regulations circa 1900.

Due to his deep and broad knowledge of Chinese culture, Dr. Martin was recommended in 1865 by Anson Burlingame (Pu Anchen), the American diplomatic minister to China, and Thomas F. Wade (Wei Tuoma), the British diplomat, as the third president (Zongjiaoxi) of Jingshi Tongwenguan (Tungwen College, or the School of Combined Learning), the first government school for teaching Western languages in late Qing Dynasty.

Jung Chang makes history informative, insightful, intriguing and easily digestible, much like Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Of course, I doubt without my ESL experience, I  would ever have touched Mao, Wild Swan and Cixi with a ten foot reading glass past my Hop Sing view of the world. tegory66@gmail.com