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English Corner: China’s Free Speech Zone

Renmin University English Corner

中文

Every Friday evening, several hundred Chinese people congregate at a circular meeting area near the east gate of prestigious Renmin University in Beijing. They stand in pairs, gather in large clusters, or just mill around. They are here for a variety of personal and educational reasons, all of which involve speaking and listening in English to each other. Welcome to English Corner.

Hundreds of English Corners can be found across China, and the Renmin University gathering is by far the largest and most influential. The event draws a diverse crowd, with attendees ranging in age from five to over seventy, the majority appearing to be college students or in their twenties. The event is host to patriots, dissidents, scholars, students, and casual observers. In their own words, they have come to practice their “oral English”. The social energy is palpable.

English Corner may be the most liberated institution in Mainland China. There are no leaders, no organizational structure, no agenda, no charge for entry, and rules are few. It is everything that a traditional Chinese classroom is not. A pair of signposts erected by the university display the following in Chinese and English:

“Please keep your voice levels down.

Please maintain a clean environment.

No religious activities allowed.”

(Continued)

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Fare Game: A Taxi Driver Speaks

中文

Zhang Jie Yu 张建宇 is a 43 year old taxi driver from Beijing who has worked as a driver his whole adult life, having been interested in cars since he was a child. Here is his life on the road:

What is your solution to heavy traffic in Beijing?

All drivers need to calm down, stay in their traffic lanes, and obey traffic rules. If all drivers followed the rules, the traffic wouldn’t be so bad.

Who owns the taxi that you drive?

It belongs to a taxi company that I lease the car from. Every month, I must pay the company 6,500 RMB ($1,060). I also have to pay for fuel and maintenance, so the total cost is about 12,000 RMB ($1,960) per month.

Do you mind if I ask how much you earn each month?

My net income is between 3,000 and 5,000 RMB ($490-$815) per month.

Do you receive tips?

Sometimes, foreign passengers will tip me 5 RMB for good service and because I know a little English. The biggest tip I have received is 10 RMB ($1.60).

What happens to phones that are left in your taxi?

One night eight years ago, four phones from four different passengers were left in my taxi in one night. I called each passenger back and returned their phones. Some of them paid the cab fare for me to return their phone, while some did not. Nobody has left their phone in my taxi since.

(Continued)

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A World to Teach

Lu Kong is a 24 year old Chinese teacher who teaches Chinese in India. While at university, she studied how to teach Chinese as a foreign language and has been working in Mumbai, India’s largest city, for the last six months. She previously taught Chinese in Bali, Indonesia. Passionate about travel and cultural exchange, she represents a new generation of educated Chinese youths who seek to explore and make their mark abroad.

How did you find your job?

I joined an organization that operates Chinese culture/language programs for overseas Chinese communities. They send teachers to provide Mandarin Chinese lessons to local Chinese children. First, I spent a year teaching Chinese to Indonesian Chinese children in Bali, then I moved to India. Now I work for an institute that promotes cross cultural exchange, including language programs.

What made you move to India?

While in university in 2010, I spent a month in northern India, visiting historical sites and trying new things. I found the country to be really interesting. India is a country that is charming to travelers and it’s near to China.  Also, it was not a problem for me to get an Indian visa, as a Chinese citizen. I saw all these different people and lifestyles in India, which were completely different than those in China.

Who do you teach in India?

I work with various age groups. They are mostly beginners. Some of the children are as young as five, some are teenagers and some are adults. Some of the adult students work at Indian companies and are interested in learning Chinese in order to do business with China.

Do your students have a specific interest in China beyond economic gain?

(Continued)

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He’s Making a Fortune: The Tale of a Teller

Fortune teller Mr. Li at work

中文

Li Jiu Ming is a 58 year old fortune teller who runs his business from his small home in a traditional Beijing hútòng 胡同 near the Yong He Lama Temple, a notable Buddhist monastery. Mr. Li is an expert in Zhou Yi divination 周易, a traditional Chinese method for predicting future events using ancient texts. He agreed to read my fortune and provide an interview regarding his profession.

Prior to reading my fortune, Mr. Li asked me to shake three divination coins in my fist while thinking about what I wished to ask him. The coins were thrown down six times in this fashion, with Mr. Li methodically noting the arrangement of the coins following each throw.

“That’s a good one”, he remarked, upon noticing the coin combination from my final throw. The combination represented the metamorphosis from a fish into a dragon. The dragon will then move into its rightful position, resulting in my every wish coming true. He looked into my past and saw an unsuccessful career. Starting from next year, he claimed, my luck will improve, and I will have a brilliant career in politics or finance. He correctly stated that I haven’t married yet. Had I married early, he said, it would have ended in divorce. He predicted that I will marry in 2013, though my first marriage will end in divorce. This will be followed by a second, more successful, marriage.

(Continued)

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The Library Lady

Mao Ju is the founder of the Caochangdi Free Library in northeast Beijing, which was established in October 2010. She now has 130 young students and volunteers, ranging between the ages of one to fourteen. Day to day administration of library affairs is handled by her volunteers and the library also functions as an English and arts training center, with numerous foreign volunteers participating in cultural exchange activities. Her volunteers also teach English to other children and even teach Chinese to local foreign artists. The library occupies a small room in the center of Caochangdi Village, a growing arts community on the periphery of the city. Here is her story.

Your library is titled the Caochangdi “Free” Library. Aren’t most libraries free?

In China, not all public libraries are free. Our library is completely free, which most parents can’t understand. The National Library is free, but it is far away. Many communities do not have libraries.

What did you do before opening the library?

I studied Graphic Design in university and then came to Beijing and worked as a translator for an art gallery in the 798 Art District. In 2009, while I was in Europe, I got a chance to work with some German performance artists. These artists copied the Chinese artists who copied European paintings. They wanted to say that copying works of art is a form of performance art in itself. I felt impressed when I worked with them. They inspired me to lead an interesting life. I also volunteered at an NGO (non government organization), where I taught art and Chinese culture to children.

What led you to pursue a lifestyle that focuses on helping others?

(Continued)

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In China He Trusts: Jon Zatkin

Jon Zatkin was an American citizen who lived in Beijing, China, for over 25 years. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he was a full time actor and musician and played foreign characters in over 40 Chinese television series and films. He passed away shortly after giving this interview, in which he described his remarkable story and how his interest in China changed his life. The complete recording of his interview is available here.

What is your Chinese name?

(Xu You Min). It means “friend of all people”.

Could you tell me about the origins of your move to China?

(Continued)

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The Anti Artist

Yu Jing is the 26 year old Artistic Director for Egg Gallery in Caochangdi Village, Beijing. In addition to his gallery duties, he produces his own iconoclastic artwork, employing an eclectic variety of media to showcase his flippancy toward artistic and societal establishments.

A sampling of his works and related comments follow, along with an interview.

The rules to Yu Jing's game of hide and seek

Performance art

Game of hide and seek

Artist comment: I created an activity modeled after a children’s game which involves chasing and finding other players. For this activity, I created an agreement which stated the terms of the chase – one person would attempt to escape from the other, who would follow in pursuit. If the pursuer still had the other in their sight after one hour, the pursuer would be awarded 100 RMB ($15).

(Continued)

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Step Into My Kitchen: A Talk With A Sichuan Chef

 

Chef Su Yong 苏勇 at his restaurant San Yang Cai 三样菜 in Beijing

中文

Su Yong 苏 勇 is a 32 year old chef from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China.  He has been featured on several television cooking shows, has 2,000 followers on Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) and recently opened a new Sichuan restaurant in Beijing. Sichuan cuisine is notable for its use of mouth numbing spices and is quite popular within China and abroad. Here are his thoughts on cooking, cuisine and Sichuan women.

When you were a child, what did you like to eat most?

Liang ban ji 凉拌鸡. It’s a cold dish, with boiled chicken and peppers in vinegar. I ate this frequently as a child. It was the first dish I ever prepared by myself – when I cooked it for my father, he said it was better than his own.

How did you become a chef? 

(Continued)

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A Portrait of a Filmmaker as a Young Man

Guanqiao Fan is a 22 year old film student at Beijing Film Academy. He is currently in the process of editing his fourth short film 南方 (The South), which he wrote, directed and starred in. The film explores a love triangle in a coastal Chinese town set against the rising tide of materialism.

We sat down with him in his dorm room to learn about his interest in film and what he hopes to accomplish. The trailer for his short film can be found at the end of this article, which also includes a number of stills from the film.

Film student Guanqiao Fan in his dorm room

Tell me about your childhood. 

I was born in a small fishing village near Zhuhai, in Guangdong province. The village I am from has only one street and is surrounded by two big mountains. I had an idyllic childhood – no worries. There wasn’t much to do, so I played soccer. I was quite happy when a typhoon would pass, because I could climb into the mountains and catch tadpoles in the pools of water left behind by the storm.

What do your parents do?

They own a steel parts factory.

Do you remember the first movie you ever saw?

Yes, it was the Hong Kong film 大話西遊, starring Steven Chow (this film is commonly known as “The Monkey King” in English).

(Continued)

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The Movie Club of Droogs (朋友)

Listen to
 

UIBE movie club members Viola and Moon, on the left

During a rainy April morning in Beijing, a quartet of female college students are in costume and on a mission. The students, dressed like characters from the iconic 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, are on a recruitment drive for their school’s movie club. The University of International Business and Economics doesn’t exactly seem like a hotspot for ultraviolence or nihilistic shenanigans, but their choice of costume has clearly paid off, as evidenced by the crowd gathering around their information booth. The term “droog”, referenced in the title of this article, means “friend” and was coined by Anthony Burgess,  author of A Clockwork Orange.

Viola is the spokesperson for the group. 21 years old, her choice of English name came from a character in the 1998 Oscar winning film Shakespeare in Love. She and fellow club member Moon shared their thoughts on their club activities and taste in film:

When did you first develop in interest in movies?

After I graduated from high school. At that point, I was no longer under so much academic pressure, so I started watching a lot of movies. I watched nearly 100 movies during that time, which opened a fresh new world, full of excitement.

Can you name some of the movies you watched during that time?

Casablanca, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Poet’s Society.

(Continued)

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