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.”