A crazy English man?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am

Demagogues come in all shapes and sizes. The emergence of Li Yang, the famed founder of Crazy English, as a would-be dictator has been the talk of the mainland in recent weeks. Last month, Mr Li published a photo on his blog of 3,000 of his students kneeling before him at the opening of a Crazy English Learning Centre in Inner Mongolia. Since then, people have been wondering whether he is intent on turning his unique approach to learning English into a Chinese version of those cults where the leaders insist on being treated like deities.

There's much about Crazy English that is reminiscent of a cult. Instead of using traditional teaching methods, Mr Li's students learn English by gathering in large groups and shouting out phrases and sentences as loudly as they can. The rationale for this is that many Chinese are too shy to speak English when singled out in class; by screaming in unison they can overcome their bashfulness and learn more quickly.

Included in the curriculum are phrases that are either nationalistic - 'Make the voice of China be heard widely through the world' - or lame self-help mantras like: 'If you are strong enough, you are your own God.' Even so, Mr Li's methods have made him enormously wealthy. With 300 million Chinese trying, and often failing, to learn English, it's the perfect business. Since Mr Li started Crazy English in 1994, some 20 million people have signed up for his classes. Until now, he has been a popular hero on the mainland and there are plans to extend his empire across Asia.

But being a mere English teacher, it seems, is no longer enough for him. Now, he says, he wants students to kowtow before him - as if he were a Ming emperor - because the countless hours they spend on the internet has destroyed their respect for teachers. But those web addicts may prove to be his downfall. A survey late last month by tencent.com found that 85 per cent of respondents would not kneel before him. As one father said, he sent his child to Mr Li to study English, not to learn how to be a slave.

Mr Li has been the subject of much criticism from education experts, who are no doubt outraged as much by his success as by his unconventional methods. But mainland education is frequently uninspired: schooling is simply about passing exams, which produces cynical, dissatisfied students. Mr Li's genius has been to offer a novel alternative to mainstream education - even if it, too, is based on rote learning.

Some have compared Mr Li's methods to the slogan-dominated mass meetings of the Cultural Revolution era. But in a country where the founders of cults are not well regarded by authorities, he has surely overstepped the mark. With some followers rebelling already, Mr Li might do well to ponder just how crazy he wants to be.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist