China: Around The Nation

Does this ancient textbook show how Qing dynasty Chinese tried to learn English?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 November, 2016, 2:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 12:53pm

English learners in China started using Chinese characters to help them pronounce the foreign language hundreds of years ago, according to Chinese media.

In an old textbook owned by a collector in Chengdu, southwestern Sichuan province, the English sentences – most of them grammatically incorrect – have traditional Chinese characters as phonetic notations, the Chengdu Business Daily reported.

A publishing date indicating “The 10th year of the Xianfeng Emperor”, or 1860, is printed on the book, according to the report.

According to the book, the Chinese sentence “cut the price in half” should be translated in English as “less one half of your price”.

Traditional Chinese characters put the English pronunciation as “Lei Si, Wang, Ha Fu, Ya Fu, You, Pu Luan Si”.

The book also features English sentences such as “other man want buy I unwilling” and “you want cheap go buy other man”.

It instructs learners to read English from left to right, the opposite direction of reading ancient Chinese texts.

Pronunciation errors: do they point to a decline in Hong Kong’s English standards?

Experts specialising in ancient books said they believed the textbook was genuine and from the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

English textbooks, mostly written by Chinese authors, gained popularity in Chinese port cities during the 19th century, according to the report.

Some Cantonese-speaking Chinese at that time called English “the ghost language”, the report said. During the Qing dynasty, people in southern China often referred to foreigners as “ghosts” because of their different appearance. “Gweilo”, which literally means “ghost man”, is still a common term for Westerners in Hong Kong.