Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Pronoun Battle for China's Soul

Every day, I preside over a bitter linguistic struggle for the hearts and minds of China's youth. My students are torn, absolutely torn, about whether to use "we" or "I" when they write from a first-person perspective, and their pronoun usage twists and turns all over the place as this struggle plays itself out.

A classic example was from a response to one of my questions about Fan Shen's article "The Classroom and the Wider Culture," in which the author mentions that, at least when he was a college student in China (late 1980s), the use of the word "I" was considered bad, or at least unnecessarily self-centered.

I got several responses like this (I'm paraphrasing):

Of course "I" is not a bad word in China. Our country is developing, and we should show our unique ideas and our individuality.

You see what I'm getting at. A number of these linguistically conflicted constructions show up in my students' writing, like As an English major, we need to study hard. Or we should relax ourself.

I tell them I don't care if they want to write with a we-voice or an I-voice, as long as they're consistent and grammatically correct. But consistency is hard to come by in life, these days.

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