Teaching English in the Far East

William Empson

I am afraid this may prove rather a gossipy Inaugural Lecture but I feel it is the main thing I have to offer on this occasion. I could talk, instead, about my theoretical books, which have been mainly about double meanings in literature, and the mechanics of how they have a literary effect: but I haven’t found that that has much to do with teaching literature, in my experience so far, so it is perhaps not very relevant here. In fact, I have generally tried to put off my Far Eastern students from reading my books, which I thought would only worry and distract them. They have sometimes taught me something theoretical, or so I thought, when I had to consider why they found something difficult to learn; but that is another matter.

To flip around the world having a bit of a look round like, as we say in Yorkshire, and still be tolerably sure that you can earn a decent living and get home again when you like – a young man naturally wants to do that, even while he also takes himself seriously as an employable character; and there is no doubt that the great days for it, in the teaching profession, were between the two world wars. All you can say to a young man who wants to do it now is that, to a painful extent, the great doors have closed, partly for reasons of money and partly from immigration difficulties. If you ask me why I went to Japan when I was 25, though I took no more than a friendly interest in Japan and was determined to go on writing about English literature, the answer is that anybody would like to do it if it was so easy. During the Second World War, when I was employed in propaganda, there were a number of rosy schemes we occasionally put out on the radio, to the effect that after the Allies had won the war, when everything would be much better, there would be schemes for easy short-term exchange of teachers and students all over the world. This I am afraid is one of the propaganda promises which have markedly failed to come true, not through the fault of the British. Indeed I feel I am already a sort of extinct animal, like a dodo or diplodocus: there used to be plenty of us, but there aren’t now; and I think that this kind of animal ought to be revived if possible.

I must try to keep to anecdotes which really are about education, because clearly the flow of travel gossip could be tiresomely endless. As the Lady says in Comus, recognising the threat to her purity:

A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory
Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire,
And airy tongues, that syllable men’s names
On sands, and shores, and desert wildernesses.

She goes on:

These thoughts may startle well, but not astound
The virtuous mind.

Indeed I also find myself reflecting rather sadly about a couplet of Robert Louis Stevenson. It is what has been so often attacked in later years as child-cult, the literary man pretending to be a child to make himself look sweet: but I think the people who attacked this didn’t recognise the merit of the child cult when it is good, and that is, basically, that every man has to be trained to do one thing or another, and there was more in his original nature than any social arrangement can reasonably be expected to develop in him, so that the child, even in a good society, can make the grown man feel ignorant and narrow – not sinful, spotted by the world and so on, which is a more obvious idea in a way, but actually ignorant and narrow. To realise the truth of this is the chief object of looking at a quite different society. And indeed, for that matter, it was Jesus who first talked in this way about children, and it has appeared to me that literary critics who attack what they call child-cult, though the example they are attacking often really is rather bad, never have enough nerve to go back and attack straight their first opponent in this matter. The couplet by Robert Louis Stevenson was merely this:

The world is so full of a number of things
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Now this is good because it follows the formula right on the line: it really ought to make the grown-up people feel ashamed to hear what the child says. But it is not a good thing for a man to accept blame for some profound reason when he is not literally at fault, and I think we are bound to reflect that there is a simple answer here. We could say: ‘The world is so full of a number of things that it does us a certain amount of credit if we behave decently and sensibly, instead of screaming our heads off, as children would if they knew.’ I do not mean that anything very alarming happened to me, but we are bound to feel a certain amount of alarm at the present spectacle of the world.

But first, before I embark on this programme of trying to describe my teaching experience, I want to say how pleased I am to be here. Two years ago, in Peking, it became clear that the British Council would soon be deciding to take out all its personnel from China, and anyhow our own kids ought to be getting back to school, so my wife and I started planning to come home before we had to. It then seemed obvious to me that I should much prefer to come home properly, and be in my own county, where I was born, which is Yorkshire, if I was to be working in England at all. So I wrote my application to Sheffield University from Communist Peking. It is a great satisfaction to me that it succeeded; it makes my previous life seem more sensible somehow. And then again, though it would be very absurd for me to congratulate this institution for appointing myself, I think I can decently point out that Sheffield University showed a certain amount of nerve when it appointed a professor from Communist Peking. Perhaps I ought to add, in case it seems too much nerve, that there had to be a year’s lapse in the Chair because they had to have a look at me after I had come home before they would appoint, but that is only good sense.

I ought also to say something about my predecessor in this Chair, Mr L.C. Knights, and I can praise him very sincerely. So far as I can make out, the way the English Literature Department now stands, which I suppose is largely due to him, is so right that my chief duty is to let it go on the way it does, and try not to do anything to spoil it. Also he is an impressive person. The comment that does occur to me about him is that he is too conscientious; what Knights ought to do is to insist on making enough time to write his own excellent books, and he hasn’t done that now for some while. I first met Knights – and it was rather odd to have it happen so late, because we must have been undergraduates together and I had long been reading him – in 1950 in America, at the Kenyon Summer School, to which he had come from Sheffield largely by sea and I largely by air from Communist Peking. I remember the Korean War had just started at the time. Each of the lecturers at this summer school has to do one speech to the assembled body, followed by a discussion; and I was in a way an old boy, as I had done it before in 1948; and Knights came to me, looking very worried as usual, and said: ‘I am very worried about my speech. I can’t decide what I ought to say to them.’ It seemed to me that our friends there didn’t require any special tact, and I said: ‘Why, scold them, of course, tell them what’s the matter with them. That’s the only thing they wouldn’t consider dull, it’s the only thing they brought you here to do.’ But his face got longer and longer and his eyes got rounder and rounder, and he said: ‘Do you think I really have to tell them what I think about them?’ So I said: ‘Oh no, of course you don’t have to, let it go, don’t worry, I was only making a joke’; so I said, though I hadn’t thought I was making a joke. They would have put up with a lot of rudeness from him, because they thought him a kind of medieval saint, very reasonably – incidentally they thought his thinness was another proof that we are all starving to death in England. But he decided he didn’t have to say what he thought about them, and the subject sank without a bubble into the depths of his mind. I don’t know what it was, but I am sure he had better have said it. But you could tell it would have cost him too much; he would have blamed himself for it too much. It would be stupid not to admire this kind of character very warmly, but one would like more to come out. As for me, in my speech, if I may finish this story, I thought best to do rather the opposite thing, which they accepted with great good temper; I gave my first quarter of an hour to a general political scolding of Americans about China, as indeed I had done two years before; pretty absurdly really, because it was nothing whatever to do with the school and also meant going against my contract with the British Council, in which you promise not to talk politics at all. But this legal clause is interpreted reasonably; it is obvious that there are many cases where a determined silence would only create suspicion, and I knew if I didn’t tell this audience what I really thought about China they would be quite certain I thought something much worse. I would positively have smelt fishy if I hadn’t scolded. By the way, that was the last time you could do the hop between America and China both ways; when the Korean War had really got going, naturally, neither side would let you.

Well then, I must now try to begin this account in an orderly manner. I was appointed to university work in Tokyo in 1931, when I was 25, chiefly through the recommendation of I.A. Richards, who had been my supervisor at Cambridge.

The main thing happening in Tokyo was a swing-over from a vaguely liberal period of co-operation with England and America to the period of taking over Manchuria and nursing much larger aggressive aims; and this of course imposed a lot of strain. I found that all my students held liberal or leftish views, very vague ones, and on the other hand were very afraid of letting them be known, chiefly because it would prevent them from getting jobs. The opinions were almost a necessary decency, like a pair of trousers, but the trousers mustn’t be allowed to peep out. I do not mean to laugh: there was also some dangerous police witch-hunting going on, and the job question is quite serious enough. I remember in my first term we were reading Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and the leader of the class (it always had a specific leader, just as it would now in Communist China) came and said: ‘We think we had better not write an essay on Mrs Dalloway, because it might have political implications.’ I hadn’t thought of this before, but I had to agree that it might. The political atmosphere had a curious effect, in that, just as in some places the student will ask a question with a sexually improper answer, to see if he can make Teacher blush, so here he would ask an innocent political question. Of course, in such a case, it is very much not the business of a teacher to egg the students on to get into trouble, but on the other hand he must insist on showing the real climate of opinion which surrounded and nourished the literary writings he is set to teach.

The chief other thing I remember about teaching in Japan, also from my first year, is that they were reading A.E. Housman, whom I chose chiefly because he seemed both very good and very simple in language; and afterwards it struck me they were impressed by him rather too practically. The class was liable to be conscripted to fight against the Chinese – indeed when they came to write their essays at the end of the year one man who had been there at the start had been not only drafted but killed in Shanghai – and they wrote down pretty consistently: ‘We think Housman is quite right in what he says. We will do no good to anybody by dying for our country, but we will be admired for it, and we all want to be admired, and anyway we are better dead.’ Housman was then still alive, and I wish now that I had posted him these bits of schoolwork. I thought it would have shocked the old gentleman, as not being what he had meant; they were using his praise of suicide as an excuse for not acting on their serious opinions, or at any rate something very interesting was going wrong. But then I thought it would probably distress him without clearing anything up. What I said to the class I forget, but I knew very well it was like having to change gears to get up a steep hill.*

The position about language, both in Japan and China, was that, while I always used English, they could read it well but often couldn’t hear it. So I got into the technique of talking away while writing on the blackboard, and then stepping back, correcting the prose of my sentences, and then reading them out slowly as dictation, or rather for practice in hearing how the writing sounds when read aloud, while giving the student time to copy the finished article. This worked well for people who couldn’t follow the spoken word, a group which often included the ones with the best literary taste; the people who could very nearly follow this talk, with which I kept myself interested while I approached the summary statement on the blackboard, found it very trying. I remember a very able student in China, later on, telling me in a friendly manner that he had gone on strike and stopped going to my lectures, because it was too much strain to do both things at once. One result of the technique is that you never look at the audience at all, because you are always looking at the blackboard; you have to listen for how they are feeling. Of course you also need to have them do a good deal of written work, and write a good deal of answer on their papers. When I went from China to these summer schools in America I used exactly the same technique on their rather highly selected and skilled English-speaking audience as I would in China, and they put up with it all right: partly as a curiosity, but they certainly didn’t think it was too slow; it was a strain. On my side, I think I needed this arrangement: it was fair enough to the class and yet it allowed me to keep interested in what I was saying.

There is an interesting question here about university lecturing, one that is always coming up but is rather hard to express exactly. A man ought to be willing and helpful to his students, but still I think it ought to be obvious that he is more interested in his subject than he is in them. During my time in Japan there were a number of refugee German singers, and one often heard the comment that it is fatal to a singer if he gets it into his head that ‘this is a bad audience so I had better sing badly.’ A lecturer isn’t the same, but there are many legends about their firmness in this matter: as when Professor G.E. Moore is said to have gone through an entire course at Cambridge with unruffled dignity attended only by one student – who was I.A. Richards, and he of course was well worth doing it to. In my last year in Peking I found myself giving a lecture on Hamlet for which there were only two listeners (if there was only one I would always talk to him instead, but here we had two) and my vague impression at the time, perhaps quite wrong, was that one was a mild lunatic who had drifted into various lecture rooms and the other was some kind of political spy. But I did my performance, and I came away in a glow of pleasure, feeling: ‘I have never understood the play before, but now I am all set to write my little essay on Hamlet.’ You may think that this old-fashioned attitude to lecturing is liable to get crazy, but I do think it also stops a man from getting crazy.

But the idea needs expressing carefully. I remember talking in Peking to an Englishman who was going to take up university work somewhere else in the Far East, and he was rather worrying about what they would understand, and I said: ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter; the only question is whether you know enough. I always talk firmly over their heads.’ Then I could hear a bit of iron come into his voice, not surprisingly, and it struck me he was suspecting me of something very nasty, of boasting that I had cheated my students for all these years. So I had to say something else quickly, and I pointed out that as a rule, in a class, there are a few students much better than the rest, and what suits one of these groups does not suit the other, and the few good ones really deserve more to get what suits them. This is true, but I haven’t actually felt it much. I don’t think the class as a whole was commonly finding my written summary obscure – indeed I don’t think they’d have put up with that. It is true that unless I had been enough impressed by a few good students I would have come to feel the work not worth doing in the Far East, but I had those; and it always seemed clear that a certain average opinion was not contemptible. I was rather pleased one year in China when I had a course on modern poetry, The Waste Land and all that, and at the end a student wrote in a most friendly way to explain why he wasn’t taking the exam. It wasn’t that he couldn’t understand The Waste Land, he said, in fact after my lectures the poem was perfectly clear: but it had turned out to be disgusting nonsense, and he had decided to join the engineering department. Now there a teacher is bound to feel solid satisfaction; he is getting definite results. The Chinese professors themselves used the blackboard a great deal: for one thing because they might often speak an unusual dialect, but anyhow because many Chinese technical terms are very hard to follow unless written. My behaviour wasn’t strange and foreign, it was just rather old-world Chinese, and when it was sometimes blamed, towards the end, that was what it was blamed for.

I was also much in favour of Basic English all along, as a pupil of Richards, and that may seem very opposite to this high-toned view of lecturing. I think it has been a misfortune that the idea of making Basic an international language has got people’s backs up, especially the backs of foreigners. Basic in itself seems to me obviously the best introduction to the English language, either for one year or three, before you go on, according to the capacity of the students and the teacher, and I think the attacks on it nearly all fail to recognise the practical alternatives. Elementary English language teaching goes on nearly all over the world, and is usually ill-paid and done under bad conditions, such as very large classes. My Far Eastern students always regarded going into English language teaching as a kind of basic security they got by their course but also as obvious failure in life, and they often spoke with real anger against their first teachers of the language. It would obviously be a great help to these suffering teachers to have an agreed limited word-list for the first exam, even if it were a much less useful list than the Basic one. It is silly just to write against Basic English in a literary manner, saying you disapprove of any limited word-list.

I want also to say something about pronunciation. I think the phoneticians often stick to their scientific interest in getting an exact sound, even when it is not the concern of the student, who wants to understand and be understood. We are dealing with something rather strange here. There is usually a wide range of sounds within which the phoneme, as they say, can be recognised, and so the word can be understood; and yet it is very hard to say how we come to imagine that all this range is one sound. Indeed this capacity is one of the peculiar powers of the human creature, and I think the point soon comes where our existing theory is an obstacle to learning by practice. I don’t deny that there is often an initial struggle to get the student to make anything like the sound required by the foreign language, and there the teacher needs to know where he should put his tongue and what not, but that is a separate thing. The Chinese are excessively keen on phonetics, because they have a great variety of dialects – such a great variety that they don’t feel any nationalist resistance when they start talking a foreign language, and this makes them good linguists; but also it has long been a popular and friendly trick at a dinner party to say exactly what part of China a man comes from by his accent, judging by incredibly tiny details, even while he thinks he is talking standard Mandarin. This is not offensive in China, as it is liable to be in England, because there it is solely a matter of region and not of class; the rickshaw men in Peking are talking absolutely pure Peking dialect, which is much imitated and in a way thought very grand by Chinese who don’t come from Peking. They are therefore liable – at least I kept on telling them so – to make too much fuss about the phonetics of standard English. Perhaps my information is merely out of date, but there seem to be plenty of Chinese talking English, of about my age, who are permanent victims of too much phonetics. The impulse in the mind of the expert was to stand no nonsense and tell the real truth, so he taught the student what the English really say, when they say the word ‘cultural’, is ‘cerlshrl’. Now in the first place this sound is frightfully hard to learn, and in the second place it is harmful to learn, because the ordinary English speaker knows that it is only a sag, a thing he does when he isn’t trying, and if he has to address a large hall he knows how to speak up. But the Chinese who has been trained like that cannot speak up: he can only mumble with the air of going through a frightfully difficult acrobatic feat. I used to tease my students by saying: ‘It would be useless to talk exact standard English. The only possible use would be to pass yourself off as a spy, and you cannot do that, not because of your voice but because of your face. What you really will find hard, in spoken English, is to hear what the various native English speakers say, because they make a great variety of sounds. If you learn to say the words in a way that most English speakers find clear, you will be in a position to complain to them because they don’t talk clearly.’

I certainly think they don’t talk clearly. It may be I am only grumbling because I am getting deaf, but I do find the English very hard to hear; and I always suspect it is because they are trying to talk correctly, or even, what is much worse, trying to talk charmingly. I think it was Sir Osbert Sitwell who first pointed out that all forms of the charming voice are deliberately made impossible to hear, so that the little group has to crane its ears. Now the purpose of speaking is to be heard, and nothing else is nearly so important as being clear.

In the autumn of 1937 I left England on an appointment to the Peking National University, which had long been a very nationalist body, with student agitation against the Japanese and so forth, and I understand rather few foreigners have been appointed. The main fighting with the Japanese began while I was on the trans-Siberian railway, and I got to Peking on a Japanese troop train to find that the university had already left for the interior. I caught up with it in Changsha, and during the next two years it moved gradually back to Kunming on the Burma Road. The Arts Department started off on a sacred mountain, of great beauty, where we were very isolated, about seventy miles from Changsha. Most people had got there by wandering across country through the gaps left by the invading Japanese, with hardly more than the clothes they stood up in, and the chief interest of this university teaching was that there were practically no books or lecture notes. It didn’t upset the Chinese lecturer as much as it would most, because they have long had a tradition of knowing a standard text by heart. I was well thought of because I could type out from memory a course of reading in English poetry, but this was praised more because it was good going for a foreigner than because it would have been remarkable for a Chinese. We did have an anthology of prose essays which could be typed out for them to do their composition class with (they would read them and then write discussions of them) – but apart from that there were hardly any books. I remember a man who had given a course on the history of literary criticism every year for many years, and he was now to do it without his notes, and he asked me if I remembered what Aristotle meant by Imitation. I said I was quite sure that he wouldn’t be able to find out if he was sat down in the largest library in the world.

I thought the results we were getting by this method were strikingly good. No doubt the chief reason was that the standard of the students was very high; I was seeing the last of the great days of the effort of China to digest the achievements of Europe, when a well-educated Chinese was about the best-educated man anywhere in the world. My colleagues habitually talked to each other in a jumble of three or four languages, without affectation, merely for convenience, using rather more English if they remembered I was listening; and of course a thorough grounding in Chinese literature would be taken for granted. By the end of the war this grand world-minded-ness had been largely broken by poverty and isolation, though there were still plenty of impressive individuals; it had already gone, really, I think, when the Communists took over. But the results of our enforced experiment on the sacred mountain seemed to me so good that they might be adopted as a deliberate technique. What used to be called a reading party could be arranged in some remote village, except that no books or notes would be allowed, even for the teacher or leader of the group. It has a great effect in forcing you to consider what really matters, or what you already do know if you think, or what you want to get to know when you can. One can imagine the stern search going on through the handbags for a bootleg book: indeed I heard afterwards that there was a student on the sacred mountain with an anthology which he kept secret, and used for checking my memorial reconstructions on a purely non-co-operative basis.

The chief other thing I remember from that time is some brief remarks made to me by a student when we had got to Mengtzu, a town near the borders of Indo-China which in those days lived chiefly on smuggling. He and I both happened to be swimming in a muddy and insanitary pool used for watering water buffalo and we were trying to climb onto their backs as they swam forward, beginning with a grip on the tail. They are curiously slimy when wet, and it is a seriously difficult feat to climb on from behind. I strongly recommend them as toys for the bath; no rubber fish is anything like as good. They are supposed to hate foreigners, and apparently on the leased territories of Hong Kong they once routed a detachment of the British Army which was having manoeuvres, but these water buffalo I daresay were too provincial to have such sentiments; they hadn’t met enough foreigners to make up their minds. The student, who seemed very young, told me that he was taking economics, because when he was a Middle School boy he had considered how best he could serve his, country, and it seemed to him obvious that economics was what made the trouble, that was what people ought to learn how to handle. But the trouble is, he said, that the opinions of a Middle School boy are always wrong; he can’t decide, really, what he wants to study. We can all see now, he said, that the economists aren’t the slightest use, whereas what is very important is propaganda in foreign languages. So he wished he was talking English. His motive, I am sure, was that he felt friends and wanted to talk: nothing could be done about it. I did not feel I had anything wise to say in answer to this, and I suppose it had no effect on my mind except to add to my feeling that I liked being in China, but I feel it ought to be repeated here because it recalls so many of the problems of education. The students were also much worried about whether they ought to be fighting, and would drag this into their essays to me, together with remarks on what they had already seen, with a certain hair-raising coolness which I felt that no native English-speaking writer could imitate. The only phrase that sticks in my mind is: ‘At the front, it is considered that students do more harm than soldiers’ – this isn’t a howler at all, it merely needs a lot of political background before you understand it. I also want to boast that there was a period in the refugeeing when I slept on my blackboard. It wasn’t any hardship, but I felt it made me a serious teacher.

During the Second World War I was in England and became what the BBC called its Chinese Editor, which meant broadcasts in Chinese languages and hadn’t much to do with education. It might have had a lot, because we set out to broadcast scientific material to the refugee Chinese universities. I am afraid this was not much use; the European side of the BBC was very valuable indeed, but the Far Eastern side had much greater technical difficulties. Our news in Chinese did get listened to by the Chinese in unexpected places outside China, as we heard by letter, and well it might because we put out nearly all the news about China that came on the tapes, most of which got squeezed out of all other sources. But when we gave after the news these tremendous technical scripts, translated into Mandarin and in any case frankly unsuited to ordinary radio, I am afraid it didn’t do much to break the Japanese curtain round the refugee universities. I was very keen to try to do it, even as a long shot, and I think it did create a certain amount of good will.

After the war, of course, travel had got generally more difficult, and I had acquired a wife and family, but I was fortunately able to get the British Council to make me what they call a Subsidised Post, which meant they would pay the travel money and cocker up the salary without any further demands; I was simply going back to work at Peking University as I had promised to do before the war. Our house was in the university, with a nice big courtyard and so on, and colleagues and students would drop in and see us very easily, and we stayed there through the siege of the town and the Communist victory and stayed on ‘till last year. Besides sleeping on my blackboard when a refugee, I crossed the fighting lines during the siege of Peking to give my weekly lecture on Macbeth at a university outside the town: that does seem to make me a serious teacher.

When we got to Peking in 1947 the attitude of the students seemed to me very like what it had been in Japan in 1931, though much less hopeless. They were practically all against the Chiang Kai-shek Government, as a matter of course, and in danger if they said so. They weren’t all Communists: they were boasting that the Police had never yet managed to pick on a real Communist. It seems natural in England by this time to give a pretty gloomy jeer at the term ‘liberation’, but they honestly did think they were liberated from serious danger when the Communist troops finally walked in; you might argue that on a long-term view they were deluded, but there is no doubt about what they were feeling at the time.

My own teaching didn’t alter at all as a result of the political change. Except that there was one change in my last year there, when there was a general drive to make teaching more practical: for instance, it was felt if they were learning a language they must really learn to talk it, so my superiors with a touch of embarrassment said would I mind making my poetry course into a prose course this year. I said at once that I would like to very much, it would be most interesting, and I hoped there were plenty of Bibles about so that we didn’t have to type it out, because I would need to begin with at least six weeks on the Bible. I thought this was trying them rather high, but they didn’t even blink at it. Under the old system the government teachers were very separate from the missionary ones, and I had actually never lectured on the Bible before, in China or Japan. It seemed to me a rather comical result of the Communists trying to be practical, and I made little jokes about my Bible Class to my Chinese colleagues: but I could feel they were rather bored by this and didn’t think it was funny. I think their attitude was: ‘Of course Peita – as we called the university – will continue to give a liberal education – what did you expect?’ At the same time, what was more surprising really, the main course I was giving, required for all students majoring in English, was a thing called the Composition Class, where they were to read an essay in English every week and write an answer in English on a set question about it. I had a selection of essays printed before the Communist takeover, and went on using it till I left. In the last year the students were refusing to do some of the essays, such as A.C. Bradley’s treatise, in full, on Hegel’s theory of tragedy, but that was because they thought it a waste of time, not because they thought it politically wicked; anything politically wicked was rather welcome.

For instance, there was a book called Road to Survival, by an American soil expert, William Vogt, which said the Chinese were certain to starve to death because they bred like rabbits and didn’t farm properly, and I put into my selection everything he said about China. Before long this book was denounced by name by Mao Tse-tung in person, and this only made the discussion more vigorous, and the students more willing to borrow the full text. This is not in a way an interesting case, because they knew they had to denounce it and they had been getting a good deal of information which they felt was quite sufficient for the purpose, and I was always scrupulous about writing on the blackboard beforehand that it had been denounced. Here as else where it is not the business of a teacher to try and get some of his students into trouble, but to make the ordinary loyal majority rather more intelligent about the subject in hand. So I would always tell the class about their essay, year after year: ‘The trouble is that you wouldn’t convince a single American by your essays denouncing Vogt; if you want to be a propagandist, you must try to understand the other man’s mind before you can hope to convince him. The object of beginning English is to understand the minds of the English-speaking peoples, and if you refuse to understand their minds you are being no use to your own government.’ We had much more puzzling cases to discuss, where the opinions of the class were various and divided, and I found it became a reassuring point of technique to end by saying: ‘This as far as I know is the official Communist point of view’ – which made them feel they weren’t being messed about, and I didn’t have to say I agreed with it.

A question about the Elizabethan Drake always seemed to me of great interest, each year, because their real or first feeling was that it was useless to blame him, because they wished they had a Chinese Drake. Of course they also knew to begin with that they ought to hate British imperialism. I thought 1951 marked an advance in political education, because then the class could see for themselves that the Spaniards were robbing the South Americans, and Drake was robbing the robbers; the idea that anybody need bother about the South Americans wasn’t obvious to them in the earlier years.

Every year, all this time, I had to recommend my proposed courses of lectures in a written statement to the university authorities, which was eventually forwarded to the Ministry of Education: I would say, as before, that if the teaching of English language to Chinese students was to be any use they must also be taught to understand the mind of the ordinary English speaker; and for that matter it was not only an effort of political understanding, but also a literary one, because unless a man had a certain amount of training in Shakespeare and all that, he could not always be trusted to get the point of a political leader in, let us say, the New York Times. This rather coarse way of expressing it was I thought regarded by my superiors as merely the proper way to offer a defence in case a defence was needed: what they really thought was that they wished to continue giving a liberal education. I did not have any bother about it. I did come to feel, I confess, during the last year, when things were getting rather warm, that I was undertaking to do a kind of lion-taming act every week, but that was a matter of keeping the good will of the students, or rather of getting them to hold their tempers, and not of the university authorities. It does some credit to all parties concerned that we could go on taking it as straight as that.

By the way, as these remarks already show, the position of the students in the university had become remarkably strong; they were rather encouraged to speak up in their regular committees and complain against a bad teacher. Now in China there had been rather too much respect for the teacher, treating him as a father who mustn’t be criticised, and of course also as a man with a duty to give you employment, whom it would be unwise to criticise. This sharp change of attitude, I thought, might be needed, and the points made against my colleagues as I heard them in gossip seemed to me fairly reasonable. About myself of course I didn’t have to wait for gossip. I got it straight. It would be wrong to suppose that this made a Reign of Terror: actually, what seems to me rather surprising when I think it over, none of the teachers at my university got sacked as far as I know. But we were being kept up to the mark rather firmly: for example, my old-world technique of lecturing had come to seem rather far-fetched. I haven’t yet any grounds for an opinion about whether the students in Sheffield had better be criticising their professors: I can’t say I am in any hurry for it. Of course, really, the reason why you can’t imagine the parallel in England, when you watch this kind of thing in China, is that so many factors are quite different.

Be that as it may, I want finally to remark that I am very glad to be back in England. The point where the change was already felt, quite fully, I thought, was in getting onto the P & O boat at Hong Kong. Hong Kong itself was rather tiresomely full of correspondents and general excitement, but when you got onto the boat it wasn’t that you were among dull people (so far from that, there always seemed to be a faint question whether you had a story good enough to swap with the man you were talking to, and he would swap one all right if there was time before dinner), but it was like diving out of intense heat into a deep cool pool.

I must now say someting about one of the darker aspects of Communism which would naturally come my way: that is, the dragooning of independent thought and the hysteria of the confession meetings. Naturally we heard a good deal of gossip about how it was going. It was not a Terror – that seems the first thing to say. I don’t know that any of our Chinese colleagues got sacked, let alone arrested, and some had been well-known political opponents of the regime: the test didn’t come until two and a half years after the regime had taken over, and a man whose confession was refused, so that he was sent back to prepare another one, would go on teaching and being respected by the students who had heard his first confession. The attendance at meetings with your colleagues, where they each in turn discussed their past and their state of mind, had to be enormously long, and you might call it a deliberately calculated nagging process, but even so, that is really different from a police terror. What we would often ask, when we heard gossip from these meetings, was how far the confessions were sincere: but our Chinese friends would always feel quite sure they were sincere – nobody could go through all that and not be sincere at the end, because the audience could judge their sincerity. Of course, confessions about embezzlement are a different thing, and easy to believe, I think: the British in China have been saying for years that the Chinese regard ‘squeeze’ as a matter of course, so it can’t be surprising if the Chinese say they believe it themselves and want to have it stopped by a firm effort. But some of these confessions about their thoughts by the internationally-minded Chinese seem very hard to estimate. I think the Chinese are natural actors anyway, very sensitive to social requirements, and in this case – of Chinese who have studied long overseas – there is often a deep feeling that they have neglected their own people and take delight in returning to them if pressed in the right way. And the new China has something positive to offer: the idea that it must be dismal to return to England does seem to me at least intelligible. And this period of confessions, that we were watching just before we left China, was intended to meet a period of crisis and then be finished, not to go on all the time: indeed nearly all of it was finished.

Orwell’s 1984, a book which is like a hot iron leaving a permanent scar on the imagination, arrived to me by post in communist China in the ordinary way, and we lent it around as usual to various people including one colleague who was in a genuinely sticky position. The answer on returning the book was: ‘It’s tiresome; it’s invented. My situation is bad enough, and very disagreeable but it isn’t like that.’ The main fact, I think, is that the Communists when they conquered left the intellectuals alone for about three years, so that everyone was astonished at their not killing people, and then said: ‘It is time to go into the subject in group discussions.’ The technique of enforced discussion in small groups is a fearfully powerful one, and obviously brings out money embezzlement like a microscope. The less ambitious life of the great universities has been badgered rather than terrorised, but I do not mean to deny that badgering is a large real thing. The danger of it is the danger of destroying the intellectual life of the country, especially the astonishing world-embracing hungry cleverness of the old Peita.

I was kindly asked by one of my students, as spokesman for the central student committee, I suppose, to write something for the Wall Newspaper of Peita. Now, as I said at the start, I had met and worked with the refugees from the old pre-war Peita, and it is no use pretending that Peita after the Second World War and the near-famine conditions for professors which came after it had the same bounce about it; it could not have had. So I wrote down for the Wall Newspaper my respects and good wishes and said I hoped the new combined Peita would remember and carry forward the traditions of the old one. This was a safe enough sentiment, because the old Peita was also a politically active body, making frequent demonstrations against the Japanese or the British or what not; indeed I thought that my remarks, though I believed them sincerely, were probably common form in the speeches for the change-over. But when the students next came to tea there was a problem to discuss about my draft for the Wall Newspaper. It was all right, but they would prefer, after full discussion, to have me make the change: ‘the good part of the traditions of old Peita’. I fetched a pen and made it immediately. In all praise of old traditions, I said, this change should always be made.

[*] According to one account, Empson’s students discovered an unwonted ambiguity in the last stanza of Housman’s ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’:

‘Far the calling bugles hollo,
High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
Woman bore me, I will rise.’

‘If you’re bored with women,’ the students apparently responded, ‘you might as well join the army.’