Someone recently mentioned to me that I should see Yuan Zhang’s 1999 documentary “Crazy English.” Although the few reviews I’ve found of the film suggest that it could use some editing, the subject matter is fascinating: China’s first major self-help guru, Li Yang, whose gimmick is a new way of learning English. Namely, by shouting phrases out loud, quickly and repeatedly.
Li, essentially a motivational speaker, encourages his listeners to be self-confident and aggressive. “Study English well to promote world peace!” he shouts. “What is the most concrete way to love your country? To make yourself qualified for the twenty-first century, to make yourself strong mentally and physically, to make more money internationally—that’s the way to love your country.”
He leads his students in supposedly cathartic chants such as: “I enjoy losing face! I enjoy making money!” A self-made man, Li tells a group in Harbin, “Money is the biggest motivation for studying.” He preaches pragmatism, conformism and nationalism, citing General Colin Powell in front of one crowd to the effect that the “only touching story” is the one about “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” With a group of soldiers atop the Great Wall he chants, in English: “Never let your country down! Never let your parents down! Never let yourself down! The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is great!”
The darling of China’s English-teaching world, Li considers himself a patriot, first and foremost.
“I promote the love-thy-country angle because I don’t want our people to forget China after they acquire English,” he explains. “I want them to use English and spread Chinese as a world language.”
But from what I can tell, it seems that self-confidence is the real product that Li is selling. Sophie Loras picks up on this in her interview with Li:
The key is that Li is not just selling a language: he’s selling a self-help venture based on what he says were the failings of his own parents. Born in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province in 1969, Li says the greatest failure of his parents and the Chinese schooling system in general was a culture of feeding children a lack of confidence.
It seems that Crazy English is now a successful company and brand name, employing over 150 people in East Asia.