The Heroes We Worship

In his memoir, Undercover University, Frank Bell writes: In the friendly co-operation that is found in study and learning lies the greatest hope for the future of mankind. As in no other sphere of life, enmity and jealousy cannot flourish when the welfare of common humanity is in view.

Peter O’Connell at the School of English Studies, Folkestone and Frank Bell at the Bell School, Cambridge were pioneers in the field of language learning during the 1960s and 70s. These were the halcyon days of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) when school principals were friends rather than competitors: new developments were not protected for the financial benefit of individual schools but shared for the greater good of students and their teachers.

In 1971, SES welcomed a group of teachers from China. The People’s Republic was still living under the dictatorship of Chairman Mao. The teachers had all been hand-picked by the Ministry of Education and each one was an expert in a particular aspect of English culture. They spent four months at SES before going to the University of Bath. They were the most marvellous group of 14 people I have ever met and I loved every minute I spent with them, wrote Peter. He considered them to be a teacher’s dream, always seeking knowledge like the Holy Grail but never dour or pompous. Much about life in England was new and unfamiliar to them, and this had to be factored into the teaching programme. They had never heard of the London Stock Exchange and had no experience of press conferences or indeed of a free press. One afternoon they were taken to visit a local farmer and his wife who lived in a mock-Tudor mansion. Over tea, the leader enquired: How many families live in this house?

The Chinese were conspicuous figures wherever they went. The twelve men and two women all wore ‘Mao’ suits, cut their hair in the same style and never touched cigarettes or alcohol. They were all married but laughed merrily when commiserated with for being separated from their spouses and children. They not only lived in pairs in their host families, but never moved anywhere without a companion or a group. If one was separated and became involved in a discussion with an English person, it wasn’t long before another quietly moved in and joined the conversation. They were much loved, not only by their teachers, but also by their host families, who described them as tidy and clean, beloved by the children, punctual and courteous. They enjoyed taking their host family’s children to the swings and it was not unusual to see a brace of boiler-suited Chinese in the company of their English charges at local parks. Perhaps these outings were a comfort to them in the absence of their own children.

Peter prided himself on the fact that although he admired China and the Chinese people, he never hesitated to state his opinion that Marxism was a theory and not a science or a chemical formula. Clearly, his Chinese teachers did not pay him much mind, and when he invited them to write an essay on the organisation and characteristics of the ideal society for which they were fighting, they all wrote synopses of Marxist dialectics. He was disappointed that his otherwise perfect students were unable to break out of their ideology and the dogmatic inflexibility of their thinking.  He startled the group one day by saying how much he admired them because they were so profoundly religious. Their disapproving expressions changed to indulgent smiles when he added that he realised their religion was a secular one, but that it was nevertheless based on faith – faith in the sacred texts and the infallibility of their prophets. Peter asked one man what his view was of Stalin, to which he replied that Stalin was in the same category as Marx, Engels and Lenin. These are the heroes we worship, he declared. Worship? my father echoed. There …. I told you that you were religious, at which the entire group erupted in gales of laughter. The group leader, Lu Bong Hung, often commented that they had come to England to learn the language and make friends with English people, but even Peter realised that this was not a personal goal but a Peking-specified objective.

Rosemary Chan was both a tutor and host mother and two of the Chinese teachers lived with the Chans during their time in Folkestone. Armand Chan was born in China but raised in Madagascar. Initially, the two men were a little distrustful of Mr. Chan and his questionable status, although once it was understood that his family had left China before the rise of Chairman Mao, they became more relaxed. Armand was clearly not a traitor to the Cultural Revolution and, furthermore, the Chans served more rice than was customary in the English host families of their comrades. The two men shared a room and every morning they would get up early and walk round the garden reading Mao’s Little Red Book.

My own memory of the Chinese group is that they were utterly enthralled by the BBC’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Once a week, all fourteen of them would gather in front of the television in the Students Common Room and follow the unfolding drama between Emma and Mr. Knightley. The story of characters who spend their time in drawing rooms and ballrooms, discussing social status and the minutiae of romantic love, struck me as a far cry from the world of Mao Tse-tung. I suspect that Jane Austen wasn’t mentioned during the unannounced visits by the Chinese minister-in-charge.

The students loved to sing. All their songs were deeply patriotic and contained the word ‘Mao’ in almost every line. They sang Scotland the Brave but refused to sing Eriskay Love Lilt because, they explained, it put love of people before love of country.

The interpreter for the group was a man named Shen Xulun. Shen was raised in a scholarly family in Northern China and studied ancient Chinese culture and language at university. During the Cultural Revolution, intellectual  values were ferociously attacked and replaced by proletarian and peasant ideals. In 1966, Shen Xulun escaped from the Red Guards and travelled 1,200 miles on a bicycle from his hometown to Canton. As he made the journey through a country in turmoil, Shen kept a diary that attempted to reconcile his own idealistic view of the Maoist revolution with the corruption and exploitation of the officials he encountered around him. In 1977 Peter spent two months teaching in China and he smuggled a copy of Shen’s diary back to England. He spent several years trying, unsuccessfully, to find a publisher in the UK, America and Australia.

Westerners who have lived in south-east Asia for many years say that the Chinese character is impenetrable and, therefore, unknowable. In the West, people are used to speaking out about their problems, but the Chinese, certainly at that time, were not accustomed to self-examination: the Confucian concept of character has always taught that men are healed by constraints imposed from outside, not by releasing tensions from within. Rosemary Chan once served rhubarb and custard to her Chinese students, a dish they quite clearly found revolting. She urged them to leave it on their plates but they carefully explained that they had taken it and so they must eat it. It was, she told me, quite distressing to watch.

Excerpt from I Have Come to Say You Goodbye: A History of the School of English Studies Folkestone 1959 – 2017  by Una Suseli O’Connell