Monday, September 26, 2005

Empires of the Mind: a new book in the former native speaker's library

The complete title is Empires of the Mind: I. A. Richards and Basic English in China, 1929-1979 by Rodney Koeneke. I just got it today.

It looks like it will shed some important light on an aspect of I. A. Richards's life that has not been deeply (or widely) discussed--his experiences in China. I don't remember how I first found out that Richards had traveled to China several times, mostly during the Republican era (1911-1949), but that, and mention of him in the preface to Anne Cochran's (the Tunghai FLLD chair in the '50s and '60s, not the singer) Modern Methods of Teaching English As A Foreign Language (a book I briefly mention here), motivated me to take a look at a biography of him by John Paul Russo. Russo discusses Richards's relationship with China in one chapter, and I'll be interested in reading how Koeneke expands on that discussion.

Two things I noticed while skimming the bibliography and index of Koeneke's book, though: 1) he doesn't seem to have used any Chinese-language sources. I wonder, then, if this book will cover more of Richards's perspective toward China than vice-versa. I'll have to see... and 2) a minor quibble--Tseng Yueh-nung (Beauson Tseng), first president of Tunghai, is mentioned (Tseng worked with Richards in China on a Subcommittee on Vocabulary Selection for Middle Schools), but his name is written "Tsing" for some reason. I wonder if that's how Richards wrote his name? (But I remember Tseng mentioned as "Tseng" in Russo's book.) Anyway, as I say, that's a minor criticism. Overall, I'm looking forward to reading this book and adding it to the background for my dissertation.

[Update, 1 Oct. 2005: Having read the first chapter of the book, I need to mention that Koeneke does acknowledge/comment upon his own lack of Chinese and this lack's relationship to his scholarship. He writes,
To a large extent, the decision to reconstruct the dramatic transformations which occurred in China and the West during the years of Richards's Basic enterprise from the evidence of his diaries, letters and published writings reflects the kinds of questions I asked about the way we narate the history of British imperialism. It also reflects my own limitations. British historians of the future will no doubt read a number of languages in addition to English (many already do) as the history of Britain is increasingly folded into that of the empire which for so long gave it its meaning. I read no Chinese, and speak about as much as my subject did. As a consequence, the enormously important story of Chinese reactions to Richards's efforts, as well as to those of the Rockefeller Foundation and other Western institutions in China during the tumultuous years between the Ching Dynasty and Mao's Revolution, can only be hinted at here. ... (17-18)
He also mentions that he has purposely "retained Richards's spelling of Chinese names." He says, "In doing so I hoped to convey something of the air of privileged aloofness which Richards enjoyed as an Englishman abroad" (19).

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