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How did Chinese people learn English 100 years ago?

2021-September-7       Source: Newsgd.com

Collector Chen Kailun, who lives in the Historic Site of Ancient Huangpu Anchorage in Guangzhou, found an English textbook that used Chinese characters to mark English pronunciation.

Collector Chen Kailun, who lives in the Historic Site of Ancient Huangpu Anchorage in Guangzhou, found an English textbook that used Chinese characters to mark English pronunciation. The book, which is named Youxue Qionglin (幼学琼林), was found in a dilapidated old house six years ago. After textual research, it was proved to be an enlightened reading material for children in ancient China. And it was published by Shanghai Jinzhang Book Bureau during the Republic of China (1912—1949).

Although the oiled paper on the cover of this book is tattered, the inner pages are well preserved, and the contents can still be clearly seen. The book not only records many aspects of ancient China, such as astronomy and geography, laws and regulations, customs and etiquette, weddings and funerals, plants and animals, but also many commonly used English dialogue and words at the top of each page. Every sentence’s pronunciation was marked with Chinese characters. The basic letters, ABCDEFG, were marked with “哀、皮、西、地、意、爱夫、其”. The English word star was marked with “丝带”. And the most commonly used English greeting sentence—How do you do—had been "translated" into the Chinese character—"好度由度".

(Photo: Nanfang Metropolis Daily)

"Of course, people nowadays will definitely feel awkward to read these English with nonstandard phonetic notation, but at that time, the villagers of Ancient Huangpu Anchorage used this way to learn English." Chen said. “Even though it seems that the pronunciation is inaccurate now, but this textbook proves the villagers’ English learning was systematic at that time.”

In 1757 (Qing Dynasty), Guangzhou became China's only trading port and an important window for foreigners to learn about China. "After foreigners came to Huangpu Village, smart villagers naturally thought of ways to make foreigners’ money, so they had to learn English and talk to those special guests from far away," Chen said. He speculated that the villagers at that time relied on nonstandard pronunciations and funny body language to slowly communicate with foreigners. "There are not only basic ABCD on the textbook, but also some words about money, quantity, and goods, such as silk, tea, and even law," he added. These words and simple phrases basically covered the daily communication needs at that time.

(Photo: Nanfang Metropolis Daily)

(Photo: Nanfang Metropolis Daily)

In addition to the Youxue Qionglin, Chen also found other evidence of Chinese-foreign exchanges. A notebook full of "shipment records" clearly stated in beautiful italic script that the silk was to be shipped to Boston and New York, and it also marked the volume and date of shipment. There were also a Canadian railway map and Canadian National Railways bills in the notebook. "It shows that Huangpu villagers have been doing international trade for a long time." Chen said proudly.

The notebook recorded the shipment details in beautiful italic script. (Photo: Nanfang Metropolis Daily)

Chen Kailun's original intention for collecting antique books was so that more people could understand the history and culture of Huangpu Village, and see the prosperity of the past Maritime Silk Road. Today, the Historic Site of Ancient Huangpu Anchorage is well-protected in Guangzhou's Haizhu district. Interested tourists can search for "黄埔古港景观区" directly on the map, or take the Metro line 8 to Wanshengwei Station (万胜围).

Author: Ariel

Editor: Jasmine, Jerry

Editor: Ariel

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