Li Yang’s Model: Questions of Morality

By Tom Baxter

“I can do it!
I will do it!
I must do it!
I will succeed!”

In July of this year 120 university students each took their turn to shout these determined and triumphant exclamations as loudly as they possibly could. Each young adult stood up on stage, some grabbing the microphone to further amplify their determination, some exuding their confidence through hand gestures, well-timed foot stomping and theatrical gazes towards the heavens, whilst a few sank into timidity, hollowly parroting the words from memory. The latter would fail, for this was a test. It was a key part of the final assessment of students at one of Kunming’s two Li Yang Crazy English (李阳疯狂英语) summer camps, where, at the end of July this year, I worked as the resident waijiao (外教). The 120 students had migrated to the First High School of Guangdu district (官渡区第一中学), on the outskirts of Kunming, from across Yunnan province, with the ambition both to perfect their spoken English and to reshape themselves into Li Yang’s model of the confident, successful, English-speaking citizen of modern China.

Li Yang at work.

The phenomenon of Li Yang Crazy English swept China in the early 1990s and continues to this day. Li Yang, a self-proclaimed success story, has wowed student audiences from PLA soldiers to the Beijing Olympic work force to primary school children with his extravagant and unique performance-classes. He has become famed for his high-energy, high-stamina performances, which can last six or more hours. In such ‘classes’ he encourages students to shout at the top of their voices and make synchronised hand gestures corresponding to English vowel sounds. His teaching method is novel and his showmanship impressive, but what makes Li’s performances even more striking is that his audiences commonly number in the thousands, occupying, and often exceeding, the capacity of large stadiums.

Images of thousands of students shouting in unison, mimicking Li Yang’s movie-like American vowels and his toying with pace and emphasis, called the Crazy English phenomenon to the attention of writers both within and without China. Evan Osnos has noted the influential writer, Wang Shuo (王朔), described Li Yang’s populism and personality cult as “a kind of old witchcraft”; one of whipping a crowd into a frenzy and gifting them, as a collective and as individuals, a sense of power and potential. The fear of Li Yang’s cult status reached a sharp peak in 2007, when a photo, reportedly, showing 3,000 students in Inner Mongolia kowtowing to Li Yang appeared on his blog, sparking much condemnation from both mainland and Hong Kong newspapers. Li Yang, wisely, dampened his public profile for some months, patiently waiting for the furore to burn out. Within the last month, a new scandal, which Li Yang is struggling to deal with, has unfolded in China’s blogosphere and newspapers—the accusation from his wife of domestic violence against both her and their two daughters.

But it is Li Yang’s political and ideological opinions that have previously received the most attention and criticism from commentators. His performances are instilled with nationalistic sentiments. For Li Yang, China and the Chinese people live with the shame of global inferiority. He resents Japanese economic and technological achievements and strives to remind people of the atrocities Japan committed in China during the 1930s and 1940s and of their current inability to speak either Chinese or English well. In Zhang Yuan’s (张元) documentary, ‘Crazy English’ (1999), Li Yang tells of how he shows elementary school children photos of Japan’s invasion of China in order to “tell them what happened in 1937, so they won’t forget”, something he fears is happening as the younger generation begin to see Japan as having a culture and style worth mimicking. He also resents American global dominance, teaching his students in the first of his popular ‘Blurt it Out’ series of learning materials, “It’s time for us to say “No” to America”. The xenophobia which Li Yang injects into his classes and publications, Wang Shuo suggests, is close to racism. Whilst Amber Woodward, Li Yang’s most ardent critic and author of the only major academic survey (PDF) of the Crazy English phenomenon, draws similarities, ideologically and stylistically, between Li Yang’s and Hitler’s populist personality cults.

The other side of this nationalism is cultural and patriotic pride. “I want to spread Chinese culture all over the world!”, students screamed out in the first class at Kunming’s Crazy English summer camp. Over the following days they would regularly be asked to or voluntarily repeat, “I will never let my country down!”.

“I don’t ever want to let my parents down!…
I don’t ever want to let my country down!…
And most importantly, I don’t ever want to let myself down!”

Li Yang’s Crazy English phenomenon, however, offers more than just predictable patriotic utterances. Li Yang is offering a model of the self, of a Chinese individual for a 21st century business-oriented China. And the key component of this new model is self-confidence. The exclamations, “I don’t ever want to let myself down!” and “I will succeed!”, are intended to instil a confidence which Li Yang proclaims is both the key to unlocking English-speaking abilities (as he learnt from his own experiences) and the key to a successful life. “From self-confidence comes success and from success comes more self-confidence. In short, self-confidence is the promise for success”.

As a child and a young man, Li Yang was shy, introverted and performed poorly in school and university. Indeed, he failed many English exams. His university scores did not improve until he stumbled across his famed learning method, which he and a friend practised together at night. From Li Yang’s shouting method came superb English language skills (he rapidly rose from failure to second in his class) and radically boosted confidence. Li Yang regards belief in oneself as integral to success, and his life story serves to illustrate his credos. Within twenty years Li Yang transformed himself from a shy, lacklustre student, to multi-millionaire and cult figure. Li Yang is aware of, and advertises, his success story, styling himself as a paternalistic master who can raise others to his heights. In his “pledge and oath” to his students he writes, “I want to be proud of you/ It’s my pleasure to help you anytime/ You can count on me!” In his classes he also regularly hands out copies of his semi-autobiographical book ‘The Secret of Success’. Li Yang presents himself as the master and exemplar of the road to success in contemporary China.

The standards by which this success is measured are clear throughout Li Yang’s teachings and texts: money, and the status and power it conveys. As a shining example of the Li Yang Crazy English model, Donna, a character in the ‘Blurt it Out’ book and CD series, “reached unbelievable success” through her successive promotions and pay raises to the level of New York overseas officer for the imaginary company Stone-Cliz International English Promotion Company. The route to success, other than the study of Li Yang’s method and the adoration of his self, is explicitly advertised as lying in the business world. Donna’s “unbelievable success” is linked to her rising status within the hierarchies of a multinational company. At times Li Yang’s learning materials directly teach business language skills. The phrase, “We can absolutely accomplish whatever you can with better and quicker results”, is taught as “a classic example of good advertising among competing businesses. . . Even political leaders can rely on this sentence to make them sound more powerful and competent than their competitors”. The world of international business is the arena within which Crazy English students can achieve the level of success that Li Yang consciously symbolises and advertises. Li Yang, through both his cult status and his teachings, is a model for the Chinese individual to emulate in a new world of big-business capitalism and brutal competitiveness.

“Have you read any of the Classics?”

For all the hype about Li Yang, however, it must be remembered that his Crazy English is a China-wide business and that, despite his reputation for phenomenal levels of energy, he cannot directly teach the majority of Crazy English classes. At Kunming Crazy English’s two week intensive summer camp I was able, at first hand, to witness variations on the contents and meanings of Li Yang’s teaching methods, or at least variations on how they have been presented to external audiences through, primarily, Zhang Yuan’s documentary, and Evan Osnos’s insightful article for the New Yorker in 2008.

A running theme throughout the long classes of this short summer camp was the possible relevance of the wisdom and morality of traditional Chinese thought to contemporary society. These are themes that I am unaware of Li Yang himself ever having mentioned, except perhaps in hinting at the greatness of Chinese traditions through his calls for the spread of Chinese culture across the world. In one of the many one-on-one oral tests, the teacher of Kunming Crazy English school intensely probed students. “Have you read any of the Classics?”, he asked about half of the class, to little avail. Others were asked their opinions on morality in contemporary China. In private he later spoke to me of his concerns about on-going moral degradation, and how he sees, perhaps contrary to Li Yang’s thought, the rapid spread of capitalism in China as a danger to the fabric of society. This teacher’s objective, squeezed into classes amongst the predictable programme of Li Yang’s text books, was to foster a moral conscience in these young adults, not simply to turn them into efficient business personnel driving towards the glory of money and success. For him, the self-confidence to achieve such things must come hand in hand with a moral code, one that he sees as deriving from a revitalisation of Chinese ancient thought for the modern era.

“You knocked me to the floor. You sat on my back. You choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor.”

At the start of September 2011 Li Yang’s American-born wife, Kim Lee, publicly accused him of domestic abuse against her and their two children. She wrote comments and posted pictures on her Weibo blog, sparking outrage against Li Yang in the press. Li Yang was slow to admit to the accusations, waiting almost a week until he wrote on his own Weibo page, “I wholeheartedly apologize to my wife Kim and my girls for committing domestic violence”. Li Yang undermined his seeming repentance four days later, however, in an interview with China Daily in which he said that he “never thought she would make it public since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders”.

How this will impact on Li Yang’s cult status is unclear now, just a month after the events. Will his role-model-self diminish in the eyes of young Chinese English enthusiasts? Kim Lee sees his image as ruined, writing in response to accusations of her improper conduct and her role in his possible downfall; “He chose to beat me… He chose to leave me alone after doing so… He chose the media spotlight. Who destroyed his image?” Her blog posts certainly attracted a huge following, provoking shock and condemnation. But Li Yang has survived media and public outrage in the past—the kowtowing incident seems long gone and forgotten now. The couple’s online marital arguments continue to unfold on Weibo and in the Chinese press, and it will take time to understand the impact, if any, on Li Yang’s status and reputation amongst the millions of English-learning Chinese for whom he is a role-model of success and one who has shown the path for aspiring youths of the 21st century.

As the 120 students and I prepared to leave Guandu high school at the end of the Crazy English camp we talked about ambitions in life and what had been achieved over the previous two weeks. Our conversation involved many mentions of making money and flying around the world in business-class, company-paid flights; of self-confidence and the ability to achieve personal success; and of serving China through such individual success. Our talk also strayed, however, into discussing the recent train crash on the Wenzhou high-speed line, which the students had been told about by their teacher. There was concern over the state of the country, its rapid change and the dominating influence of capital. Echoing the thoughts of many in China, the students were critical of the recklessness and disregard for people and their safety that had been exhibited by both big business and the government.

As these Crazy English graduates jumped into taxis or parents’ cars outside the school, new students arrived, eager for the start of the next camp. Li Yang’s model of self-confidence and self-achievement within the framework of nationalistic sentiment and duty is a highly successful recipe, which has helped spread the Crazy English phenomenon across China. But other trends exist within Crazy English teaching and amongst its students; trends which, though still highly nationalistic, are more reflective and questioning of China’s present and future, and the people’s place within that, than Li Yang’s chauvinistic, revenge-focussed nationalism and promotion of the ruthless, individualistic business world. The latest drama in Li Yang’s life may well have serious consequences on his cult status and for the popularity of Crazy English amongst ambitious students and pushy parents. The question of Li Yang’s own moral integrity could foreshadow the collapse of Crazy English as it is known to tens of millions of Chinese today.

Editor’s Note: Shortly before this article went online, Kim Lee announced that she was filing for divorce from Li Yang. Read reports at Shanghaiist and the Wall Street Journal‘s China Real Time Report for more.

Tom Baxter has just spent a year teaching and studying in Hong Kong and Yunnan Province, and is currently studying for an MA in History at the University of Glasgow.

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