I’ve been reading Xiaoye You’s Writing in the Devil’s Tongue: A History of English Composition in China and, as you might imagine, learning a lot in the process. In the past, I often taught a course on “The History of Writing,” but it focused primarily on Western systems of writing, since those were the ones I knew best. But during those years I did learn something about the origins of writing in different cultures: for example, whereas writing in ancient Greece was associated from very early on with practical matters of trade, early Chinese writing systems were importantly linked to rituals that led to the way (dao). My interest in feminism led me to Enheduanna, Sumerian high priestess who wrote in Cuneiform and whose texts in praise of the Goddess Inanna date to the 23rd century BCE. And I was thrilled when I read Damian Baca’s Mestiz@ Scripts, which traces early pictographs back as far as 50,000 BCE, and when I learned more about the Mayan glyphs, the earliest (some say the only) writing system developed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
And now in You’s fascinating book, I am learning more about writing in ancient China and, later, in schools which required writing in English. You notes that learning to write in China came with “heavy ethical burdens.” Confucius stresses over and over again how “gentlemen” will develop through following traditional rituals that will “align them with symbolic act that reflect the true spirit of the Way” (18): as Confucius puts it,
Let a man be first incited by the Songs, then given a firm footing by the study of ritual, and finally perfected by music” (Analects 134).
Eventually, this educational plan was institutionalized in the Chinese Civil Service exams, which held sway from the early 7th to the beginning of the 20th century. The preparation and the exams themselves “instilled in students unique rhetorical sensibilities with a Confucian conscience,” according to You’s analysis (21).
Reading You’s work and revisiting Baca’s has made me think a lot about how much, if anything, we teach our students about the history of our subject, writing, and especially about writing systems in other cultures and the values embedded in those systems. In our multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural country, even with its ongoing tolerance for “English only,” writing teachers can and should take the lead in making sure our students understand that writing itself is a serious subject of study, that writing systems differ dramatically and thus carry differing value structures, and that pluralistic approaches to and understandings of writing seem necessary in the 21st century.