CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


The Business of Teaching English | China Heritage Quarterly

Fong Foo Sec 鄺富灼 and the Business of Teaching English

Michael Gibbs Hill
University of South Carolina

'The Problem of Teaching English to the Chinese'

By 1928, when The China Critic appeared to serve a cosmopolitan English-language readership stretching from Shanghai to Singapore to New York, China's leading publishing houses had already been bringing out books, textbooks, and magazines in English for over a decade. The driving force behind this new English market was education reform.

In the 1910s and 1920s the Republican government took steps to create a modern school system that emphasized foreign languages. English became big business for China's private publishers, and the man who stood at its pinnacle was Fong Foo Sec (鄺富灼, 1869–1938). From 1910 through 1930, Fong was the most prominent textbook author, editor, and all-around impresario of teaching English in China. Fong's career and life story cross the fields of Chinese history, Asian-American history, the history of Christianity in China and the history of education and book publishing in North America and East Asia. As such, his work stands as an important precursor to the work of the editors and writers of English-language journals like The China Critic and T'ien Hsia Monthly.

Fig.1 Fong Foo Sec

Fong was born to a farming family in Taishan 台山 (then called Sunning county 新寧縣) in Guangdong province, a heavily populated area that served as the single largest source of immigrants from China to the United States from the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1940s.[1]

At the age of thirteen, Fong traveled with a neighbour (on a ticket bought with money borrowed by his family) first to Hong Kong, and then to California. Fong arrived in San Francisco but soon moved to Sacramento where he took a job as a cook in a private home. The family he worked for directed him to English language courses taught at a local Congregational Church. Both through his employer and these classes, Fong was introduced to the Christian religion, but his conversion to the church was only finally prompted by the opium habit of his uncle, with whom Fong lived in Sacramento. Fong's disgust with opium led him to move to a Christian mission, and he was baptized within a year of his arrival. He soon joined the Salvation Army, which sent him back to San Francisco to be trained as a preacher to potential Chinese converts. As a member of the Salvation Army, Fong traveled the Pacific coast—as far north as the Seattle area—on religious missions. He also took courses in shorthand and typing, which allowed him to work for the Salvation Army as a secretary for several years.[2]

Fong's success in the Salvation Army opened the door for him to study at much reduced tuition at Pomona College. He started attending Pomona's Junior Prep school in 1896, eventually taking a college preparatory diploma in 1901.[3] After a year of regular college courses at Pomona, he transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where he took a Bachelor of Arts in 1905. To pay his way through college, Fong, by then in his late twenties, waited on tables, worked as a cook and picked fruit in the summer. In his final year at Berkeley, he recalled: 'I was able to concentrate on study, for a friend offered me free board and lodging in his home'.[4]

After twenty-three years in California, in 1905 Fong moved to New York City, where he spent a year on scholarship at Teachers' College of Columbia University, taking an M. A. degree in English Literature and Education. By the of his graduation in 1906, he was thirty-seven years old. His MA thesis, 'The Problem of Teaching English to the Chinese', shows that he had begun to think about returning to his native country to take a leading role in transforming its educational system. Quoting a 1901 English translation of Viceroy Zhang Zhidong's (張之洞, 1837–1909) famous tract 'Exhortation to Learning' (勸學篇, 1898),[5] Fong argued that the Chinese state had recognized the pressing need for foreign language education.[6] Looking ahead to the decades of work necessary to remake the educational system, Fong even suggested that China might emulate India and adopt English as the main language of instruction in higher education.[7]

Even if this speculation was off the mark, Fong was correct that the demand in China for teachers of English and other foreign languages had led many schools to hire teachers with marginal qualifications. He wrote:

A friend of mine left school during the second year of his high school because he found the work too hard, owing to his poor foundation in English. On returning to China he was given a position to teach English in a government school at a salary equivalent to that of the average college professor in [the United States]. Another Chinese, whose knowledge of English was picked up in the mission schools and who can scarcely write a correct sentence, is coining money in conducting a private English school in Hongkong.[8]

Spreading the Gospel of English

With his degree from Teachers' College in hand, Fong was ideally positioned to launch the next stage of his career. He promptly returned to China, landing a position at a government school in Canton. In 1907, Fong went to Beijing to take a special imperial examination offered to Chinese graduates who had studied at foreign universities, earning the coveted jinshi 進士 degree.[9] He was offered an official position in the postal service, but declined in favor of teaching and, as he put it, relying on his own skills in favor of an unpredictable official career.[10] In the event, the Qing government was to fall only four years later.

Fong soon accepted an invitation to work for the Commercial Press 商務印書館 in Shanghai, China's largest publisher and a major player in the burgeoning market for textbooks aimed at new-style schools. He rose to the position of director of the English Editorial Department, a position he held until his retirement in 1929. From this post, Fong quickly became the most important name in English education in China, writing and editing a shelf's length of textbooks and readers. Although many, if not most, of the Commercial Press's English textbooks emphasized reading skills, classroom materials prepared by Fong such as the Class-room Conversation Book clearly worked to get students to build an active proficiency in discussing everyday topics. (As of this writing, contemporary readers can access the Class-room Conversation Book as a free Google eBook.[11])

Fong was also a regular contributor to The English Student (英文雜誌) and English Weekly (英語週刊), two widely-circulated magazines for English language learners published by the Commercial Press in association with the Commercial Press's correspondence schools.[12] In these magazines, which blended useful information with a sense of cosmopolitan identity and the gospel of self-improvement, Fong regularly appeared in advertisements for English books and as the subject of biographies of successful businessmen known for their English-language skills.[13] This image of Fong as the successful, worldly urbanite was mirrored in Chinese-language books like The Road to Success (成功之路, 1936), a collection from the book-publishing arm of The Young Companion magazine (良友畫報) that featured Fong among autobiographies of 'modern men of note' such as the painter Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻, 1895–1953) and the scholar and writer Ding Fubao (丁福保, 1874-1952).[14]

Fig.2 Title page of Fong's thesis, 'The Problem of Teaching English to the Chinese'

Outside of the publishing business, Fong was active in international organizations, especially those associated with Shanghai's Christian community. He served as chairman of the National YMCA Committee of China and chair of the Educational Committee of the Pan-Pacific Association, and was a prominent member of the International Rotary Club in Shanghai. Fong was careful to play up these associations to Christian organizations when representing the interests of his employer, the Commercial Press. In a speech delivered in English before the Shanghai Saturday Club in 1914, Fong pointed out that China's largest publisher was started by humble, devout Christian printers, Xia Ruifang (夏瑞芳, 1872-1914), Bao Xian'en (鮑咸恩, ?-1910), and Bao Xianchang (鮑咸昌, 1864?-1929).[15] Fong also stressed that although the Commercial Press did not publish any missionary materials—a move that might have jeopardized its ongoing campaign to secure official endorsement of its textbooks—the publisher maintained a 'policy not to publish anything antagonistic to Christianity'.[16] Where many histories of the Commercial Press tend to focus on the movement of highly-educated, traditionally trained scholars like Zhang Yuanji (張元濟, 1867-1959) into the Shanghai publishing world,[17] Fong's appeals to the Christian roots of the organization—and its use as a marketing tool in dealing with the expatriate community—point to a rarely explored side of the history of this major cultural enterprise.

In 1922, Fong returned in triumph to the United States, where Pomona awarded him an honorary doctorate for his work as a 'citizen of the world, a statesman, a teacher, and a Christian leader'.[18] He remained active for the rest of his career in international organizations, many related to the Christian Church in China, especially the Salvation Army and YMCA. In subsequent international trips to the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in 1931 and 1934, Fong represented Chinese branches of the Rotary and YMCA.[19]

Even a brief sketch of Fong Foo Sec's career helps us identify patterns in the sociology of English in Republican China, patterns that link early pioneers in English education to Anglophone Chinese of the era of The China Critic. Fong was a generation older than the writers for The China Critic and T'ien Hsia Monthly, and, one would guess, most of their readers, many of whom probably had spent time with his English-learning books. Despite the age difference, however, Fong possessed a similar background to many of The Critic's contributors. Like the editor D.K. Lieu, who had attended the YMCA school in Shanghai, or Lin Yutang, Qian Zhongshu, and others who had attended missionary schools in China, Fong's mastery of English had been facilitated by Christian institutions. Christianity was also a part of some writers' self-identity (Lin Yutang, for example, after moving to the United States publicized his conversion to Christianity in his book From Pagan to Christian). Like many of the 'Critic gentlemen', Fong had attended university in the West. Fong also earned his living as an English-language educator, as did Lin, Qian, Wen Yüan-ning, and other editor-contributors to The Critic who had periods teaching English at universities in China. Language textbook publishing was also important to Lin Yutang, who earned a windfall from editing the bestselling Kaiming English Reader.[20]

The gospel of English in Republican China, in other words, was bound up not only with the crusades of national modernization and individual self-improvement, but also with the imperatives of religion, celebrity, and profit—a history whose complexities await further exploration.


[1] For a recent study of immigration from Taishan, see Madeline Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration Between the United States and South China, 1882-1943, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

[2] Much of my account is drawn from two autobiographical essays by Fong: 'A Living Lesson to the New Youth', in In Memory of Dr. Fong F. Sec, Hong Kong: n.p., 1966, pp.1-17; and, 'Looking Back Over Sixty Years' 六十年之回顧, in An Anthology in Honor of Fong Foo Sec 鄺富灼博士紀念集, Hong Kong: n.p., 1966, p.23. Although these two books are companion volumes that were published at the same time, their contents are not identical. The English version is significantly longer than the Chinese version, and each volume contains essays and other materials that are not translated into the language of the other volume.

[3] See editorial note by C. L. Boynton, in Fong Foo Sec, 'A Living Lesson to New Youth', in In Memory of Dr. Fong Foo Sec, p.13.

[4] Fong Foo Sec, 'A Living Lesson to New Youth', in op.cit., p.14.

[5] The version Fong quoted was China's Only Hope: An Appeal by Her Greatest Viceroy, Chang Chih-tung, with the Sanction of the Present Emperor, Kwang Sü, translated by Samuel I. Woodbridge, Edinburgh: Oliphant, 1901; available online at:

[6] 'The Problem of Teaching English to the Chinese', MA thesis, Columbia University, 1906, p.1-2.

[7] Ibid., pp.25-26.

[8] Ibid., p.3.

[9] For a brief discussion of these special examinations conducted in the late Qing both before and after the abrogation of the original examination system, see Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, pp.612-614.

[10] 'Looking Back Over Sixty Years', in An Anthology in Honor of Fong Foo Sec, p.23. Interestingly the English version of this essay ('A Living Lesson to the Youth', in In Memory of Fong Foo Sec) skips over the mention of an official position and stops entirely at 1911. The Chinese version, however, gives an account up through 1929.

[11] Fong Foo Sec, A Class-room Conversation Book, Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1908. See, (accessed on 30 August 2012).

[12] For a history of these journals, see my article, 'Between English and Guoyu: The English Student, English Weekly, and the Commercial Press's Correspondence Schools', Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 23, no.2 (Fall 2011): 100–145.

[13] See, for example, Francis Zia 謝福生, 'How they Mastered English: Dr. Fong F. Sec', The English Student 9, no.8 (August 1921): 561-568.

[14] The Road to Success: autobiographies of modern men of note 成功之路:現代名人自述, Shanghai: Liangyou Tushu Gongsi, 1936.

[15] For a discussion of these men's work to found the Commercial Press, see Christopher Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004, pp.188-199. Xia and the Bao brothers all met at a Presbyterian school in Shanghai.

[16] Fong F. Sec, A Phase of China's Educational Problem: A Speech Delivered by Fong F. Sec before the Saturday Club of Shanghai on February 28th, 1914, n.p: n.d., pp.1-2. Although no publisher is listed for this pamphlet, it was almost certainly published by the Commercial Press in Shanghai. I have reviewed a copy of the book that is held at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

[17] For a biography of Zhang, see Manying Yip, The Life and Times of Zhang Yuanji, Beijing: Commercial Press, 1989.

[18] 'From Coolie Boy to LL. D.', The New York Times, 24 September 1922.

[19] Fong's deep interest in these organizations is reflected in a number of letters collected in In Memory of Dr. Fong F. Sec, pp.97-139.

[20] Qian Suoqiao, 'Discovering Humour in Modern China: The Launching of the Analects Fortnightly Journal and the "Year of Humour" (1933)', In Humour in Chinese Life and Letters: Classical and Traditional Approaches. Jocelyn Chey and Jessica Milner Davis, eds, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011, pp.195-196.