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Review of  Action! China

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Action! China
Book Author: Donglin Chai Crista Cornelius Bing Mu
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 29.1645

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This book is intended to help Westerners who are studying Chinese in China to become more proficient in the spoken language, by looking at how it is used in practice in real-life situations.

The Introduction offers an example about buying fruit at a market stall. A protocol records verbal and non-verbal interactions between a customer and the couple running the stall. The protocol notes, for example, that the customer makes no eye contact with either trader until she hands over the peaches she has selected for weighing, and that neither customer nor trader smiles at any stage. This seems rather different from what usually happens in an English street market, and the verbal interaction is different too: there is no ice-breaking “Morning, darling!” or general banter, the trader opens the interaction with an abrupt “Mǎi shémme?” (‘buy what?’) So, if the Chinese interaction is typical (I don’t know whether it is or not), this could potentially be a worthwhile route towards surviving linguistically in a Chinese environment.

The authors’ strategy is to get the Western student to engage in what it calls Field Performances in connexion with a specified series of everyday activities, recording the interactions afterwards in written protocols comparable to the example, including not just the words spoken but also notes on time, place, roles of speakers and audience, non-verbal communicative behaviour, etc.; and also to carry out what it calls Performance Watch exercises, logging comparable protocols for interactions among native speakers which the student happens to observe. The Field Performances to be undertaken are specified in some detail: 42 individual tasks are grouped into fourteen Topics. (The Introduction claims 99 Field Performance tasks, but it is not clear to me how this total is arrived at.) For the Performance Watch exercises, students are encouraged to be opportunistic, logging whatever types of native-speaker interaction they happen to encounter, but an appendix offers more than sixty ideas for possible Performance Watch categories.

The book has a small associated website, which includes videos of a Western student orally describing in Chinese one of her Field Performances (asking a taxi-driver about his work) and one of her Performance Watches (the fruit-stall case) to a Chinese teacher and fellow students, who ask follow-up questions. The speech in the videos is transcribed, and there are forms with headings showing how a teacher might assess the two kinds of report. Another appendix to the book identifies questions that could be used as a basis for discussing Performance Watch reports.

According to the back cover, in 2014 the book won an award for Innovative Excellence in the Teaching of Chinese as a Foreign Language.


I should be a good candidate to use a book like this. I spent many years studying Chinese – the larger part of my time was devoted to the classical language, but I also put plenty of effort into modern Mandarin. However, all that work was done thousands of miles from the Chinese-speaking world, so I know little of how the language is used in specific situations. (In the early 1960s, when I was an undergraduate, it was very difficult for an Englishman to visit China.) As it happens, a few weeks before receiving my review copy I found myself using the language, to propose a toast when one of my daughters married a Chinese: while I was quite capable of rendering into Chinese the kind of remarks which would sound appropriate to a British audience, I was acutely aware of ignorance about what a Chinese bride’s father might be expected to say.

This book would not have helped me there, but that was a very specialized scenario. The scenarios this book discusses are ones most likely to confront a Western student in China: using a campus cafeteria, taking a bus, understanding teacher –student relations, and so on. I would be glad to learn about these situations too. Does one buy a ticket before boarding a Chinese bus or on the bus; and how does one ask for it? I have no idea.

Unfortunately, the book gives no answers to questions like these. Instead, it encourages users to discover the answers for themselves. “Taking a bus” is one Fieldwork Performance task under the public transport topic (and “Making a toast” is one under the topic “Participating in formal events”). The Field Performance tasks just tell readers to ask local people about how to do these things – no clues are offered about likely answers. The fruit-seller scenario in the Introduction is the only case where we are offered specimens of Chinese-language dialogue.

Clearly, discussing real-life scenarios orally with people who are familiar with them is a good way of learning how to function in them oneself. But that hardly needs to be said. The subtitle of the book describes it as a “Field Guide”, and field guides normally give solid information about their topic. A “field guide to British birds” would enable a British birdwatcher to identify the species he sees – someone who bought it and found that it merely invited him to consult expert ornithologists might feel short-changed.

A striking feature of the book is how little material it contains for its size (207 pp.). For every page of English running text there is a separate page with a Chinese translation. (There are odd discrepancies: in the fruit-seller case, the English version describes the female vendor as the male vendor’s wife, but in Chinese “(?)” is added, and the rather ambiguous word niáng is used.) Each Topic is followed by three pages of identical “Performance Watch” forms for the reader to fill in, containing only brief headings such as “Time”, “Place”; and within Topics each task is followed by a blank page for the reader’s “Field Notes”. Fourteen pages at the end of the book are entirely blank. The first page for each Topic contains just the title, and a suitable photograph (for instance, people getting on a bus). Even on pages which do contain running text, the layout often includes generous areas of white space.

The lack of specific information in the book means that little ties it to the Chinese language rather than to any other. Except for the fruit-stall example, it seems that one could go through the book replacing the words “Chinese” and “China” with, say, “German” and “Germany”, and (provided the photographs of Chinese townscapes were replaced by German equivalents) the result could equally well be published under the title “Action! Germany”.

The book costs about US $50 from online bookshops. If I had paid that for such a thin production, I believe I would be quite unhappy.

It may be, despite the “Field Guide” subtitle, that the book is intended less for learners than for language teachers, who could use it as a source of ideas about exercises to propose to their students. The only readers to benefit from the Chinese-language pages would be Chinese language teachers whose English is weak. (Each student would need his or her own copy, though, in order to fill in the blank forms.) Never having been a language teacher, I cannot judge how useful the book would be to a teacher of Chinese. Do language teachers not routinely devise exercises like these for themselves? Those who gave the book its award must have believed they do not.
Geoffrey Sampson graduated in Oriental Studies at Cambridge University in 1965, and studied Linguistics and Computer Science as a graduate student at Yale University before teaching at the universities of Oxford, LSE, Lancaster, Leeds, and Sussex. After retiring from his Computing chair at Sussex he spent several years as a research fellow in Linguistics at the University of South Africa. Sampson has published in most areas of Linguistics and on a number of other subjects. His most recent book is ''The Linguistics Delusion'' (Equinox, 2017).

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781138098121
Pages: 166
Prices: U.S. $ 53.95