On May 2, 2003, at 4:40 pm, Professor Wu Tang, a leading English language teacher educator and researcher in China, died peacefully in a Shanghai hospital at the age of 87.
Over the weekend, I tried to depict the picture Mr. Wu had in my mind and his influence on my professional development and personal growth. I have to say that Mr. Wu is one of the few professors and scholars whose impact on me is beyond measurement.
I was fortunate to have visited him in Oct. 2001 when I first returned to China at the invitation of the National Foreign Language Teaching and Research Association in Hangzhou. I went to Shanghai because of Mr. Wu. Having not seen him for ten years, the first impression he had on me was that he was still so sharp in thinking, and so humorous in talking. He could not sit up straight, but he leaned over with the support of pillows and started talking with me about what went on in school English teaching in China. He summarized the major happenings of language teaching in China for the past ten years with ten minutes. We mentioned the names and whereabouts of our old acquaintances in the field, and he not only knew them well, but also remembered details of their academic activities and publications. I had brought with me some of my publications including my newly published book on Asian students’ classroom communication pattern in US universities, and he smiled, with amiable satisfaction and relief. I knew he had hope in me as well as in all his graduate students at home and abroad. What else could be a better gift to Mr. Wu than a book of my own, I thought to myself. We then chatted about the current situation and the future of language teacher education in China, and he asked me straightforwardly what I could do to help China. I brought up a few concrete ideas, and upon hearing them, the old man smiled, and said, “You’re right on, Xiao Liu. I am pleased.” He asked his nanny to share a piece of moon cake with me and reminded me that Chinese mid-autumn festival was just over, but knowing that I would visit him, he had saved some moon cakes for me.
Leaving Mr. Wu in the hospital after that visit was hard and very emotional as I had seen a candle with its diminishing flame, but still burning with grace, eloquence and style. My eyes were red when I shook his shaky hands for a long time. I knew he did not want to see me leave after waiting for more than 10 years to see me. I felt as if my legs were not with me, I returned twice before I walked out of the hospital, trying to say more things with him and trying to see him smile again.
Mr. Wu brought me to the language teaching profession more than two decades ago. I remember the first lecture I took from him in East China Normal University in a summer teacher-training program. He was easy-going, but very passionate about his philosophy of education, and his vision about Chinese English Language Teaching. His lecture inspired me as he was so knowledgeable and well versed in both Chinese and English. Five years later in 1987, I started my MA in TESOL under his supervision at the East China Normal University in Shanghai. During those three years, he became my mentor, friend, and father figure. We traveled to many conferences together, and also visited in
many scenic places. It was on those casual occasions that I began to know Mr. Wu on a more personal level.
Mr. Wu returned to China in early 1950s after he obtained his MA in Philosophy in Education in Teacher’s College, Columbia University. He returned to China simply because of his patriotism and passion to contribute to Chinese language teaching influenced by his mentor and professor, Mr. Zhang Shiyi in 1930s, who was considered as one of the early education philosophers in language teaching and reform. Over half of the century, Mr. Wu remained a prominent language teacher educator and advocate for innovation and language teaching methodology reform in China. He was chief-editor for School English Teaching and Research Notes by East China Normal University Press, a leading journal in school English teaching in China for more than 20 years, and also one of the few TESOL degree program advisors in 1980s in China. He was well published and well known for his ability and skills in bringing new perspectives from abroad into the language teaching arena in China.
We wrote each other frequently after I came to US in 1991, and when email communication became more convenient a few years later, Mr. Wu tried this new communication channel with the help of his grandson. It was fascinating to communicate with Mr. Wu in English on-line. He continuously amazed me how well he wrote in English without mentioning his solid writing in Chinese that few can match.
The second time when I went to see Mr. Wu was last summer, the summer of 2002. At that time, he was back at home after surgery. At the age of 86, he had complications with his heart and lungs, and he was supported by an artificial heart. He was calm but weak this time. As usual, we chatted heatedly but I was advised not to get him too excited in order to protect his heart. This time, he took out a piece of paper with notes, and handed it to me by saying that these were the three things he had thought about for a while. One is the value of studying language teaching philosophy of Mr. Zhang Shiyi, who he believed had an impact on the current English teaching in China. Secondly, he wanted to know how John Dewey and John Locke were evaluated in US after so many years and whether their contributions can still benefit the innovation of school English education in China. And the third, which touched me most, was the thoughts he had from reading my book given to him on my previous visit, which he wondered whether I could translate or synthesize in Chinese so that school and university students in China can benefit from reading it. I did not promise him at that time that I would do so, but I will certainly do it now as a tribute to Mr. Wu. He would not ask me again.
I left Mr. Wu feeling better this time, thinking that I could visit him again and again whenever I have a chance to go back to Shanghai. Last week I got the official notice from the provost’s office that I got promoted to associate professor with tenure. One of the first people I would like to share the news with was Mr. Wu so I called his home but he was in the hospital, and I was told that he would return home once his condition was stabilized. I wanted to share with him directly this exciting news. Alas, the sad news of his departure due to instant heart failure reached me before I could share with him this exciting news. I was speechless, heart broken, and in pain.
A star has fallen, but his will, his determination, and his dedication to Chinese English language teaching will prevail.
May Mr. Wu be in peace!
Department of English
University of Arizona