I first encountered the idea that other cultures might have a radically different way of constructing arguments when I was a tutor in the writing center at a community college. In that school, we had many ESL students, quite a few of whom were Asian. The students who came to take advantage of the services at the writing center were mostly beginning writers. We tutors were given some instruction in non-Western argumentation styles, so that we might recognize non-standard composition patterns we would encounter with our tutees as possibly having cultural origins. I remember the hand-out we received on this topic. It had diagrams that were meant to illustrate the differences between standard Western styles of argumentation and Asian styles. The Western-style graphic was a straight line with an arrow. The Asian-style graphic was more of a spiraling circle, meaning, I suppose, that the writer might be inclined to talk circles around his or her meaning instead of getting straight to the point.
This model and the accompanying advice made sense at the time. Many of the beginning ESL writers who were of Asian origin did seem to have a hard time finding the necessary focus in their essays. Their paragraphs often wandered off the point into irrelevant digressions, too. Of course, so did the ESL students who were not of Asian origin. As a matter of fact, so did the beginning writers who were native English speakers. It seems that learning to write an effective argument in a thesis driven essay does not come naturally, no matter what country you are from. It is not in the water, nor apparently in the language either, since fluency does not necessarily indicate that one has absorbed one’s cultural dicta on accepted rhetorical practices.
My experience above, while very limited in scope, caused me wonder at Yameng Liu’s description of Carolyn Matalene’s essay, “Comparative Rhetoric: An American Writing Teacher in China.” When Yameng Liu explained that Matalene had constructed her entire thesis on the basis of a few papers written by Chinese college students trying to learn to write essays in English, my reaction was that this sounded like very short-sighted scholarship indeed. Yameng Liu virtually tears Matalene apart, quoting one snippet after another of offending observations and assertions she has made. From Yameng Liu’s account, Matalene must have written an extremely poor piece riddled with stereotypes and ugly Americanisms. I could certainly understand Yameng Liu’s indignation. Until I read Matalene’s article.
While Carolyn Matalene does include the remarks that so incense Yameng Liu, I do not see that her article constitutes an unforgivable scholarly offense. The piece does not purport to be a comprehensive treatise on the full history and present status of Chinese rhetoric. Matalene’s discussion of rhetoric in China includes wide ranging social observations, not a judgment on a people and its history. She writes: “Rhetoric, like ecology, is about relationships, and different cultures define and value different relationships. Examining the rhetorical practices of a culture other than our own, that is, engaging in the form of study known as contrastive rhetoric, can provide us with a clearer understanding of the culture we study and can make us more aware of our own rhetorical value system” (789). Matalene’s article is personal observations and conclusions drawn from them, all based upon an admittedly limited base of experience—one semester as a teacher in Chinese college classrooms. She analyzes specific examples of student writing as a teacher with a lifetime’s training in Western-style writing. If she finds differences, should it be a surprise? Perhaps her conclusions about her students’ writing need a broader base, but on the whole, I think that Yameng Liu has singled Matalene out as a scapegoat upon whose back to lay sins which are not necessarily her property.