58.1, February 2011

When Traditional Chinese Culture Meets a Technical Communication Program in a Chinese University: Report on Teaching Technical Communication in China

Daniel D. Ding


Purpose: This article examines specific manifestations of the generalizations identified by literature in pedagogy in a Chinese university.

Method: Five open questions were asked of the university's five technical communication instructors in a 90-minute focus-group interview session to identify the important areas in pedagogy as conditioned by Chinese culture. The 300 students were surveyed to reveal their understanding of technical communication as it existed in China. Features as conditioned by Chinese culture and as manifested in the 300 students were also identified through my teaching and observing their performance in class.

Results: The five instructors taught the same lessons and the same course content determined by the university. They focused on teaching professional terms and phrases. They administered examinations throughout a semester to help students memorize the terms. The 300 students generally thought that technical communication was about science and technology. The general audience of technical communication, for them, was basically their country, and the purpose was to serve their country and society. In class, these students often studied through collaboration in groups; they memorized almost everything from their professor; and they preferred a broad thinking style to tackling broad issues.

Conclusions: Technical communication pedagogy is governed by Confucianism and the test-oriented Chinese society. In class, students were motivated by the collectivism Chinese culture stresses. Students' rote learning approach was influenced by their traditional way of learning, and the broad thinking style was a textual mechanism for students to complete assignments while upholding patriotism.

Keywords: technical communication, Confucianism, rote learning, collectivism, broad thinking style


In the fall of 2008, while on my sabbatical leave, I taught a semester of technical communication at China's Zhengzhou University. This was the second time I had taught technical communication at a Chinese university in the past nine years. In the summer of 2000, I taught two weeks of technical communication to a small group of students at Suzhou University. At that time, not a single Chinese university offered technical communication as an academic program; instead, most of its universities had developed a vocabulary-centered writing course—English for Specific Purpose (ESP)—which focused mainly on teaching professional terms. In addition, not too many faculty members who were teaching ESP understood technical communication as we would define it (Ding & Jablonski, 2001). Today, China has made much progress in advancing technical communication as a college discipline. At least two universities, including Zhengzhou University, have developed their own technical communication programs (Duan & Gu, 2005). Technical communication textbooks, though general and broad in context, are being published. More and more faculty members tend to accept it as an academic discipline.

My sabbatical experiences support the above-mentioned progress. Meanwhile, my teaching activities and my research activities at Zhengzhou University both suggest that a technical communication program in China has unique features—evidenced by the way our Chinese colleagues teach it and by the way Chinese students learn it—which are conditioned by Chinese culture. My experiences enabled me to see the challenges and opportunities for both our Chinese colleagues and international technical communication instructors who are willing to teach technical communication in China. These challenges were not manifest in 2000 when I was teaching in China for the first time. More important, my leave provided me an opportunity to explore how Chinese culture manifests itself within particular practices of and approaches to technical communication programs.

Researchers and practitioners in the past 10 years or so have focused many of their studies on how Chinese culture bears directly or indirectly on technical communication in China, suggesting that technical communication in China is an important component of international technical communication. Ulijin and St.Amant (2000), for example, report that based on an experiment, individuals from China interpret the same negotiation process differently than individuals from other cultures, due to their cultural assumptions and beliefs. St.Amant (2001), in his invitation to technical writers from industrialized nations to work closely with their Chinese counterparts to create culturally effective documents for Chinese users, suggests that human relationships impact communication practices in Chinese culture. Wiles (2003) claims that Chinese culture is conducive to developing the skills for single-sourcing, skills that are essential to technical communication. Ding (2003) argues that Yi Jing, completed in 500 B.C., is the earliest technical communication work in China that championed a philosophy that underlies Chinese technical communication practices—unity between contexts and objects (such as a document) to be used in the contexts. Barnum and Li (2006) have contrasted Chinese and American cultural values that govern the ways technical communication is practiced in the two different cultures, pointing out that Chinese culture orients page design in China. Ding (2006), after studying Confucianism and technical communication in China, points out that Confucianism is the driving force of the indirect style of Chinese technical communication. Its three core principles—ren (human heartedness), yi (righteousness), and li (proper conduct code)—shape the way a document is developed and created in Chinese culture. Yu (2009) has studied Chinese culinary instructions in the context of Chinese culture, suggesting that culinary instructions in China have a history of 2,000 years. Ding (2010), after studying the first comprehensive technical communication book in China, On Technological Subjects, argues that influenced by Confucianism, using names (nouns) for the titles of instructions is a striking feature of Chinese instructional manuals, thus making clear one difference in style between Chinese and American instructions.

The above studies have revealed the following generalizations about technical communication in China: First, its practices are highly influenced by Confucianism. Second, they are highly contextualized so that audiences are expected to have much pertinent knowledge when using a technical communication document. Third, technical communication employs an indirect style in business correspondence and business negotiations because it often combines personal information and stories with business information to help establish harmonious relationships between authors and audience. Fourth, it has a long history, as it has been practiced for more than 2,000 years.

Many other researchers and practitioners have addressed technical communication education in China, an issue that is more relevant to this article. Ding and Jablonski (2001), for example, point out that Chinese universities, given their cultural and social contexts, emphasize vocabulary-building skills in their version of a technical communication course, ESP, arguing that such a course is built on the assumption that technical communication is done by scientists for other scientists. Barnum, Philip, Reynolds, Shauf, and Thompson (2001) tell us that “the Chinese classroom is very different from the Western classroom” (p. 400) and that rote learning helps Chinese students learn the language and build a good relationship between teachers and students. Duan and Gu (2005), two Chinese instructors of technical communication, share their experiences of teaching a Chinese version of technical communication—English for Technical Communication—in China, especially their use of, in their own terms, “a more Western style of teaching” (p. 445), testing skills, and use of labs. Dautermann (2005) discusses the difficulties she experienced in training a group of Chinese business writers in a two-week session “in an authoritarian culture” (p. 156), where she encountered issues of resources, equipment, teaching environment, and politics. Barnum and Li (2006), while discussing challenges to technical communication education in China in their contrast study of American and Chinese cultural values, stress that a major “impediment to the adoption of technical writing courses at the university level is the current focus in English classes on language acquisition and precision in vocabulary and grammar, which leaves little room for teaching principles of technical communication” (p. 149). Golemon (2008) planned a technical communication course for a Taiwan university, arguing that such a plan must be based on three features of Chinese culture: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and collectivism. Roberts and Tuleja (2008) report six cultural challenges they encountered while teaching a course of managerial communication in Hong Kong: Chinese students' unwillingness to speak out in class, their difficulties with English, their unwillingness to ask questions in class, plagiarism, their indirect style of reasoning, and the Chinese approach to teaching (i.e., one-way lecture from the instructor); thus they claim that they “experienced considerable difficulty in shifting from a student-centered approach to a teacher-centered one” (p. 485). Ding (2010), after introducing another version of Chinese technical communication course—English Relative to Individual Disciplines (ERID), claims technical communication courses (as we define them) in China should be based on China's historical and cultural contexts, proposing that ERID can serve as starting point to launch such courses. He also stresses that ERID “focuses on language acquisition, disciplinary vocabulary, and genre knowledge, and translation skills” (p. 314). In short, it is basically a language skill course.

The studies cited above identify three general points: First, technical communication education in China with its unique features is not technical communication education as we would define it. Second, most Chinese universities, if they offer technical communication courses at all, offer the so-called ESP course, which is oriented toward building professional terms. Third, we should not simply graft our version of technical communication programs onto China's universities.

Now the question is, given our understanding of the relationship of Chinese culture and technical communication in China, what are some of the specific features of Chinese culture made manifest in a particular technical communication program at a Chinese university, and by extension, in technical communication education in China? For example, what do Chinese instructors teach in a technical communication class, and why do they teach the way they do? What pedagogical strategies do they employ? How do students learn technical communication? This article attempts to answer these questions. Some of the studies mentioned above may have touched upon these questions, but in a very general fashion. For example, Duan and Gu (2005) report their experiences of designing a technical communication course based on an ESP course, adapting a Western style of teaching to their students. Golemon (2008) discusses how to plan for developing a technical communication course in Chinese culture, arguing that Chinese culture should guide such a plan. Other studies are only suggestive of an answer to some of these questions. For example, Roberts and Tuleja (2008), while discussing the six challenges they experienced in teaching, imply that instructors are the source of knowledge in class and that students memorize course materials as a way of learning. This article addresses these questions more articulately.

First, I report my informal research of interviewing five technical communication instructors, focusing on how they teach technical communication. Second, I discuss my research of surveying 300 technical communication students, attempting to explore their perceptions of technical communication as it exists in Chinese universities. Then, I discuss my teaching activities, focusing on the students' performance vs. the class size, their study habits, and the strategy they use in completing technical writing assignments.

Interviewing Technical Communication Instructors

Before I started teaching, I conducted informal interviews to help myself understand how the Chinese technical communication instructors approached technical communication pedagogy so that I could adapt my teaching practices to the Chinese students.

Interview Method

I used focus group interviews. Focus group interviewing is usually limited to a small group of about six “to permit genuine discussion among all its members” (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990, p. 10). Lewis (2000) suggests that focus group interviewing is less directive and more interactive because it allows all the interviewees to participate in interviews that resemble a group discussion. Glesne and Peshkin (1992) believe that some people, especially shy people, feel more comfortable expressing themselves when others, especially their fiends, are also present. In other words, discussions may be more productive in a small group of people who know each other well. Given a small group of interviewees and the cultural assumption that individuals in Chinese culture are inclined not to speak out, especially when a foreign professor is present, I believed this interview method would work well for my purpose.

The department had five technical writing instructors, and I interviewed all of them. Of those five, four had been teaching the course for two years, and one for one semester. All of them were teaching at both graduate and undergraduate levels, and one of them was directing a student's master's thesis at the time. All five instructors had master's degrees; one was an associate professor and four were lecturers.

I generated five interview questions based on the following principles: First, the questions should help me understand the important areas of technical communication courses these Chinese instructors were teaching. I believe the important areas include selecting course content, identifying and tackling pedagogical issues, developing students' qualifications for employment, and connecting culture and technical communication. Second, the questions should help me learn the instructors' perceptions of the areas of technical communication that the Chinese university wanted me to help with by giving a series of lectures to its faculty: culture and technical communication, workplace needs and technical communication education, and technical communication textbooks. Third, Krueger (1988) recommends that focus group interviewing use about five questions. Thus, I formulated the following five questions:

  1. How many years have you taught technical communication?
  2. What do you teach in a technical communication class?
  3. What are some of the important current issues in technical communication pedagogy?
  4. What does the workplace require your graduates to know before they are hired?
  5. What role does Chinese culture play in technical writing and technical communication pedagogy in the university?

To collect data, I used a tape recorder assisted by note taking, especially when background noises were too loud. The entire group interviews took 90 minutes.


Two older instructors were more talkative than the three younger ones, who, though they themselves were instructors, were somewhat bashful. Only after an older instructor started talking did they begin to answer questions, but still their answers were often truncated and sometimes not very articulate. Here I report their answers to all the questions except the first one, which was about the interviewees' background.

Question 2: What do you teach in a technical writing class? All of them explained that they taught sentence-making skills, professional terms, and professional writing translation skills. One important reason why they taught the same lessons, according to one instructor, is that they all used the same textbook, Business English: An English Course in Business Writing (Xian, 2002). Both the textbook and the course content were determined by the school, which followed the guidelines of the Chinese central government. In other words, what to teach and how to teach it were not completely up to the instructors to decide. What these instructors told me corroborates Dautermann (2005), who brought up the point of “highly regulated teaching environments” when she was listing the “institutional barriers that are likely to limit the use . . . interactive teaching methods” in a Chinese university (p. 156). The textbooks, course content, and the lessons are regulated by the central government, and the instructors are expected to pass them on to their students.

They believed that instructors were more important than textbooks, because knowledge came from the instructors. They could impart their writing skills and knowledge to their students. They took students through a text word by word, explaining points of vocabulary and content along the way. Then they made sure that students learn the meanings of these words. One important approach they used was to have students use new words or phrases from the previous lessons in making up new sentences or in composing a text. Students who did well, they admitted, were those who had memorized entire chapters and the definitions of the words and phrases they had learned. Thus, although their textbook contained lessons on using forms and rhetorical strategies such as buffers in bad news reports, these five instructors chose to focus on using language. They stressed that students could learn those strategies by themselves in the workplace, but they could not learn to use correct words and phrases in the workplace.

Question 3: What are some of the important current issues in pedagogy? The five instructors brought up two issues in their teaching practices. First, it was impossible to cover all the lessons in examinations in a technical communication class (e.g., features of business report and contracts). Second, because examinations could not cover all the course materials, these instructors were anxious that students would not learn everything they taught. One instructor particularly added that in her class, she sometimes used multiple-choice questions in examinations on features of business reports and contracts and other nonlanguage skills. These examinations, though she realized that they did not work well all the time because she knew memorizing these features did not mean that students could use them properly in written documents, proved very practical, at least when she wanted her students to get familiar with these features.

One instructor talked about using samples in pedagogy. He told me that the samples used in a technical writing class should be model documents that all students could emulate and use, but it was not easy to find such samples in China. This lack of model samples made it very difficult for students to learn to write technical documents correctly.

Questions 4: What does the workplace require your graduates to know before they are hired? The five instructors shared the view that Chinese job market demanded more technical translators than technical writers, so many companies in China wanted their students to be well versed in both English and Chinese. The workplace wanted their graduates to write well, but more than 50% of them could not write without making many errors in their documents. These instructors informed me that some graduates could not even write a paragraph in the workplace without making more than 10 major mistakes. So the university stressed the importance of writing well. Writing well, for my Chinese colleagues, often means using words and phrases already memorized. These instructors felt that they had a responsibility to ensure that their students know how to write. They firmly believed that they could pass writing skills on to their students.

One strategy they used was quizzes and examinations. They anxiously told me that exams were an effective means to ensuring that their students had mastered what they had taught. All five instructors told me that they administered a quiz every week, one midterm examination, and one final examination. The major purpose of these tests was to ensure that students memorize the definition of terms and expressions so that that they might use them in making new sentences or composing new texts. Often in the tests, they asked students to fill in a blank or to make up a sentence by using a word, a phrase, or a sentence from their textbook.

Question 5: What role does Chinese culture play in technical communication and technical communication pedagogy in the university? One instructor remarked that traditionally, China had a lot of technical writing examples. He cited two examples of scientific and technological books from ancient China: Yellow Emperor's Internal Channels, a book on traditional medicine from the Warring States period; and On Technologies, a comprehensive book on technology from the Ming Dynasty. In this instructor's words, “China has a long history of technical writing, and today's task is to further develop this tradition to let it serve China's modernization drive.” All five instructors claimed that they had a responsibility to carry on the fine tradition of Chinese culture by transmitting it to their students.


These professors' remarks in the group interviews suggest that technical writing pedagogy in this Chinese university, particularly in terms of delivering course materials and lessons, is influenced by traditional Chinese culture. First, for thousands of years, texts of study (i.e., Confucian texts sanctioned by the dynastic governments) were not to be altered or modified; interpretations were provided by the governments too; these texts were just to be used (Upton, 1989). Mencius, who transmitted and developed the teachings of Confucius and who was second only to Confucius himself in creating the historical importance of Confucianism, once remarked that he had transmitted the Confucius's wisdom simply by teaching his words without adding any comments or interpretations (Waley, 1977). The modern Chinese educational system seems to have carried on this tradition, because the Chinese Ministry of Education must approve texts to be used; professors are not allowed to choose their own.

Second, in Chinese culture, the teacher is the knowledge authority “whose message never deviates from the textbook and who imparts the text's correct information to the students” (Beamer, 1994, p. 16). Confucianism firmly believes that knowledge can be transmitted from master to pupils; learning, for Confucius, is learning from masters (Lau, 1997). To evaluate their mastery of the ancients, students often took exams which “were to a large extent a test of students’ ability to memorize and internalize tremendous amounts of materials' (Upton, 1989, p. 21). In fact, this emphasis on memorization in Chinese education dates back to ancient China, when students were taught to repeat Confucius's teachings in order to memorize them (Beamer, 1994). Similarly, in modern China, the teacher plays the same role of imparting knowledge and the student plays the same of role of mastering it (Beamer, 1994). Even the tradition of Chinese culture has to be transmitted by teachers to students so that it can “serve China's modernization drive.” In other words, a teacher's responsibility is still to disseminate the correct messages from texts to students and then to ensure that they learn them through memorization, while students' role is still to “master what has been imparted” (Beamer, 1994, p. 16). To assess students' learning outcome, teachers administer tests in which students are expected to repeat verbatim what they have learned from their teachers. No wonder the five technical communication instructors firmly believed that they could impart the correct information from the textbook to their students and that exams could effectively make students learn.

Surveying Technical Communication Students

I also surveyed my Chinese students, 200 graduate students and 100 undergraduate (sophomore) students. One might argue that because the undergraduate students had not taken any technical communication classes before and thus they were not very knowledgeable about the field of technical communication, their opinions are probably not very significant. Thus, I discuss only the data obtained from the 200 graduate students.

Survey Design

Through the surveys, I wanted to learn the students' attitudes toward technical communication. In addition and more important, I needed to find out the students' perceptions of the main concepts I would focus on in class. To get to know the students' attitudes, I formulated five questions based the concepts most of the technical communication textbooks we use in the States (Anderson, 2010; Burnet, 2005; Lay, Wahlstrom, Selfe, Selzer, & Rude, 2000; Markel, 2001) cover in the first chapter or part: definition of technical communication, role of technical communication in industry, technical communication and your career, audience and purpose, and ethics. Thus, I generated the following five open questions:

  1. How do you define “technical communication”?
  2. What role does technical communication play in decision-making?
  3. How do you see the relationship between technical communication and your career?
  4. How do you define audience and purpose?
  5. What is “ethics” in technical communication?

To learn the students' perceptions of the concepts I would teach in class, I chose the following nine topics to be rank-ordered by the students on the survey from most important to least important, with 1 as the most important and 9 the least important:

  1. Paragraph structure
  2. Sentence structure
  3. Audience analysis
  4. Writing purpose
  5. Correct spelling
  6. Correct diction
  7. Vocabulary
  8. Ethics in writing
  9. Document design

I picked the above nine topics for two major reasons: First, these were the topics that the university and I had agreed that I would cover in my sabbatical teaching. Second, they were the same concepts I had used on the surveys the first time when I taught technical communication in China, which would allow me to compare and contrasts the results, though this article does not address the comparisons or contrasts.

The 200 graduate students represented 45 programs in 19 academic colleges and departments, such as English, chemistry, physics, materials, civil engineering, surveying engineering, business, medical science, Chinese medicine, pharmacy, nursing, electronics, law, hydraulics, geology, environment, biology, mechanical engineering, and botany. All of them were working or had working experiences, and all of them had taken at least one technical communication class before. I distributed the surveys among all 200 graduate students on the first day of class.

Survey Results

The students, when they were answering the survey questions, thought they were taking a test, especially when they were working on the five open questions. Many indicated that they had not prepared for the test, so they were concerned that they would not be able to pass. Given the Chinese education system, most of these students had never taken a survey before, and many of them looked for standard answers. Some of them even openly asked me if I would grade their answers. I explained that it was not a test and that they should not identify themselves. Upon hearing that, they wanted to know if they “have to” turn them in. I emphasized that it was on a voluntary basis, because it would not affect their course grade; however, I stressed, the more responses I received, the more I would learn about the students, which would help me plan the course. Finally, I received 127 responses.

Not all the 127 students who returned the questionnaire answered all the five open questions, probably because they were open questions and thus took longer to complete, or because they were more challenging than simply rank-ordering the nine topics. Only 121 students defined “technical communication,” 78 discussed the role technical communication played in decision-making, 137 answered Question 3, 140 defined “audience and purpose,” and 98 defined “ethics” in technical communication. Table 1 summarizes the distribution of answers to the five questions. If an answer was given by fewer than five students, I included it in the category of “other answers.

Table 1: Distribution of answers to each of the five open questions

Questions Answers

Question 1: Definition of technical communication

34: “Very Technical,” 21: “About Science and Technology,” 19: “About Anything,” 19: “I Don't Know,” 16: “Written by Technicians,” 12: “Other Answers”

Question 2: Role in decision-making

24: “An Important Role,” 19: “Not Sure,” 21: “Not Important,” 13: “Somewhat Important,” 11: “Other Answers”

Question 3: Technical communication and career

53: “Helps My Career,” 36: “Somewhat,” 13: “Not Sure,” 35: “Others Answers”

Question 4: Definition of audience andpurpose

44: “The Country and the Society and to Serve Them,” 30: “The Teacher and to Graduate,” 21: “Recruiters and to Find a Job,” 17: “Boss and to Get Promoted,” 28: “Other Answers”

Question 5: Ethics and technical communication

41: “Socialist Ethics,” 36: “Good Morality,” 9: “I Don't Know,” 12: “Other Answers”

Table 2 illustrates the results of rank-ordering of the nine topics by the 127 graduate students. The numbers with which students rank-ordered these topics are added and averaged. The more points a topic received, the less important it is. The average for each topic was obtained by dividing the sum of the numbers with which students ranked the topic by the total number of responses (127). The averages were then ranked to indicate which topics were viewed as most important to least important. I include the averages in the table because they are relatively small numbers and as such, readers can more easily see the ranges within the data set by focusing on them than on the raw points. The nine topics appear in the table in the same order as they appeared on the survey.


Students’ answers to the five open questions indicate that although these students had taken at least one technical communication class before, they defined technical communication in a narrow sense. For them, it was about science and technology, and the writing itself just used many technical terms. One student stated that she had learned many such terms in a technical English class she had taken the previous semester so that now she could confidently write about technology through employing these terms. Another student noted that technical writing was “done by scientists and technicians for other scientists and technicians, and unless you are a scientist, you cannot understand it.” Although 53 students thought that technical communication plays “an important role,” none elaborated on this role; only 6 students commented on its role by claiming that technical communication could help the government develop a better and a harmonious society for the people. It is apparent from my survey that students had rarely thought about technical writing as having relevance to the workplace in a more general sense.

However, as Table 1 shows, 53 students believed that technical communication helped their own careers. For them, technical writing was addressed to their teachers, job recruiters, or bosses in order to graduate, find employment, or be promoted. It seems that they thought technical communication served their personal interests, but if we examine this question in conjunction with their answers to Question 4, we realize that the ultimate audiences are their country and society. That is, in the short term, technical communication served their personal interests because it could help them graduate and find a job, but in the long term, it helped them serve their country once they found a job. So of the 140 students who defined “audience and purpose,” 44 answered explicitly that the audience was their country, and the purpose was to serve their country; 41 believed it could help them graduate and find a job. Only 17 thought it would help them get promoted, thus serving their personal interests.

The fact that 44 students defined “audience” as their country and society and the purpose to serve their country and society strongly suggests that, for these students, technical communication becomes an ideological tool to show their patriotism. “Ethics,” for 41 students, is “socialist ethics,” and for 36 other students, it is “good morality.” When I asked them to explain to me what “socialist ethics” and “good morality” consisted of, some pointed out that “socialist ethics” was rich in content and referred to the spirit of helping others and sacrificing oneself for the interests of the country and others, and “good morality” entailed the same values as “socialist ethics.”

The results of rank-ordering the nine topics are consistent with the results of answering the five open questions. As Table 2 indicates, writing purpose came in first and vocabulary came in second, followed by audience analysis. The results suggest that students focused on the importance of purpose, but to them “purpose” often meant, as Table 1 indicates, serving the country or getting a good grade so that they could learn more to serve the country. Vocabulary came in second because without knowing a lot of words, students stated in their responses, they would not be able to read and write. Audience analysis closely followed vocabulary. Actually both vocabulary and audience analysis were listed 16 times as number 1 in importance. Students explained to me that audience ranked third because it was very important to ensure that what they wrote was what their motherland needed to know. In this way, their writing could better serve the country. In other words, their motherland was their ultimate audience.

In a nutshell, the survey results suggest that first, for my students, audience and purpose could be separated from each other, and second, audience and purpose were often clear without being analyzed and identified. That is, most often the purpose of writing is to serve the country, and the audience is their motherland. In China, audience and purpose are rarely discussed in college writing classes. As Duan and Gu (2005) point out, “Chinese English instructors refuse to recognize that . . . audience analysis… [is] related to the teaching of English” (p. 439). Instead, Chinese universities and schools encourage students to study for their motherland, and teachers specifically tell students that everything they are doing in a class is to serve their country after graduation. As a result, most of the students think the only purpose of writing a paper in a class is to prepare themselves for the job of serving their country after they graduate. The emphasis in defining audience and purpose as serving the country has a lot to do with traditional Chinese culture, which gives priority to the collective. Research has established that Chinese culture stresses the collective and deemphasizes the self (Ding, 2006; Huang, Andrulis, & Chen, 1994; Winfield, Mizuno, & Beaudoin, 2000;). When defining audience and purpose in terms of the collective, these students seemed to try to conform to this tradition of Chinese culture.

It is also noteworthy that vocabulary ranked second. Clearly, it was very important to the students. This can be explained by the fact that in Chinese universities, teaching writing has always stressed the importance of memorizing words and phrases and then using them in formulating new sentences and paragraphs. Indeed, as my interviews with the technical writing instructors revealed, vocabulary building was a major part of their course content; students had learned to view vocabulary building as an essential skill in a technical writing class. This stress on vocabulary is clearly conditioned by the traditional communication pedagogy in Chinese universities, a pedagogy championed by Confucianism, which emphasizes memorization (Beamer, 1994). My survey results regarding vocabulary are consistent with Roberts and Tuleja's (2008) observation that in China “[m]odern teaching still adheres to this practice (of memorization)” (p. 481).

Table 2 also indicates that not a single student listed document design as number 1 in importance. On the contrary, 78 students listed it as ninth in importance. Also, the range within the averages does not seem to be large, except, perhaps, for document design. For example, the average for writing purpose, ranking first in importance, differs by 3.35 from that for correct spelling, ranking eighth in importance; however, it differs by 5.63 from that for document design, ranking ninth in importance. This large range suggests that document design is still a new territory for Chinese students. My discussions with the technical writing instructors reveal that none of them has even brought up that topic in any of the technical writing classes. No wonder document design came in last in the survey results. Ethics came in fourth, though it is rarely taught in a technical writing class in Chinese universities. But Chinese students have a different perception of ethics; for them, the term usually means “conforming to socialist ethical viewpoints.”

Table 2: Nine topics rank-ordered by graduate students (N = 127)

Topic (Total Points) Average Rank Listed as Number 1 in Importance Listed as Number 9 in Importance

Paragraph structure (657)





Sentence structure (582)





Audience analysis (441)





Writing purpose (276)





Correct spelling (701)





Correct diction (630)





Vocabulary (413)





Ethics in writing (569)





Document design (991)





In summary, the surveys, though small in scope, represent a sample of Chinese instructors’ and students’ views of technical writing in Chinese universities. First, students define audience and purpose in terms of the collective: their motherland. Even when they were discussing ethics, they seemed to think of ethics in terms of the collective: the ethics of society—socialist society. Second, technical communication pedagogy—teaching vocabulary and emphasis on memorization—is conditioned by traditional Chinese pedagogy, which focuses on rote memorization. Finally, technical communication is mainly done by professionals for professionals, so teaching technical communication is teaching professional terms. In short, technical communication in Chinese universities is heavily influenced by Chinese culture.

My Teaching

The interview and survey results helped me design graduate and undergraduate courses. To my undergraduate students, I introduced the basic forms of technical communication, such as memoranda, instructions, descriptions, short reports, and proposals. In my graduate classes, students learned to manage an extended written project throughout the semester—an operational manual, a procedure manual, an employee handbook, a training handbook, or a technical report. In addition, students wrote a number of short supporting documents such as memoranda, proposals, progress reports, and treatments.

In this part of my sabbatical activities, I was both a participant and an observer. I was a participant because I was the visiting professor teaching 300 students, directly interacting with them in class and during conferences on their papers. I was an observer because I often observed their behaviors, as when they were reading textbooks, course materials, or handouts in order to memorize them. This part of discussion is based on the data I obtained as a participant/observer.


I wanted to identify the features as conditioned by Chinese culture and as manifested in the students, especially in the way they performed academically in a technical communication class. But first I needed to decide where to look for these features. My graduate class syllabus divided a student's course grade into four components: two 2-page papers, one 6-page paper, one 15-page paper, and class participation. For my undergraduate students, the syllabus had similar components of course grade—written work and class participation, though the written work consisted of five short papers. I was able to determine the following two principles that governed my research as a participant and an observer:

  • Strategies students used for completing papers
  • Students’ performance in class

My participatory/observational study took place during the entire 16-week semester at Zhengzhou University. There were 300 students in six classes. I taught each of the six classes for 2 hours a week: two classes on Monday, two on Wednesday, and two on Thursday. I read a total of 1,560 drafts of papers by both graduate and undergraduate students. In addition, I conducted a 3-hour conference with my students every day of the week. My participatory/observation research revealed the following three features:

Large class size is conducive to developing students’ sense of collectivism.

Memory-based study habits help students learn course materials and succeed in examinations.

A broad thinking style in their papers suggests students’ sense of patriotism.


Students’ sense of “collectivism” in large classes. In teaching 300 students in six classes, I met with two major challenges: conducting weekly one-on-one conferences with students, and grading papers. Clearly, it was impossible for me to conduct conferences with all of my 300 students every week or to read and grade 300 papers a week. However, it provided an excellent opportunity for me to observe more students than I had expected. But still I expressed my concerns to the dean, who told me immediately that I might choose to read and grade a sample of 10 papers from each class for every assignment. I also suggested that we break the large classes into smaller ones, but the dean explained that such large classes were arranged on purpose, because they were conducive to developing students’ sense of collectivism, which was always emphasized in Chinese education.

Research suggests that Chinese culture highly emphasizes collectivism while deemphasizing individualism (Chen, 1997; Ding, 2006; Hofstede, 1991). In the collective culture, people place a high value on harmony within a group in order to maintain order in society (Ding, 2006). So “individuals tend to act primarily in accordance with the anticipated expectations of others rather than with internal wishes” (Zhong, 2008, p. 112). In class, Chinese students are encouraged “to seek guidance from others’ opinions such as their colleagues” (Zhong, 2008, p. 118). Perhaps a large class provides more and better opportunities than a small one for students to learn to act according to others’ expectations. Through the learning process, students maintained harmony within the group (the class), thus fostering a sense of collectivism.

Indeed, in my classes many students, especially graduate students, asked their friends to help them if they did not know the answer to questions I raised in class. Even when I asked them to do in-class written exercises independently, they still sought help from others. Often, they automatically formed into small groups of 5 to 10 and started discussing the exercises, though they were not group work. The monitor (a Party member chosen by the university to coordinate students’ activities) walked from group to group to pass ideas from one group to another. When I told them to complete the exercises independently, the monitor explained to me that they were helping each other out by sharing ideas on these exercises; he then invoked a Chinese idiom, “Three stupid cobblers can match one Zhu Geliang” (a very talented primary minister in the Three-Kingdom period), meaning they could not complete the in-class exercises without the concerted efforts of the collective groups. Here, the monitor, to justify the students’ choice of group work, was invoking the strengths of collectivism which Chinese culture stresses. The monitor added that their professors often encouraged them to seek help from others if they met with hurdles in their homework. One of the advantages of a large class, the monitor emphasized, was that you could obtain more ideas from others than in a small class.

Their sense of collectivism was also manifest when they had conferences with me. Neither the graduate nor undergraduate students ever showed up for the conferences without forming a group of around 10. They then sat down in a circle around me, expecting me to discuss their papers one by one. I told them that conferences were more effective if they were conducted on a one-on-one basis than on a group basis, unless the group shared the same strengths and weaknesses in their papers. The students replied that with a group they could write a much better paper because they had shared their ideas already while drafting their papers, so that if they had conferences with me in a group, they could learn more strategies from me and memorize more information than one person. It seems that these students here made the same invocation as the monitor in class: collectivism. They picked their group members according to their programs, paper topics, and shared academic and personal interests. One student explained to me that the more students there were in a class, the more choices, thus better groups. In a sense, the large class size also helped students form into groups for conferences.

Because “collectivism” was upheld in class, I believed that Bacon's (1996) “response group” and Dale's (1997) “co-authored writing assignments” would help me tackle the problem of oversized classes. First, Bacon's model helped me reduce conference time. In Bacon's model, the class forms into small groups and the writers read their papers to the group by turns. When the reading is over, the writer listens to the group members discussing his or her paper. Then the writer may respond with his or her own comments. In addition to the advantages elaborated by Blackburn-Brockman (2003), this model gave me another advantage: It worked very well in a culture that emphasized collectivism. Students, including undergraduate students, actively responded to each others’ papers and helped each other make revisions, so that when they came to the conferences, they had a better draft. That meant shorter conferences to accommodate more students.

Dale's cooperative method helped me solve the problem of reading too many papers. My students, graduate students in particular, were from various schools and departments, and many of them were term-working on projects assigned by their schools and departments. I broke the class into small groups of 7 to 10 according to the projects they were undertaking. This method worked beautifully because it offered an opportunity for them to collaborate with their team members in drafting reports, thus allowing them to demonstrate their “collectivism.” Certainly, as Blackburn-Brockman (2003) has pointed out, assigning coauthored papers for the sake of saving time only is not appropriate; for me, however, the coauthored assignments did have an added advantage: Instead of reading 300 papers a week, I read only about 80 papers.

Memory-based study habits. My observation of the students’ performance in class indicates that indeed they used rote learning as a major means to study. As identified in the literature from the field of education in general, a large number of Chinese students adopt memorization as a major approach to learning (Cavanagh, 2007; Marton, Wen, & Wong, 2005; Roberts & Tuleja, 2008; Watkins, 2000; Watkins & Biggs, 2001; Zhao, 2007). One reason why Chinese students prefer rote learning might be explained by how Chinese professors teach. Chinese universities always stress the importance of test-oriented education (Cavanagh, 2007). As I have already pointed out, this educational approach started in ancient China as a means to learning Confucius's teachings (Beamer, 1994). Despite the recent reforms in education to emphasize quality, the Chinese educational system is still largely test-oriented (Zhao, 2007).

In addition to culture, memorization-based study is also influenced by Chinese social conditions. China has a large population, and opportunities for students to go to college, to find jobs, or to study abroad are very limited. In this respect, China's test-oriented education is simply practical and realistic because it provides schools and universities with a “way of selecting students from a vast pool of qualified applicants” (Cavanagh, 2007). High-school students study to take college entrance examinations; college students study to take graduate-school entrance examinations; they also study to take examinations that could allow them to study abroad; they even take examinations to get a job or to get promoted. Spaces are limited, so students must compete to get in. Thus, test results are highly valued in Chinese education. As Zhao (2007) points out, “test preparation overrides national curriculum requirements” (p. 73). For Chinese students, tests offer a way out of their current existence to a higher and better position. In other words, “they see learning as a means to some other end” (Kong & Hau, 1996, p. 75). To succeed in these tests, students just focus on the “most essential aspects rather than on the meaning [and] the strategy adopted will be mainly rote learning” (Ibid.).

My experiences at Zhengzhou University not only support the above-cited studies, but more important, they revealed that students not only employed rote learning as study habits, but they also adopted another strategy to help themselves memorize course materials—collective rote learning.

Before the semester started, I had not expected to see my Chinese students so persistent in memorizing the texts, for I thought that I was not going to teach them to make sentences or build vocabulary; I was teaching rhetorical strategies in technical communication. But I was wrong. Every morning before classes began, students went to their classrooms to read the texts aloud again and again in order to memorize them. They even tried to memorize different ways of analyzing audience and purpose, forms of documents, and shapes of different charts and graphs. During their nightly self-study time, they went to their classrooms to study the handouts I had distributed in class earlier that day in order to commit to memory the key words and phrases. When I was introducing Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA) styles of documentation, students even tried to learn the specific rules of MLA and APA.

They also attempted to memorize samples I distributed in class. The first assignment in my graduate classes asked students to write a prospectus for the research paper. After discussing the assignment, I passed out a couple of examples, asking my students to critique them in small groups so that they could learn from both the strengths and weaknesses in the examples. Much to my surprise, when the group activities were over, many students had already memorized two or three paragraphs. I explained to them that it was not necessary to commit the examples to memory, but they provided three reasons why they thought they had to: First, they were concerned that in the midterm or the final exam I would ask them to use the phrases and words from the examples. Second, they memorized the phrases and words so that they could use them in their own prospectus. Third, they might use the words and phrases in their other class assignments. Indeed, in their own papers they used phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs from the examples and other sources without properly documenting these sources. This verbatim copying of information from examples and other sources smacks of Confucianism, which stresses memorization as a way of learning. Confucius once talked about learning by heart the 300 Classic Poems because memorizing these poems would enable one to express oneself by using the lines form the poems (Lau, 1997). More important, it corroborates Roberts and Tuleja (2008), who observed that their Chinese students also used similar strategies of copying information from sources without citing them. Perhaps rote learning indeed helps Chinese students learn to use English faster and more effectively.

My students also tried to memorize materials and information collectively. That is, they formed into small groups of five to seven, and each group member was assigned to memorize one item. For example, in learning APA and MLA styles of documentation, the students in Class 3 formed into six groups. Some group members were asked to memorize the entry for a book by a single author; others were to learn the entry for a journal article by three or more authors. In memorizing a sample, some students were to learn the first two paragraphs; others the second three paragraphs. So next time they were working together, members would contribute their memorized information to the group. In this collective rote learning practice, students demonstrated the importance not only of memory-based study habits but also collectivism in class.

Broad thinking style vs. specific thinking style Considerable research has focused on different thinking patterns as a way of studying cultural assumptions and features in technical communication. Roberts and Tuleja (2008), discussing their experiences of teaching a managerial course in a Hong Kong university, identify as a challenge to their pedagogy Chinese students’ preference for the inductive approach and their resistance to the deductive line of reasoning. Barnum and Li (2006), after comparing Chinese and American communication documents, point out that Chinese students prefer inductive thinking while American students always think deductively in their communication practices.

My sabbatical experience identified another thinking pattern in my students’ writing. That is, they preferred to think broadly and generally instead of specifically. I found this thinking pattern in papers by both graduate sand undergraduate students. For example, in my undergraduate classes, one of the assignments required students to draft a recommendation, analytical, or informative report to address a real problem at a real job setting. Though I repeatedly emphasized the importance of picking a specific, small-scope problem that existed at a job setting, most of the students chose broad, large-scope problems, such as China's economic development after the Beijing Olympics, China's status in the global economy, or building China into a world power. My graduate students chose problems of similar scope. For example, while discussing her plans for her final written project, which was intended to address a problem in the provincial human resource services where she was working, one student picked China's current educational system as the theme of her final recommendation report to her program manager. She supported her choice by citing the fact that the Chinese Communist Party had issued a call for faster development in education and by arguing that China's education as a whole needed to catch up. I suggested to her that the problem should be narrowed down to a more significant, specific local problem (e.g., a problem in her department) so that the manager could make an informed decision based on her recommendations; the manager would not be able to do anything about these large-scope problems because they were beyond her ability and managing power. This student's explanation for her choice of a broad problem surprised me. She stated that ever since elementary school, her Chinese teachers of composition had advised her and other students to focus on “big” problems like those faced by the country and the world instead of small, personal or local problems. Big problems are significant because they are related to more people; small problems are not worth discussing because they concern only a few people.

Research has provided support for a similar classification of thinking styles. For example, Kao, Yi-ming, Pei-Lan Lei, and Chuen-Tsai Sun (2008), while discussing web research strategies, identify these two thinking patterns as “global thinking style” and “local thinking style” (p. 1335). They claim that [global thinking] style users…are less likely to explore an issue in depth compared to [local thinking] style individuals” …who “elaborate on a few specific topics” (p. 1330). They also note that global thinking individuals tend to “deal with relatively large and abstract issues” while local thinking individuals tend to focus on “detailed and concrete issues” (p. 1335).

One explanation for my Chinese students’ preference for broad and general issues over local and specific issues relates to their cultural focus on the collective and its deemphasis of individuals (Ding, 2006; Huang, et al, 1994; Winfield, et al, 2000). China's collectivist culture places a high value on the interests of the whole country above those of the local provinces, cities, and enterprises and institutions; and on the interests of a group over those of individuals. One way to show an individual's sense of the collective is to talk about issues faced by the country rather than issues faced by the local entities or to discuss issues faced by groups instead of individuals. Thus, global and broad issues are culturally more significant than local and specific issues for my Chinese students. Perhaps for this reason, some researchers suggest that when we communicate with our Chinese colleagues, we also play “collectivism,” for example, using “we” instead of “I” and beginning a text with “general” and “big” issues followed by specific issues (Xu, 1996).


My discussions suggest that the technical communication program in Chinese universities is conditioned by Chinese culture. First, pedagogy of technical communication is governed by the test-oriented societal norms of a society that offers limited opportunities for too many students. Second, Chinese students in their studies are motivated by their desire to uphold collectivism, which Chinese culture stresses. Third, the broad thinking style is a textual mechanism for students to complete their written assignments and to demonstrate their patriotism. My study has the following implications for international technical communication education in China:

  • Technical communication courses in China must be localized.
  • When designing a technical communication course for a Chinese university, we must consider the regulations of the authorities governing selection of textbooks and course content.
  • We must respect the Chinese cultural assumption of teacher as the knowledge center in class while teaching technical communication.
  • Building technical communication coursework for students must be based on their rote-learning study habits.
  • Any effort to help China develop its own technical communication program must accommodate the Chinese educational system, which promotes collectivism and patriotism.

As technical communication practitioners and researchers, we should, among other things, focus more on the culturally conditioned manifestations in pedagogy to help international technical communicators define strategies for approaching Chinese students. In this respect, Roberts and Tuleja (2008) have done a wonderful job in that, they studied six particular cultural challenges they encountered in teaching management communication in a Chinese university. These challenges are specific manifestations of the generalizations identified by literature about international technical communication. Based on these challenges, they “consciously adapted [their] teaching and learning practices” to help students learn (p. 485). Their efforts represent our further research into international technical communication. As international technical communicators, we must not only develop an internationally oriented approach to technical communication, but more important, we must understand practicing and teaching styles and studying and learning habits within a particular culture. We must know when and how to adapt, in Roberts and Tuleja's words, “our [emphasis added] strongly entrenched” (p. 476) styles and habits to a particular international communication environment. I hope my sabbatical experiences at Zhengzhou University have provided more useful information for both practitioners and researchers to develop a global approach to technical communication.

I want to stress that I do not wish, based on my experiences at one Chinese university, to make any general pronouncements about technical communication in China as a whole. I do not want either to draw any valid conclusions about millions of Chinese college students’ or instructors’ perceptions of technical communication based on my contact with 300 students and five instructors from one Chinese university. Rather, I just want to make some valid observations about technical communication pedagogy and practice at one Chinese university. My experiences should serve as a small window through which we might get a glimpse of technical communication education as is influenced by Chinese culture.

Certainly more research needs to be done to investigate how Chinese cultural and societal conventions affect technical communication pedagogy and practices. Before I left China, the chair of the English department of a nearby university asked me to help her department develop a technical writing course. It is a daunting task, especially when we consider that she asked me to develop not just a technical writing course but an international technical writing course. So I suggest that we focus on the following two questions in our future research:

What role does broad thinking style play in our efforts to develop technical communication curricula appropriate to Chinese students?

How does Chinese students’ sense of collectivism affect developing the curricula, especially in audience and purpose awareness?

Though I designed a technical communication course based on my interviews and surveys, it did not accommodate students’ broad thinking style or their sense of collectivism. On the contrary, sometimes I purposely steered the course in a different direction, although with little success. Ding and Jablonski (2001) pointed out 9 years ago that “technical/professional writing has an important role in China's future. Hurdles in the path include changing the perceptions and attitudes of both ourselves and our Chinese colleagues working within Chinese curricula” (pp. 433–434). This statement is still valid today. What we can do is to work closely with our Chinese colleagues and adapt our teaching and practicing styles in order to define effective strategies for approaching technical communication in China.


This article is made possible partially by the Ferris State University 2008 Research Fund.


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About the Author

Daniel Ding holds a PhD in English. Currently he is a professor of English at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan, where he is teaching technical communication, scientific writing, and advanced composition. His research interests include international technical communication, history of scientific writing, and multiculturalism in composition and technical communication. He can be reached at dingd@ferris.edu.

Manuscript received 3 June 2010; revised 27 July 2010; accepted 21 December 2010.