Rhetorical patterns in Chinese and English essay writing

This post will simply introduce the idea that there are different patterns of rhetoric (i.e. different conventions of essay structure) in written Chinese and written English, and contrast one particular Chinese rhetorical pattern – a so-called "Start-Sustain-Turn-Sum" pattern (Connor, 1996; Grabe & Kaplan, 1998; Hinds, 1990; Swales, 1990) – with the English introduction-body-conclusion essay structure.

To begin with, it is worth pointing out that culturally-based styles of structure can actually be very different, and that this difference has its origin in the divergent historical and philosophical pasts of the Chinese and Western peoples. As Igor observes, what is involved are the academic cultural norms and their unknowing subversion by those from a different background:

“Unlike the native speakers of English,
who expect expository prose to be developed as a
sequence of claims and (direct) Aristotelian proofs,
non-native users of English employ rhetorical
progression of text that are incongruous with the
expectations of the Anglo-American reader." (Igor, 2011, emphasis added)

The Chinese pattern to be mentioned here is one that has been called the "Start-Sustain-Turn-Sum" pattern, and is described in Xing, Wang and Spencer (2008) as follows: 

"It is claimed that Chinese rhetorical style consists of a four-part pattern: qi ('start, open') establishes the field or prepares the reader for the topic; cheng ('carry on, sustain') introduces and develops the topic; zhuan ('turn') turns to a seemingly unrelated subject or looks at the problem from another angle; and he ('conclude') sums up the essay whereby the author's opinion is established or hinted at (Connor, 1996; Grabe & Kaplan, 1998; Hinds, 1990; Swales, 1990, cited in Xing, Wang and Spencer, 2008, emphasis added)." 

The point to notice about this pattern is that it unfolds gradually before delivering the author's opinion – that is, the author's argument or fundamental thesis statement – at the end of the essay. In other words, it is the reverse of the claim and proof approach mentioned by Igor (2011). 

In the English pattern – introduction, body and conclusion – the main point would occur in the introduction and be supported or proven throughout the body and then finally summarised and highlighted in the final paragraph. In the Chinese structure mentioned here, the proofs precede the claim (which is given in the final paragaph). 

To what extent the Chinese rhetorical pattern mentioned here is actually taught on Chinese academic writing courses is not clear (it is certainly only one of a number of such patterns), but in any case an awareness of this difference should help Chinese students when writing essays in English. 


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