Last year one of my students at Neijiang Teachers College in China’s Szechwan Province wrote her graduation paper on how Marxists helped the North win the American Civil War. There were other factors at work as well, she admitted: Lincoln’s leadership, the brave soldiers, the crusading emancipationists. But it was the working class, both black and white, that really made a Northern victory inevitable. Obviously they were simply putting Marxist theory into practice.

“Um, Lucy,” I said, trying to be tactful, “I think, at that time, there were no Marxists in America. Marxism didn’t exist yet.”

Lucy was unperturbed. “The idea was there,” she said.

Lucy’s 5,000-word English thesis paper was an example of a genre that had come to fascinate me. If a Western essay is like a train of thought speeding neatly down its track of logic toward its final conclusion, a Chinese essay is more like a bicycle meandering along a dirt road through Szechwanese farmland, proceeding from one concept to the next by association and intuition. My students were bewildered by the English essay form, but they threw themselves into the assignment wholeheartedly, sometimes creatively, generating the occasional bizarre result. Most of my students were fond of addressing the reader directly (“Please appreciate the third stanza of the poem”), a Chinese rhetorical device long thought to be particularly effective.

Selecting an interesting argument and then proving it true with style and grace is difficult enough for native English speakers. For Chinese students, it’s an impossible assignment. They have been taught from babyhood to appreciate rather than to dissect and to judge, and they always defer to scholars rather than advance their own opinions. My students’ first drafts consisted in large part of long quotes from the text they were analyzing, interspersed with frequent citations from various scholars and critics addressing the same subject. This is the Chinese method for proving an argument credible: showing how many people before you have come up with the same idea.

My students loved to wax lyrical. Often there would be no clear argument in their papers at all. I asked one student, Dennis, what point he was trying to make in his sprawling essay on Huck Finn. He couldn’t seem to tell me, though he leafed through his many pages of handwritten notes obligingly, as if his argument were hidden somewhere within. “You have no argument,” I said. He looked at the paper for a long time, then at me. “Maybe it is…stream of conscience,” he suggested hopefully.

Unfortunately, the students weren’t alone in their approach. When it came time for them to defend their papers before various faculty members, one of my Chinese colleagues mentioned that Dennis’s essay—still without a driving argument after several drafts—was clearly the best in his class. Didn’t I think so?

“His ideas are… good,” I waffled.

“Yes!” enthused my colleague. “And his style is so fine!”

When I did find clear thinking in my students’ essays it often came in the form of political dogma. One student struggled through the dense prose of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles only to conclude that “the upper class and the people of property wanted to control the people of poverty and live very happily forever, but the people of poverty wanted to break away from their rule and live as freely and happily as they imagined.” The late Chairman Mao would have concurred.

Still, unable myself to read and write Chinese beyond the toddler level, I was immensely proud of my students for being able to write any kind of thesis paper at all. Some managed to dig deep within their texts and come up with fresh ways of considering them. Original critical thought, well supported in an elegant argument, does still occasionally fly out of the cages of accepted academic dogma. But it’s difficult.

Oh, and by the way: Scarlett O’Hara was a ruthless capitalist oppressor. Just thought you might want to know.