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'A spinning top that never stops'

By Yang Guang (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-05 09:40
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'A spinning top that never stops'

Li Pengyi, president of China Education Publishing and Media Group, introduced the popular revised New Concept English to China. Jiang Dong / China Daily 

Generations of Chinese learners of English owe it all to publisher Li Pengyi and his tireless efforts. Yang Guang reports.

For the past three months, Li Pengyi has been working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, surviving on fast-food meals in the car. The 56-year-old president of the newly formed China Education Publishing and Media Group is known in the industry as a workaholic, earning that title from "Master of Chinese Culture" Ji Xianlin (1911-2009) in 1995. Colleagues describe him as "a spinning top that never stops".

Having worked for 15 years as president of Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, two years as vice-president and Party secretary of China Publishing Group, and another one year as president of Higher Education Press, the veteran publisher says he remains as motivated as ever about steering the country's biggest publishing group.

According to Li, the major areas of focus for the group in the future are educational publishing, digital publishing, and its going-global campaign. It hopes to establish an overseas branch in the first half of 2011, with a prestigious international publisher in charge.

Li spent his early years in Huanghua, a small county in Hebei province, where Lin Chong, hero of Outlaws of the Marsh, was exiled. Growing up drinking salty water, Li says he thought tap water had sugar in it, when he joined the army in Beijing at 19.

"But country life has made me fearless of hardships," he says.

After serving for four years in the army, Li was admitted into what is now Beijing Foreign Studies University, and majored in English.

Li, whose exposure to English came when he was 23, was determined to catch up with his classmates, many of whom were able to read English magazines. His method was to learn New Concept English - the English language textbook by British linguist L.G. Alexander (1932-2002) - by rote.

He didn't know back then that the popular textbook, first published in 1967, would mark a milestone in his later career.

Upon graduation, he was assigned to work at Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, the then start-up publishing house affiliated to Beijing Foreign Studies University. In the 27 years he worked there, especially the 15 years at its helm, its business prospered and profits soared.

Li was not called a workaholic for nothing. When the International Convention Center of Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press was under construction in 2004, he lived at the construction site and worked sometimes from 6:30 am until 3 am the next morning. Many remember his familiar figure in a red safety helmet, bulging overcoat and mud-stained Khaki pants.

A Peking Opera fan, he once practiced a whole month for a 3-minute aria. He cannot help but sing it out loud, hand tapping his lap, during his interview with China Daily.

His eyes turn misty, however, when he talks about how linguist Xu Guozhang (1915-1994) entrusted to him Xu Guozhang English - a series of hugely popular English textbooks he compiled in the 1960s to satisfy the soaring demand for English learning - and how they helped open up a new chapter for Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.

Li becomes even more emotional as he recounts how he introduced New Concept English to China, legally.

Before China acceded to the Universal Copyright Convention, there were different editions of the textbook circulating in the market. Li tried to approach Longman, the original publisher, to import its copyright. But the proposal was turned down.

Li changed his tactics and turned to L. G. Alexander, inviting him on a speaking tour to China. When the linguist gave his lecture at Beijing Foreign Studies University, 1,500 students crammed into the 1,000-seat auditorium. After the lecture, Alexander was almost inundated by students who surged forward to ask for his autograph.

Li took the opportunity to propose the idea of publishing a revised edition, which finally materialized in 1997.

"It had been 20 years since I first read the book in 1977, but I felt the same excitement," he says.

"Publishing is my lifelong pursuit," Li says. "If there were an afterlife, I would be a publisher there too."

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