Learning Chinese


It has become apparent to any but the most obtuse observer of international relations that the U.S. and China are logged into a longtime competition for world dominance that could turn rough at any time.

We have always had a love-hate relationship with China, a concept for the West as much as it has been a geographical term or an empire, or more recently a nation-state-failed.

The Chinese have perhaps always had one advantage. Unlike our other enemies [and friends] in the past, communication has been more difficult because of the absence of a spoken language expressed in Western or, in truth, Mideastern terms. The Chinese written language, of course, is a collection of logograms — a written character that represents a word or phrase – and a minimum have to be learned to be able to communicate either the written “word”. The minimum of such “characters” one has to master stretches from what some assume is 2500 to several thousands – and, indeed, any specialized writing requires it own “vocabulary”.

That has meant that educated Chinese, that is, those who have “modern” or Western-oriented educations that may also include their traditional Chinese culture, have an advantage with Americans: they can learn an alphabetical script that more-or-less [please don’t tell me about how English or French depart from that generalization!] opens the doors to Western/modern contemporary world culture including technology.

All of this to say that if we are in for a longtime competition [at best] with the Chinese for world domination – and there is every reason to believe the present or future masters in Beijing would settle for no less –- we have a lot of homework ahead.

We are going to need scholars with expertise on China for our political leadership that only can be acquired by knowledge of their culture as learned in part through a study of their language. [Note, of course, that in fact there are several “Chinese” languages on the Continent and they have leant their ideograms, another word for the “characters” they use to express anything from a simple noun to a very sophisticated thought. The Yuè dialects, also known as Cantonese [Guăngdōnghuà], one of the major dialect groups, is spoken by 62 million people as their mother tongue in the southern province of Guandong, the city of Canton, as well as in Hong Kong, Macau, and among the very large expatriate Cantonese communities in southeast Asia and the U.S. where they were almost exclusively the early Chinese emigrants.

American academia has been running as fast as it could since the late30s in pursuit of an understanding of China and the Chinese culture. And since the establishment of the Chinese Communist regime in 1949 in Beijing , the Chinese government has been using the fascination of the West with China to enhance its prestige and ultimately its influence and control abroad. This has been aided by over 30 million and living in over 136 different countries and areas, the so-called Overseas Chinese now the most widespread ethnic group in the world and in Southeast Asia, particularly, are noted for their commercial abilities and their domination of the local economies.

It was only logical, then, that American universities in more recent decades had initiated Chinese studies, often with the aid and financial support of the Chinese governments, dating from the prewar period when the anti-Communist Nationalists had close ties to some American academics and their schools.

In their energetic style, the Beijing government has established The Confucius Institutes, funded by a Chinese government entity known as Hanban, with matching resources provided by the host university. They frequently have been directed by a faculty or staff member from the American host university with the help of an assistant director from a Chinese university and staffed in part by Chinese language instructors hired by Hanban or a Chinese partner university.

But that is where Beijing’s good words taper off. A bipartisan report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations just released raises a number of issues in relation to U.S. colleges or university control over CI hiring and programming. The report says that “the Chinese government controls nearly every aspect of Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools,” down to having veto authority over events and activities included in the annual budget submitted for approval to Hanban. The report also says that “Hanban provides no information to U.S. schools on how candidates for Chinese director and teacher positions at Confucius Institutes are screened or selected in China”.

The Report says that “the Chinese government controls nearly every aspect of Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools,” down to having veto authority over events and activities included in an annual budget submitted for approval to Hanban. The report also says that “Hanban provides no information to U.S. schools on how candidates for Chinese director and teacher positions at Confucius Institutes are screened or selected in China”.

Concern about what these Confucius Institutes are – whether they are not propaganda and espionage organizations rather than institutes of higher learning – have led at least 10 American universities to close them down.

Faculty groups have been raising concerns about the CIs for years; the American Association of University Professors asked as far back as 2014 that universities either close their CIs or renegotiate their agreements to ensure “unilateral control” over all academic matters. The recent closures follow on criticism from political figures, mainly but not exclusively from the Republican Party.

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