China is in vogue. This is a recent development. It is also a very simplistic statement. For an entire country to be interesting is simply not possible. Paris fashion is always in vogue, regardless of what the France is doing in general. Currently France is in major strike mode regarding needed pension reforms exacerbated by stimulus spending. Politically there is a distinctly unsavory taste to the recent deportation of minority groups, but people still love French food. The reason I bring these obvious statements up is because there is an obvious link between the global interest in a country and the incentives to learn the domestic lingua franca. In China the common tongue is the aptly named Standard Mandarin. So the question at hand is this: is the way that China is interesting making learning Standard Mandarin interesting?
The reason that China is interesting is mainly economic. Even though China begun its massive rise to become the world’s factory really started in the early 1990’s it is only very recently that China captured the limelight for this tremendous achievement. For it really is a tremendous feat; no other country, in history, has matched the rate at which Chinas economy has grown. The result of Chinas growth can hardly be described by anything other than types of explosions. It is only a supernova that can lift 1 billion people out of starvation to relative wealth in less than 20 years.
The process started with market reforms after the passing of Mao but really took of, as I mentioned, in the 1990’s. The formation of the first stock exchange in China, in 1990, followed by entry into the World Trade Organization and a relaxation on capital flows made it possible for entrepreneurs to combine Chinese surplus labor with western cash, machines and know-how. When I say surplus labor I am not talking about a small group of people. In the last 20 years over 600 million people (just above a twelfth of mankind) has left subsistence agricultural tasks in favor for the much better paid manufacturing sector.
However, not even the extremely successful Olympics represent the extent of this success in the same way as the failure of western capitalism to handle the natural waves built into the economic system known as the business cycle. The global meltdown really did not affect China in a way that can be put into parallel with western difficulties. In China, it was smooth sailing.
With the movie 2011 (a disaster movie in which China kind of saves mankind by building super high-tech boats) the Hollywood discourse on China was changed. China is today a force to be reckoned with in popular cultural and the western mindset. In the newly released movie Wall Street; Money Never Sleeps Chinese money plays a key role. It is capital flows from China into the US that is considered, rather the other way around. Furthermore, the handsome lead actor speaks in Chinese and hands over Chinese-style gifts to a Chinese investor in a distinctly Chinese way.
In the coming months as the movie plays in cinemas across the world. This scene is likely to be the first time a couple of hundred million people hear Mandarin in the context of Chinese customs, or maybe the second, given the 2008 Olympic games. The first, or second, of many many coming instances, instances that are coming soon.
My point is this: the discourse has lagged behind the economic supernova that the last 20 years have constituted in The Middle Kingdom. The years 2008 to 2010 made the western world aware of China in a way that Europe and North America has never been during the near 5000 years of Chinese history.
It is a brave new world, it is no longer a singular, but a bi-polar world, and China stands in the middle of this century. The rewards of proficiency can hardly be overstated and as incentives of language studies shift, so will the tide of students leaving China to study abroad. With this turn there is going to be, in the next 20 years, a formidably explosion in the interest in Mandarin studies by western students.
About the Author
Rui Ming works for a Mandarin language Academy in Beijing that is a great option for those that want to learn Chinese Mandarin. If you are interested in more information about learning Mandarin in China, please consult the website of Beijing Gateway Academy.