Learning Mandarin – Western Awareness of China

20 May

Learning Mandarin is more popular today then ever before – how does that fit in with modern history?

Learning Mandarin is becoming more and more popular with every passing year. It is hard to imagine it today but western interest in China and Mandarin is a very new development. In 2010 the Chinese government estimated that 100 million foreigners were actively pursuing proficiency, 20 years ago that figure would have been a lot closer to 0. The reason for the sharp increase in interest is of course the matching growth in the relative importance of China’s economy, its diplomatic stature and western awareness of China.

If you think of what China actually is, it is a very strange notion that we westerners were not more aware of China a long time ago. China is the fourth largest country by area, and by far the largest by population. The total head count of all Chinese people comes to above 1.2 billion, that’s more than 1200 million, or 12.000% bigger than my home country Sweden. The value is just too big to make sense of. If all Chinese people were to line up around the equator and hold hands, the line would stretch something like 28 times around the world. When growing up I used to love to read the CIA World Fact Book. It gave really cool facts in a language that I could understand even as a kid. Like Sweden is roughly the size of California. Denmark is the size of The State of New York. If CIA would try to put Chinas population in terms of a relative grouping in The United States, they would find it difficult. Chinas population is roughly equal to the combined population of Canada, The United States, All of The European Union, Norway, Switzerland and Russia. That is, in other words, 2 whole continents, plus all of northern Asia. There are a lot of Chinese people. If you think about it like that, China is not really a country; it is not even enough to call it a very large country. China is actually a very large continent in its own right. If there were a sea between China and the rest of Asia the Chinese Continent would be the worlds second most populous. There really are a lot of people in China.

The reason that this very large and very old (at least 4000 years, some books put it at 5000) country managed to escape, largely, under the radar of popular western awareness during the last century was of course that China did not want anything to do with the west and the west did not want anything to do with China. Wars tend to bring that out in civilizations. The American sponsored national army that was defeated by the communists in the Chinese civil war in the thirties and forties of the last century was not a good start for western – Chinese communist relations. The war in Korea where American and Chinese troops actually fought was not exactly optimal either. The fact that General MacArthur was really keen on using nuclear weapons on 30 cities on Mainland China was also not the best way to build permanent relations of chumminess between NATO and the new communist party republic. Perhaps the source of most angry feelings, however, was the fact that American effort to interfere with what is arguably actually a very Chinese issue (Taiwan) has never actually seized, even after the nationalist defeat. The nationalists were never in line to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Nor were they likely to ever secure a price for human rights activities. The main policy of the national movement seems to have been to reinstate feudalism by actively promoting corruption and using guns to kill lots of people that did not like the idea and had no guns. Thinking about it like that always makes me think that China was never really at fault when it comes to the frozen state of Sino Western relations. Since the Opium Wars the west has not been a very positive force in The Middle Kingdom. Luckily, that seems to have changed, and today we are much more welcome.

Rui Ming works for a Chinese language school in China that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin.


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