Is Chinese a Relevant World Language?

Everything Changes

To quote the Buddha: “Whatever has the nature of arising has the nature of ceasing”. Or in other words, everything changes, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Whether we want to or not.

Modern Chinese would be Unrecognizable to Past Speakers

A modern citizen of Shanghai or Taipei would hardly be able to understand a speaker of 1st century BCE Old Chinese. This was way before any tones developed and there were many sounds allowed that modern speakers would struggle to pronounce. I’d wager that even Middle Chinese from a thousand years ago would be more or less unintelligible to most modern Chinese people without specialized training in that specific subject.

Modern China would be Unrecognizable to Past Citizens

What’s true about the change of languages is also true for everything else. From what I understand, when we ask how old a country is we run into similar problems to what we would when we ask how old a language is. Because everything changes. What starts of as a confederacy unifies into a state, breaks up through civil war, unifies as new countries, which then get invaded by a larger empire, breaks away when that empire falls, and so on. Even if what comes out on the other side calls itself the same name as that original state, is it the same?

Some kind of Persisting Social Cohesion

However we define these things, China, in one form or the other, has been around for at least 3000 years.

The Evolution of the Chinese Languages — A Tree with Many Branches

The history of the Chinese language is not as linear as the history of China, since it’s easier that languages get broken up into distinct dialects without getting reunified.

  • 粵語 (yuè yǔ) — Yue (Cantonese)
  • 閩語 (mǐn yǔ) — Min (Hokkien-Taiwanese)
  • 吳語 (wú yǔ) — Wu (Shanghainese)
  • 徽語 (huī yǔ) — Hui (sometimes classified as Mandarin, Wu, or even Gan)
  • 客家話 (kè jiā huà) — Hakka (spoken by a significant number of Taiwan natives)
  • 湘語 (xiāng yǔ) — Xiang (Hunanese, spoken by Mao Zedong)
  • 晉語 (jìn yǔ) — Jin (sometimes considered a dialect of Mandarin)
  • 贛語 (gàn yǔ) — Gan (sometimes classified as a variety of Hakka)

The standard branch

For most foreigners, learning Chinese will equal learning Mandarin, although, of course, many also choose to learn other dialects. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, however, I will, as far as I can, limit myself to mainly discussing Mandarin from now on.

China — From Small Settlement to Nation-State

So, we have seen that change is inevitable and that the Sinosphere and the Chinese languages have been changing continuously over the last three millennia. And it hasn’t stopped. Just like all other countries or languages, the modern states of The People’s Republic of China or 中華人民共和國, and The Republic of China 中華民國, or Taiwan, have not been frozen in time.

The Standard Tongue

Lingua francas have existed in what is today modern China since at least the 8th century BCE. The variety of that era is called 古文 (gǔwén) which means “ancient text” or 文言 wényán, meaning “text language” and is usually translated as “Classical Chinese”. This was not a spoken standard but a written one, which allowed for unification in writing even amidst several mutually unintelligible spoken varieties. Confucius, born in the mid-sixth century BCE reportedly spoke 雅言 (yǎyán) “elegant speech”, the prestige standard spoken by the elite of that time.

The History of Chinese as a Foreign Language

Foreigners, that is non-Chinese, or speakers of other languages than Chinese, have been living in China for millennia. Some even conquered China, became emperors and established dynasties, ruling China for centuries. It stands to reason that some, but certainly not all of them, learned to speak Chinese. These were mostly if not exclusively foreigners that lived in areas with contiguous land borders to China, like the Mongols and the Manchus.

China — from the 1970s till Today

Just the last four decades have seen enormous changes in Chinese society. China’s wealth has grown from $7 trillion in 2000 to $120 trillion in 2020. 800 million people have been brought out of poverty according to the word bank, although some are skeptical.

Reborn Interest from Foreigners to Learn Mandarin

China's recent increase in power, if not prestige, on the world scene has prompted many foreigners to choose to study Mandarin. Good numbers are hard to come by, but one metric is that 750 000 people took the HSK Chinese proficiency test in 2010, compared to roughly 116 000 in 2005. During the same period, the number of foreign students in China went up from 36 000 to 240 000. And according to the Chinese ministry of education, there are currently 25 million foreigners learning Chinese. The exact number of students is irrelevant, the point is that Chinese as a foreign language has been trending upwards for the last 20 odd years.

Consolidation of Power & Wolf Diplomacy

Xi Jinping took control of the communist party and of China when he became General Secretary of the CCP in 2012 and then President of China in 2013. After ascending to power, he quickly launched a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign that ended up affecting over a million officials and removing thousands, both high and low, including many of Xi’s political rivals. With any real rivals out of the way, Xi didn’t spare any time in consolidating power to himself.

New Superpower or New Soviet?

For the past several decades, China has been the economic wonder of the world. I already mentioned some of the remarkable accomplishments pulled off by china during this period. The world looked with amazement at the speed with which China built a vast high-speed train network, houses and entire new cities.

The Price of World Wonders and Child Policies

The aforementioned influx of people to urban areas means that the cities, as well as the countryside, are changing rapidly. As skilled workers migrate to the higher salaries in the cities hundreds of villages are left empty, or at least bereft of their most productive young workforce.

The future of Chinese as a Second Language

We have previously seen that tens of millions of non-Chinese are currently learning Mandarin, and that likewise tens of millions of Chinese are learning English. I’m being conservative, the true numbers, depending on how we count, might be in the hundreds of millions, in both cases.

  1. It’s good for business
  2. It’s for my family

Opportunity for Language and Cultural Exchange

Additionally, what we are looking for, apart from foreigners’ interest to learn Mandarin, are the opportunities that exist for language and cultural exchange.

The Future of the Sinosphere

As for what this will mean for the future of the Sinosphere, there are as many guesses as there are experts (or youtube channels) so I’m not going to commit to any one of them.

The Future of Mandarin Chinese

Whether we are focusing on the future of the status of Chinese as an attractive foreign language, or on the development of the Chinese language itself as it comes into contact with other languages, I think we shouldn’t be too quick to draw conclusions based on the current political situation. Compared to politicians who need to respond quickly to a rapidly changing world, languages prefer to take their time.

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Sal Rosen

Sal Rosen

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