Is the rush to study Chinese a time-wasting fad?

The great Ken ( Carroll takes on the mighty Economist in an outspoken and entertaining post on his brand new blog. He actually makes the poor reporter look pretty ridiculous.

I love the Economist, but it ran an incredibly weak article today – False Eastern promise whose sub-heading tells us that the ‘craze for teaching Chinese may be a misguided fad’. The craze for teaching Chinese may just be a fad? May be a fad?

Of course it’s possible that this is a fad, but what precisely is that saying? There’s a lot of things that may or may not happen out there, that may or may not be fads, no end of things we could speculate wildly upon without providing data. Why this particular issue? The premise is so vague, speculative, unsubstantiated, and out of the blue, that you have to wonder where the author suddenly got the idea from. It’s bizarre.

That said, I think for many people caught up in the “we must learn Chinese” mass movement it really is a time-wasting fad, because there is no love for the language and no deep-hearted commitment to it: Based on wildly exaggerated articles they’ve read about China being on the verge of becoming the next superpower, they think it’s a necessary business decision, that by the time their kids grow up all business will be conducted in Mandarin and those who can’t read a Chinese newspaper with perfect tones will be left in the cold. Which is a complete snow job.

Learning Chinese is great. It is hard for most people, but not at all impossible. Everyone who is interested in China and who wants to live here or who loves languages and wants to expand their horizons should give it a try. But if you’re jumping onto the bandwagon because you think Chinese is the way of the future, you’re in for a double surprise. 1. Chinese is not going to become the international business language anytime while we’re still alive (if ever); 2. If your heart isn’t really in it, little of the language will stick and you will give up frustrated and annoyed at yourself for wasting so much time you could have spent learning macrame or other more practical things.

I only have time nowadays for about two hours of Chinese lessons a week. At this rate, I’ll probably never be above an elementary level. But every day I spend at least an hour studying, and I have Chinese Pod and other lessons playing in my apartment rather constantly. Over the past year I learned a few hundred characters and doubled my vocabulary on my own. Because I love the language and feel that with each phrase I learn the more rich my experience here can be. I have no illusions that I will ever conduct business in Chinese or write proposals in hanzi. But I am still completely committed to it, and I spend the majority of my time when I’m not working studying Chinese.

So yes, there is a fad element to the learn-Chinese stampede. But it’s also a great undertaking and everyone who really wants to learn it should go for it. If, however, you think it’s going to make you rich, or if you think it’s a magic bullet for survival in the age of “China rising,” you’re going at it for the wrong reason and will most likely give it up and feeling kind of bitter about it.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 56 Comments

“It is an eastern failing as well as a western one. “

I didn’t deny this. However, if you look carefully and measure to your best ability the amount of human suffering caused by either side you’ll see the occurrences in the last 400 years were unprecendented in scale (though internal conflict elsewhere was devastating).

As for the black plague, it originated in Central Asia and was spread by the Mongols; who, as far as political/cultural elements are concerned, were directly opposite China and the rest of “Asia” (which is too large to be anything but a geographical term).

Likewise, I’d also say that “Western society” (I put it in quotes since “West” isn’t well-defined. Only to particular idiot fanboys in China who can’t tell the difference between one European country and another) has not contributed much at all to “the world”. Nearly all non-Europeans cannot afford modern medicine and technology. A good chunk, say, a billion people still live like they’re in 0 AD. Hell, even a large number of Americans can’t afford proper healthcare.

What the European ruling and upper classes did for themselves and themselves only though.. that is impressive.

December 1, 2007 @ 1:56 am | Comment

I don’t care if you’re from Washington DC or Beijing, Vancouver or London, Bombay, South Africa, Shanghai or Down under, you sure have a balanced view of human history. Bravo.

December 1, 2007 @ 9:02 am | Comment

Not having tried to learn the traditional characters I cannot say whether learning them is easier or not than the simplified ones brought in under Mao. I can only say that I have had enough trouble with the simplified ones… Maybe I should try learning the traditional ones instead. I think in the case of HK and Taiwan, it is not so comparable to the mainland itself as both countries were much smaller and easier to manage than the mainland, plus they had access to more modern teaching methods which would surely of helped. However not being a teacher myself I can’t be confident about that assumption. You could be correct though in that although literacy rates in the mainland have improved, it might not necessarily be because of the simplification of the language. Would be nice to get some other opinions on that.

Regarding the comments from ME. Sure the sufferings of humans of all races over the last 400 years has been terrible, but then that is always likely to occur when you get massive population growth, limited resources, massive developments in weapons and technology as well as greed and envy. Again I would say though that in that 400 year period how many conflicts were there in China, between Chinese forces of various warlords. How many people died in these conflicts, or during the aftermath of such conflicts? It would be interesting to do the comparison of how many people died by Chinese hands or western hands. I just don’t see how eastern nations are any more virtuous than western nations in such comparisons. War is terrible no matter where it takes place.

Central Asia typically encompassed part of western China… Or is Western China now not considered separate since it was independent of China at the time, being part of the Mongolian Empire… As for it being spread by the Mongolians, surely they are Chinese aren’t they. Isn’t that what Dr Sun stated, isn’t that why Inner Mongolia is in China? Still for sure they are not westerners though which was the main point that I was making. When you state that Westerners cause much suffering by spreading diseases you should remember that diseases can come from many racial groups and locations. Not just from Westerners, and a lot of those have historically come from China

If we look at western society we are looking at the capitalist US or Western European countries. As far as the US is concerned I am not quite sure how their health care system works, but from what I hear it is seriously screwed up, but for sure the advances in internal medicine have been truly amazing in the last century. Whether everyone has access to them in the US, I cannot comment on. Maybe someone else here can give some advice on that. As far as Western Europe is concerned you pay your taxes and you get treated. Sure the standard of treatment varies but even the unemployed can get treatment. Somewhat different in China though as it is not free here. You are correct in that maybe this technology does not benefit everyone around the world, but then surely it is upto the governments of each individual country to implement that. The development has been started and will continue to be improved. It then needs to be disseminated to wherever it can be. Medicine is only one advance though what about advances in radio, TV, or satellites or things like basic human rights.

All I am saying is you can’t put all the blame on one country or group of countries. Every country is guilty of something bad. The question is whether each individual country is willing to acknowledge that, or hide behind a wall and just ignore it.

December 3, 2007 @ 11:38 am | Comment

ps i was hoping after my comments about chinese writing someone would come back and say “actually si you are wrong there is some excellent modern (ie post 1949, don’t say lu xun) chinese writing to be read. It is…..”


Richard, You live in Taiwan. I suspect you may have some recommendations, yes?

December 3, 2007 @ 2:56 pm | Comment

“there hasn’t been really anything all that great written in the language since 红楼梦.”

Posted by: Brendan at November 28, 2007 04:48 AM


December 3, 2007 @ 3:11 pm | Comment

HKger this thread is pretty much dead, so don’t expect to get much response at this point. My reading level is not nearly high enough that for me to be ready to recommend Chinese writers. I have enough trouble getting through my early-intermediate (late elementary?) textbook…

I am living in Beijing now, by the way, not Taipei. If I could only change that artwork on my home page….

December 3, 2007 @ 3:27 pm | Comment

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