Dear Dr. Fournier:
One of the big points of emphasis in the State of the Union address given by the president a few weeks ago was focusing on education to compete with China and India. Also, there has recently been a great deal of press concerning the book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and its approach to parenting. When I was in school, we hardly heard anything about China. When faced with the decision about which foreign language to take, Chinese was never in the mix. Now, I see more and more schools offering Mandarin. I feel like this infatuation with China is like a fad and will fade out over time. What is your reaction to languages like Latin or Spanish giving way to Mandarin?
“The world is changing with really remarkable speed,” is the opening line of a talk given by Martin Jacques, an economist who has studied the rise of China and how to make sense of it as a westerner. One of the eye-opening statistical projections discussed was that the Chinese economy would be roughly the same size as that of the United States in 2020; a mere nine years from now. He then shows Goldman Sachs bold prediction that in 2050 the Chinese economy will be double that of the United States, who will be tied for a distant second with India.
What does all this mean? It means that China is here to stay. If your children are to become change agents in tomorrow’s globalized world, then it would serve them well to pay attention to countries like China and languages like Mandarin today.
WHAT TO DO
Attempting to understand China through the prism of western views is a difficult proposition, if not a fundamentally flawed way of approaching it. In order to develop an awareness of a culture that is as alien to most of us as China is, we must lay a foundation for understanding it that is fresh, and is not confined to western ideas alone. Here are three key ingredients to lay a foundation for understanding China as a developing global power and as an expanding cultural influence:
1. The civilization state: China is a civilization state, not a nation state, and it is shaped by this notion. This means that the most important political value for the Chinese is unity- the maintenance of Chinese Civilization.
2. The notion of race: The Chinese think for the most part that they belong to the same race. This makes them unique as a country, because other countries with large populations (for example India or the U.S.) are much more diverse in ethnic backgrounds. The result of this uniformity is that the Chinese are not subject to the hardships that can come from ethnic divisions or contradicting ideas that can lead to national division.
3. The nature of the state and its relationship to society: The relationship of the state to the society is very different. The state is viewed as more legitimate, thus it possesses more authority by the populous. The reason for this is because the state, since it is viewed as the protector of the Chinese civilization, is given the position of the patriarch within each Chinese family.
(Please see the link at the bottom of the article for a full explanation of these points.)
It all boils down to removing the blinders that are a byproduct of our position as the dominant nation on the economic mountain and being willing to see and address the issue of difference. The west has been so dominant over the last 200 years that it has not needed to make a concerted attempt to understand other cultures, specifically the far eastern cultures.
On the other hand, western dominance has forced the far eastern civilizations to develop a basic understanding of the west, so that they could be in a position to produce for and trade with the current “dominant” nation states. This ultimately means that due to their desire to develop they already understand us far better than we understand them.
If we are to keep pace as the economic scales of power begin to balance out, then we need to play catch-up, and begin as soon as possible. We can only begin by developing a new awareness that allows us to look at their way of life and worldview from their perspective. For our children, this means being open to languages, histories, traditions, mores, ways of thought and ideas that will be useful to them in their future, regardless of how absent they were from our past.
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