Studying Mandarin: politics and motivation

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Westerners foolishly believed that once China opened itself to the world, it would become more like them, but lately strong, CCP led nationalism has been on the rise in China. How do learners of Chinese react to this political situation? Does it demotivate them to learn Mandarin?

Recently, someone send the following statement to me:

In China, I do not have political discussions with Chinese people. If a Chinese person makes a political comment to me, or asks me a political question, I will respond with, “I do not have political discussions with Chinese people“.”

I was left to guess what he meant. Was it too uncomfortable to discuss politics? Too dangerous? Pointless maybe?

No matter how many people claim they study Chinese for themselves and their own benefit, this example shows that nobody learns Chinese in a complete vacuum. You study Chinese? What do you think about the social credit system? Not an uncommon question if you are student of Chinese in 2019.

But do the current political situation in China and the international tensions really change anything? Does it make China and the Chinese language somehow less attractive to learn?

In this blog post, I can only scratch the surface of this question. However, I want to shed some light on the discussion by showing how learners of Chinese deal with politics and which arguments they use.

Does the political situation in China demotivate you to learn Chinese?

1. Indifferent: the apolitical learner

bored looking guy holding tablet in a bar
“the apolitical learner”
(Photo by mentatdgt, Pexels)

Some people don’t care about politics. Politics isn’t part of their motivation to learn Chinese. For them the political situation doesn’t change anything, doesn’t matter what they hear on the news or read on the internet. They have their own intrinsic motivation.

For someone with a strong interest in the world of politics, this is hard to believe. How can someone turn a blind eye to the reality in a country? But then again, what composes that reality? How can you ever be sure you know the truth?

2. Fluid situation: the political landscape is ever changing

“If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 70 years ago”

If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 20 years ago (or 50 or 70 years ago etc.). Political circumstances are never stable. If they are part of your motivation to learn Chinese, you make yourself vulnerable. As soon things change for the worst, your motivation is affected.

If you’re interest is in Chinese music or Shanghai cuisine, why indeed be bothered by such external factors you cannot control?

3. The people-does-not-equal-government argument:

Government vs people
“people ≠ government”
(Photo by pixabay)

No matter where you go in this world, people are divided into two groups. Those who govern and those who are governed…

One argument that keeps showing up in this discussion is that we shouldn’t condemn the people for their government, most of all in countries that can’t be called representative democracies.

This distinction indeed seems fair. There is no point in dismissing an entire country and all its people, only because you think you can’t stand its leaders, their views and whatever they are doing (or not doing).

And just because you visit or even live somewhere, doesn’t imply you support or trust the government. So at the end of the day, people ≠ government.

4. Pragmatic

The pragmatist’s view: It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice (Deng Xiaoping)
(Photo by Helena Lopes, Pexels)

News about China – be it positive or negative – affects people’s interest in the country, its culture and language, but not always in the way you would expect.

Based on all the negative media coverage, you could decide to stay as far away as you can from China, never learn the language or have any dealings with the inhabitants of the middle kingdom. On the other side – if you’re more pragmatic – , you might just as well argue that you are going to learn the language and help the people affected by these negative things or at least try to be helpful in some way.

Either way: China is becoming more and more important on the world stage. For the pragmatist learner this is a good thing. He is not limited by ideology or moral judgements about China and doesn’t feel obliged to point his finger at others.

5. Nationalism as a demotivating factor

China is back!

Some people do get demotivated by China’s new nationalism which is creating a climate that is less welcoming and even hostile to foreigners – or so it is said. Party ideology guides you everywhere you go and the cult around XJP is getting more and more obtrusive, not only foreign observers have noticed. Many are worried that China is drifting off in a totalitarian direction.

And there is more disappointment. Some longtime laowai have discovered that they’ll always remain “aliens” and outsiders in China, no matter how deep their understanding of the country and its people have grown. Others even fear being scapegoated once China’s economy declines or political and economical tensions between the West and China rise.

Is this kind of nationalism unique to studying Chinese? Can one have the same experience studying other languages like Japanese, Turkish and Arabic which have their own brands of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia? It can be hard if you admire the culture, only to discover you are not welcome and never will be a true part of it. Obviously, this last point is not unique to immigrants in China, but a problem with an universal quality.

Does it demotivate me?

Yes and no. I noticed it’s all too easy to be influenced by negative news about China. And here in Europe, almost everything I read about China is negative. (We’re afraid of China! Afraid of what China might become in the future when it decides the rules of the new world order). However, our understanding of China is still very limited.

Ultimately, it’s my own choice to pay attention to this negative and biased news or not. I prefer listening to an insightful China podcast, talking to locals or reading a serious book about China. My goal has always been to stay open-minded and understand different perspectives.

For every negative statement about China I can make an equal remark about my own country, the USA or Europe. I think this is a fair and healthy thing to do. And put things in their right historical perspective as well. No, China is not a democracy, not in today’s western sense, but when has it ever been? Why do we always project our own wishes and expectations on others?

Another important reason to not let yourself get demotivated by politics is this: the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. It doesn’t come without a huge investment of time and energy which is why you should get your priorities straight. It actually makes a lot of sense to protect your motivation and keep a healthy distance from politics if it’s starting to become a negative influence. The apolitical positions mentioned above all reflect that.

Furthermore, the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of learning Chinese language and culture(s) is undervalued. There’s seems less and less place for that in today’s world. You have to defend yourself against people doubting the usefulness of your endeavors. If your interest is beyond the mainstream – and it doesn’t even have to be some obscure branch of knowledge – you just don’t fit in anywhere.

Anyway, philosophy, arts AND the study of languages, in my view, should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care and aren’t interested.

Whatever happens in the future, there will be a practical value in knowing the Chinese language. The reasons may vary from work, Chinese family and friends, traveling and hopefully, changing something for the better.

Does the political situation in China affect your learning? Please feel free to comment on this topic down below.

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3 thoughts on “Studying Mandarin: politics and motivation

  1. I really had to think about the question that you have posed here. I am studying Chinese and have been a learner for about 4 years now. I am classified at Level HSK, but I do not feel that I could pass the exam, not yet. On the question of Chinese political situation and whether it has an affect on my interest in learning the language. It is a good question. For me, I feel that it is necessary to keep my focus on why I became interested in studying the language in the first place. I was (and remain) motivated by friends, Chinese friends, whom I worked with and had interactions on the job. I returned from my first visit (tour) to China, several cities. I must admit, it was an eye-opener for me. There is no way that news, or television and social media, can convey the tremendous changes that have taken place. I was both surprised and a little bit jealous. Certainly there are politics that massage nationalism, much like any other country. But, China’s cities are clean… no immaculate. There are awesome holiday celebrations of its long (and often difficult) history. However, somethings are working very well, and this is something that we (Americans) could take note rather than ignoring. I am still excited about learning Chinese! [typing on the go, please forgive any clerical errors].

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting. It’s a difficult question, right? I think it’s a good thing you stick to your personal motivation and observations. I can totally relate to your China experience. I come from Europe, but I think many people have noted this same thing: coming back from China sometimes feels like returning to an open-air museum, I guess you know what I mean. Things indeed have changed very rapidly in China. Most of them for the better. And innovation comes along much faster than let’s say in Germany. If we ignore those developments, we might become like the Amish in your country one day. We could have Chinese tourists pay an entrance fee to visit our villages and we’d perform a welcoming dance for them. ^^

      Liked by 1 person

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