Why study Chinese, you ask? There are a number of compelling reasons to take up the challenge, whether your interest in China stems from a desire to travel, to advance your career, to connect with your ethnic heritage, or to immerse yourself in Chinese history, philosophy, and culture.
We’re living in an era marked by China’s rise in global affairs. The world’s geopolitical center of gravity, it is recognized, is shifting toward Asia, a trend that some see as accelerating in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the subsequent deep recession, and U.S. preoccupation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Strategists on both sides of the Pacific are engaged in debate over whether we are embarking on a long-term transformation from an international order in which the United States is the clear sole superpower to a multipolar world in which China and other emerging powers share greater influence. For Americans, who on the whole have an overwhelmingly Europe-focused orientation when it comes to travel and interest in foreign affairs, this represents a significant departure.
Beijing’s growing importance extends to the economic, commercial, political, and military realms, a fact that increasingly touches on Americans’ lives. China is the United States’ second-largest trading partner. People-to-people exchanges are on the rise: Chinese students are enrolling in U.S. colleges in record numbers, and more Americans are now studying in China than in any other foreign country. There is an open-ended question of how the U.S. military presence in Asia—consisting of alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia, including large troop presences in the first two, and a commitment to the security of Taiwan—will be reshaped in the context of China’s growing defense capabilities and assertiveness in the region.
It should be noted that Beijing faces a host of challenges both domestically and externally that could potentially interrupt or slow this tide of growing influence. But a significant degree of commercial and political co-dependency between our two countries is a permanent reality. That reality is rife with both challenges and opportunities, which is why the federal government has identified Mandarin Chinese as a strategic language that is critical for more Americans to study.
Language study on the surface is about facilitating communication, but this is only the basis of a much broader set of consequences: a richer exchange of ideas, a building of trust between populations who make the effort to gain an understanding of each others’ languages and customs, and a means and foundation on which to build strong long-term bilateral relations. If you embark on the journey of learning Chinese—regardless of your individual motivations for doing so—you’re a part of this larger picture.
Alyson Slack is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has a master’s degree in international affairs from American University. She lived in Asia for over twelve years—including Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, and South Korea—and previously worked on East Asia issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Alyson currently works at the Center for Economic Growth in Albany.