A Lesson from Teacher Hu

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Last night Chinese state television aired a piece about President Hu Jintao teaching a Mandarin nursery rhyme to a class at a Moscow elementary. It probably wasn’t his biggest priority in Russia this week. During his visit, businesses from the two countries signed $4 billion in deals. And China is still pushing for more access to Russian oil.

But watching Hu give a lesson, the first thing that occurred to me (after, of course, the risk public figures face when they approach a chalkboard) was how language study can be as much a sign of national influence as business deals and energy resources. A decade ago I studied Mandarin at a university in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. Russians built much of the city a century ago, something that’s still clear in the architecture. And some of the influence remained. It was a near daily occurrence that someone who mistook me for a Russian would run out of a shop or across a street to practice speaking Russian with me. They were almost always middle-aged or older people who had studied the language in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union was a close ally and one of China’s few foreign outlets. After I explained I was an American, they’d often lament that when they were young they couldn’t study English.

Now nearly one in four Chinese have studied English, according to Xinhua. I haven’t seen the numbers on Chinese learning Russian, but I can’t imagine they’re in the same league these days. (“Is there any use in Chinese studying Russian?” was one post I found on a Yahoo China bulletin board.) But in Russia, interest in Chinese is growing. Some 10,000 Russians are enrolled in Chinese programs, and an agreement was just reached to set up Russia’s third Confucius Institute. The institutes are Beijing-backed language and cultural centers like Germany’s Goethe-Institut. Those are still small numbers for students and language centers, but they’re on the rise. You’re less likely, I’d imagine, to hear a Russian ask if there’s any use in studying Chinese.