Does learning Chinese bring about world peace?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:06 pm

China Law blog asks an interesting question, and as they specifically call us out for a response, I thought I would say something. The question they asks is “Does having Americans study Mandarin make war between the U.S. and China less likely?” At its heart this is the “why study China” question that I think about a lot. In the literal sense, no, I don’t think that more students studying Chinese will make war less likely. War, as in actual shooting, could probably come about only at the end of a very long period of increasing conflict, and I don’t think dropping 2000 Chinese-speakers into the final crisis would do much good. The bigger question is will more language learning lead to less conflict?
Not necessarily. I don’t agree that getting to know people better will make you like them. Sometimes its only after getting to know people that you can really despise them. But in this case I suspect it might help a lot. At present American relations with China are sort of adrift, but at some point Americans will have to think about China and how to deal with it, just as China is trying to deal with America. I think more knowledge about China, from language classes or whatever, would do a lot of good. China’s relationship with the rest of the world is changing, and Americans need to figure out what, if anything they want to do about it. This is a rather complex question, as even Chinese can’t explain to themselves what their current situation is and where they want to go, just like every other country in the world. Present American popular and elite knowledge about China seems to be to be even worse than that about other places. Mao is dead and the Maoist era is over. China is not a super-sized North Korea that happens to produce Happy Meal toys, yet -lots- of people seem not to be aware of this. I think that there is the possibility that the rise of Chinese capitalism and the existence of American capitalism can co-exist and benefit from each other (I’m an optimist), but for that to happen understanding has to exist. Americans at fancy liberal arts colleges studying Chinese so they can read Tang poetry, business people learning Chinese so they can make a ton of cash, people taking my classes to fill a non-western cultures requirement, its all good.

16 responses to “Does learning Chinese bring about world peace?”

  1. a super-sized North Korea that happens to produce Happy Meal toys

    That’s the best short description of our political and economic relationship I’ve ever seen.

    Language learning in itself doesn’t tell us anything: in the 80s when I was in college, two of the most popular languages were Japanese — for economic and cultural reasons — and Russian — for all the Foreign Service wannabees. Arabic wasn’t really on the radar much, nor was Chinese.

    But it’s an essential component of relations. Translators, interpreters, commentators, analysts, etc. are a necessary component of any international relationship, and the intensity of the China-US relationship is going to draw in a lot of people.

  2. Before WWII Japanese exchange students scoured the Chinese countryside recording details of terrain and geography, information that was later used during the Japanese invasion, documented in this book (or the companion volume):

    Peter Duus and Ramon H. Myers, of The Japanese Wartime Empire, 1931–1945 (Princeton University Press, 1996).

    or maybe it was this one:

    The Japanese Informal Empire in China, 1895-1937 by Peter Duus, Ramon H. Myers, Mark R. Peattie (Editor)

    Learning a language for national defense purposes seems to be the perrenial concern, e.g. there aren’t enough FBI agents fluent in Arabic.

    People who become part of the place, so to speak, businessmen, academics, teachers, people who will live for some period of time in China and log the hours necessary to really learn the language, not necessarily to extract something out of the place, make for more internationalist attitudes and a lower probability of conflict hopefully, or maybe I’m just a doveish dreamer and we’re doomed to repeat the Boxer rebellion and other nationalistic patterns of yesteryear. ugh.

  3. Alan Baumler says:


    I agree that learning a language can be just part of imperialism, the whole Said thing, although I think even at that level it is A Good Thing. I’m not sure the Boxers are really the best example, though. The Boxer uprising took the form it did in part because foreigners (missionaries) did go to China and did learn (some) Chinese and did become part of Chinese society, and thus did get caught up in its problems. What I am worried about is a conflict more analogous to the First Opium War and related events, where neither side has a clue what the other is doing.

  4. You raise a good point about both sides. We Americans love to berate ourselves for being isolationist, unsophisticated, hicks on the world stage, as though we are the only country out there that has trouble relating to others. But the reality is that the Chinese are the same way, despite their English. If are really so multi-cultural, why are there no Chinese MNCs?

  5. Alan Baumler says:

    Actually, I’m not really sure the Chinese are “that way.” From what I can gather, the American-information industry in China is growing pretty rapidly, both at the popular level and at the state level. At the very least China is way ahead of where it was in 76 when Carter’s victory was interpreted as a victory of the Coca-Cola financial group over the Detroit auto interests.

  6. Matthew Mosca says:

    Approaching this subject from the perspective of Qing history, it seems clear that on the Western side the increase in knowledge of the Chinese language did not necessarily promote mutual understanding, and in some cases actually promoted hostility (“Hey, wait a minute, they’re calling us ‘yi’!”). Certainly, the British had an incomparably better grasp of the Chinese language in 1850 than in 1750, and that did little to improve relations.
    The British case also makes clear that the reasons one studies a language are important. Virtually every Englishman who studied Chinese between 1800 and 1850 did so either to translate government documents or to preach Christianity. Neither goal was particularly conducive to better relations. On the Qing side there seems to have been a decisive tendency to look with greater hostility on foreigners who knew Chinese, and to assume that they were the ‘ring-leader’ of any tendency they disliked.
    Moving to contemporary affairs, I wholly agree that Americans learning Chinese is A Good Thing, and improves international understanding, but I think that is only effective up to a point. First, motives are important. I think most Americans studying Chinese today have, despite pragmatic business concerns, an intrinsic interest in China generally. But if you ramp up language production to a wartime footing I think this would cease to be true – I suspect that among the large cohort now studying Arabic there may be some (hopefully a small minority) who are not fundamentally interested in learning about another culture and seeing things from an different perspectives. Optimistically, a fair number of those who learned Japanese in WWII did become leading scholars and promoters of international goodwill, but I wonder if this attitude was widespread among the entire cohort studying Japanese.
    To take up a point that Alan made, I am consistently amazed at the number of well-educated Americans who have a good grasp of international affairs, and a fair knowledge of, say, French or even Russian history, who not only know virtually nothing about China but do not seem to feel that they should, or even could, get a good grasp of contemporary or historical China. Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, comments about one particularly dense passage: “…if you are not interested in political controversy and the mob of parties and sub-parties with their confusing names (rather like the names of the generals in a Chinese war), please skip.” In the 1930s Chinese warlord politics would have been confusing, but I think the quote points to a more deep-rooted sense that China is the very apex of obscure unknowability. There is a generational issue to this, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.
    I have grudgingly come to the conclusion – feel free to tell me that I’m wrong –that ordinary members of the American public (if such a beast exists) have a hard time taking China seriously. Any broad American perception of a foreign country has a “good” side and a “bad” side (French Culture vs. French snootiness might be a good example of this perception) – this is probably true of any nation’s perception of another country, except in really dire cases. But my impression is that American views of China are more unbalanced than is usually the case, containing simultaneously large doses of “ancient culture, quaint wall, odd but fundamentally benign” and “sinister rising Communist organ-harvesting dictatorship.” Part of this, I think, may be due to the lack of broad, non-partisan knowledge of China. Setting aside academic writing, coverage is generally about travel/”hey, take a look at glittering cosmopolitan Shanghai!” (good), and economic issues (good or bad, depending on the thrust of the story), or the sinister and/or inept nature of the government. For most readers, a single persuasive article on China could probably turn their entire view of China 180 degrees – until the next week, when they read a different story. Admittedly this oversimplifies the relevant journalism, a large portion of which does attempt to travel the more balanced “China-is-a-land-of-contradiction-and-contrast” road. As Alan points out, American views of China are adrift. It is rather worrying to think about the impact that a concerted campaign to shift perspectives on China could have on American public perceptions, one way or the other (but I can’t really see a concerted positive campaign). In that sense, I think the more balanced view of China that comes from studying Chinese (and living in China for at least a summer, which usually goes along with that) is quite important, even if it is no guarantee of future good relations.

  7. Jeremiah says:


    I think your point about the assumed “unknowability” of China is a good one. I might add that this assumption is a two-way street. I think most scholars of China have, at some point, come up against “Chinese exceptionalism,” a belief, often found among Chinese academics but which can arise in any conversation here in China, that theories and ideas derived from other parts of the world have no applicability in China and vice-versa. A corollary to this is the idea that somehow China is unique and thus unable to be truly understood by “non-Chinese” or that foreigners must be inherently ignorant about China (witness Wu Yi’s impromptu lecture to Ben Bernanke.)

    On a historical note, I’m interested in just how fluent was the Chinese of foreign officials and missionaries in 19th century. In my own research on the mid- to late-19th century treaty ports, I frequently come across conversations, sometimes quite heated, between Chinese or Manchu officials and their foreign counterparts. But the record in some cases isn’t clear as to whether an interpreter was present or which language was being used. Any thoughts?

  8. Matthew Mosca says:

    Although proficiency in Chinese certainly varied case by case, my hunch is that most treaty port Westerners in the official domain (as opposed to missionaries) probably read and wrote better than they spoke. I think the Chinese scholars who taught them Chinese would have emphasized the ability to read and write literary Chinese much more than the ability to speak in colloquial Chinese. Plus, reading and writing literary Chinese does not necessarily assist your ability to speak. One early translator I’ve researched a bit, Thomas Manning, could read Chinese fairly well but had a hard time speaking. He made the comment that – in his opinion – Chinese interlocutors were far less tolerant than Europeans of mistakes in conversation, and quickly gave up trying to talk to you if you made more than two or three.
    An interesting source on this topic is the journal of Sir Robert Hart, of the Chinese Maritime Customs (published in two volumes, Harvard U. Press). They vividly describe his frustrations learning the language (he ended up becoming quite fluent) and the sub-culture of trainee interpreters and translators in the treaty ports. Evidently they occupied a fairly low rung on the foreign service ladder, especially when they started out. Very interesting source for 1850s/60s treaty port life in general.
    Beyond that, I defer to those who study this topic more closely. As a caveat, I think that then, as now, people can be a little touchy about how good their Chinese is – a lot of one-upsmanship in that department – and evidence should be taken with a grain of salt.

  9. Scott Relyea says:

    I’ll leave my comments quite brief as much of what I could add has already, much more cogently, been presented above. I would particularly point to Jeremiah’s point on the ‘two-way street’ of unknowability as indeed something we as researchers or those who have spent considerable time in China have encountered from all facets of society, from the university professor to the construction worker and all in between.

    What I’d like to add, however, hopefully circles back toward the initial question of whether learning Chinese might contribute to world peace, or perhaps more appropriately either a passive acceptance or a knowledgeable understanding of China’s ‘rise’, from a younger angle…

    Most comments above refer almost exclusively to adults, either during the Qing or today learning Chinese for a variety of reasons, including those currently at University. But, and particularly in Chicago, greater numbers of elementary school children are learning Chinese at an understandably simple level. Of course it’s not limited to Chicago Public Schools, but this is the realm with which I’m perhaps most familiary, but if these students continue their language (and culture) training aren’t they in a better position to promote the kind of peace between the U.S. and China suggested by the question? Notable, too, is that this primary school program, like the Confucius Institutes now spreading around the globe is heavily funded by — the Chinese government.

  10. Alan,

    “I agree that learning a language can be just part of imperialism, the whole Said thing, although I think even at that level it is A Good Thing. I’m not sure the Boxers are really the best example, though. The Boxer uprising took the form it did in part because foreigners (missionaries) did go to China and did learn (some) Chinese and did become part of Chinese society, and thus did get caught up in its problems. What I am worried about is a conflict more analogous to the First Opium War and related events, where neither side has a clue what the other is doing.”

    Wasn’t the essence of the First Opium War about what sort of trade foreigners could and couldn’t do in China? Which would make it similar in a way to modern day trade conflict, i.e WTO, Foreign Direct Investment, exchange reserves, and relative competitiveness of currencies.

    I couldn’t imagine actual military conflict like over Taiwan or the Ryukyu/South China Sea having any trade implications like the First Opium War except for ceasing it entirely.

    IMHO Present-day trade conflicts are probably about as difficult for people to understand thoroughly, due to the complexity of the economic issues, as the Opium Wars were, due to transportation and communication barriers in the 19th century. Although no has good predictions of the future now, when something finally happens, surely everyone will say: “Of course, why didn’t I think of that?” Just like the recent Thai coup.

    There’s also another conflict “where neither side has a clue what the other is doing” that is already happening right now, in a sense, along the China-Burma-Singapore Axis and the West, with western trade sanctions against Burma over the last 20 some odd years. It’s not an armed conflict, but a trade conflict that affects a state on China’s periphery whose trading rights with the US are held to much harsher standards than China probably because of China’s shear massive size and bargaining power. See article in London Review of Books:

    “Some people still argue that trade and investment sanctions against the Burmese government are the only way to push the army leadership into talking with Aung San Suu Kyi. But the sanctions argument is deeply flawed…”

    “…sanctions really only mean Western sanctions. In the years since 1988, ***Burmese trade with China*** and several other neighbouring countries has grown considerably, and tens of billions of dollars’ worth of natural gas have been discovered offshore. To believe that China would impose sanctions and cut off their access to Burma’s energy supplies in order to push the country towards democracy is naive. Sanctions going beyond those already in place would mean in effect increased influence for China; not something likely to lead to democratic change.”

    “Third, imagine for a moment that somehow, miraculously, extremely tight sanctions were possible – involving China, India and Thailand – and that these brought the government to its knees, without a dollar or renminbi left to pay for vital imports. While there is a possibility that reasonable heads would prevail, there is also a very good chance that the army leadership would stay in their Führerbunker until the bitter end, as the country collapsed into anarchy around them…”
    London Review of Books: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n03/than01_.html

    China has not just trade but also Foreign Direct Investment and large scale real estate purchases. This has been happening for a long time. Burma often pops up in strange ways in Chinese contexts. There was a corruption scandal in Fujian. Where did they find the culprits? Holed up in a Yangon hotel room.

  11. J Chan says:

    The questions asked in the China Law blog and on the Frog site are slightly different.

    The quick answer to the question in the Frog ‘Does learning Chinese bring about world peace?’ is ‘Yes’.

    It is yes in the sense that learning of many other subjects, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, medicine, hopefully history, and so on will contribute to world peace. It is said that the atom bomb brought peace to WW2. The atom bomb came about through learning of mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, several human languages and so on, so according to the question here, it can be said that these subjects brought about world peace.

    Ask the same question in another way ‘Does learning Chinese not bring about world peace?’ The answer will also be in agreement with the question; in the same way that if the atom bomb brought us peace then it has brought us an uneasy peace.

    Why is there an apparent contradiction in the answers depending on how the questions were phrased? There is really no contradiction because the way the said questions were phrased presupposed a Two-Value Logic argument: yes/no, true/false, zero/one, on/off, black/white, stop/go and so on; when in reality a Multi-Value Logic model is required to answer the said questions. That is to say there is no clear-cut yes/no, true/false, on/off etc to the question. Such models and how they operate and behave are well developed in mathematics and in subjects such as electrical engineering; students and teachers of history are well advised to seek the help of their colleagues in these subjects in order to further their understanding of how such questions should be addressed.

    A better way to ask the question is ‘Would the learning of the Chinese language (by Americans as in the China Law blog question) help with world peace?’ The question could be extended to any language and not just Chinese. On the subject of bringing about world peace, language is a tool. Just as a hammer could be used to build or to destroy so can a language. If you want to listen to where the use of language could help to build world peace, then listen to the speeches of Kofi Annan. If you want an example where the use of language was to inflame and to defame, then no matter how many American knows how to say the below (from reply 1 to this blog) in Chinese it would not help build better relations between America and China:

    1. a super-sized North Korea that happens to produce Happy Meal toys

    That’s the best short description of our political and economic relationship I’ve ever seen.

    Anyone who has such views, in relation to building peace between the US and China should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

    The relationship between China and the USA has already been best summed up by former President Nixon. If history is a guide, then the USA has more to fear from Japan than China, as Japan is the only nation ever to have invaded US soil. The US should even fear a reprisal from the Vietnamese because of what they did to that country.

    On a lighter note, if all else fails, America could once again export ‘Sex, drugs and Rock & Roll’ to try to bring about world peace, and see whether that would work.

  12. “a super-sized North Korea that happens to produce Happy Meal toys
    That’s the best short description of our political and economic relationship I’ve ever seen.”

    I think the description is only “good” in the sense that it captures public opinion which has been framed by two issues, hammered over and over gain by the media, “free trade” and “human rights”, until they become the gospel truth in peoples’ heads, with very little chance of being questioned, even in free-thinking academic environments. The truth of the matter is that Asian political reality is pretty autonomous from American public opinion.

    American academic engagement with the issue of the Thai coup has truly been hilarious. I saw at a Stanford website, one political science professor, calling on President Bush to take immediate action, yet the seminar on the coup at Stanford attracted all of 15 people and Southeast Asia hardly figures at all in the Stanford curriculum or that of other American universities. It did in the immediate post-Vietnam era of course. Meanwhile, in Sonthi’s lecture at UCLA he was labelled a “journalist”. He actually owns a continually failing newspaper and is considered more of a political opportunist. He doesn’t even vote and only turned against his friend Thaksin after a falling out.

    The story traditionally runs: the US will provide a country with free trading rights in the US until the country does something that it doesn’t like, such as crack down on protestors, invalidate democratic elections, invade a neighbor, at which time bank accounts in the US are frozen and sanctions are imposed, sometimes at great cost to the people of the country. Sanctions are a pretty blunt edged weapon that usually only further inflame and escalate the situation, rarely do they solve the problem. With over one trillion in US dollar reserves held by China, I guess that’s the thing to be worried about.

    IMHO education in America should include more Asian languages and histories in their curriculum. Right now it is top-heavy with European languages and histories and tends to follow a pendulum of current political obsession.

  13. is only “good” in the sense that it captures public opinion which has been framed by two issues,

    Yes, yes. Some people have no sense of humor.

  14. IMHO The more generalized question of whether increases in people who cross cultural-national boundaries through language or long-term residence increases the potential for peace (or the converse, whether there is any risk associated with long-term residence, and here I am not talking about large MNCs that provide their staff with highly subsidised life-styles largely insulated from the country they reside in, or the elite international schools that support this insulated community). One risk of this cultural boundary crossing seems to be sometimes a complete aversion and demonizing of the other culture one has lived in, which seems to have been the case with some of the 9-11 terrorists or the fundamentalist Islamic scholar Qutb who was actually an exchange student at Stanford in the 1950s.

    This is certainly a subject that western people who live and work in Asian societies (and the converse group) continually think about and reflect on, from Korea to Japan to China to Southeast Asia. It completely influenced my thinking in the last paper that I wrote (albeit indirectly since the events took place 500 years ago), that took six months to write and just got published today:

    Jon Fernquest (2006) Crucible of War: Burma and the Ming in the Tai Frontier Zone (1382-1454), SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 2006

    Now I have to master classical Chinese. I have a big pile of Ming Yunnan gazetteers sitting on my table.

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