Crouching Culture, Hidden Power: Chinese culture influence as strategic tool for global competitiveness

March 5, 2007


Would you not agree that cultural influence can be used as element of power helping a state to promote itself in international arena? Let’s focus on language. English is still dominating the world but we argue that if China becomes the next super power Mandarin language will become the new requirement for the world in order to participate in global developments and relations. Mandarin, in fact, is already highly demanded by people in the world: there are thought to be about 50,000 American schoolchildren studying Mandarin at public schools and another 50,000 outside the public system. In 2002, there were about 34,000 Mandarin students in US universities. “Part of it has been fueled by the intense interest in China as a rising global superpower,” says Michael Levine, vice president of the Asia Society, an international nonprofit organization based in New York. So, is this really China’s “large-scale efforts to promote Mandarin as a must-learn language of the future<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>? According to Samuel Huntington’s view in “The Clash of Civilizations?<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–>”, East Asian civilization is culturally asserting itself relative to the West due to its rapid economic growth. He believes that China as the regional hegemon attracts other countries ‘bandwagonning’ with her. Today, the world is very intertwined due to economic interdependence, so people are led by this “invisible hand¨ guiding them to make the “rational choice” of studying the language and culture, which dominate the world. When we were growing up such language was English, but today Mandarin is taking over. . The Chinese government continues to offer scholarships to foreign students and the number of boarding students studying in China has risen over 20% annually over the past five years<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–>. This is an example of how perception of China’s potential is used by the Chinese government to assert its ‘relative power’ or ‘relative gain’. Indeed, the Chinese government is not oblivious to the effects this has on the acceptance of China as the next super power<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[2]<!–[endif]–> by the region and by the rest of the world and nor are we.

Ponder over whether cultural influence, in a form of a language, for example, is a tool as powerful as economic/political/military influences to compete effectively in the international arena?

by Fragile Gbego-Tossa and Joyce Chan

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72:3 (Summer 1993)

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[2]<!–[endif]–> Howard W. French, “China exports a hot commodity: Language Around the world, classes are filling” [3 edition] International Herald Tribune. Paris: Jan 12, 2006. pg2 ”


14 Responses to “Crouching Culture, Hidden Power: Chinese culture influence as strategic tool for global competitiveness”

  1. meryam Says:

    language would fall under cultural or ‘soft power’, which is definitely influential, but not as ‘powerful’ as hard power, i.e. military/political factors.

    from the individuals i have spoken to who are currently learning mandarin, and also implied in the guardian article quoted above, their reasons for doing so stems from their necessity to communicate with their chinese business counterparts.

    more important than the number of people studying a particular language, is the quantity and quality of material produced in that language, and its global acceptance. unless there is a dramatic rise in the international demand for academic research (including new theories of IR!) to be published in mandarin, or literature, popular fiction and films, i cannot see that mandarin will become the next world language.

    it is perhaps telling that one of the articles above noted japanese was the fashionable language to learn in america some twenty years ago, when japan was seen as the next economic superpower …

  2. philipm Says:

    This is a great subject for discussion.

    I would agree that promoting one’s language abroad can enhance a country’s global influence. However, it is worth asking whether all states’ interests are served by promoting their national languages abroad.

    It’s true that Britain and the United States have gained much by having their own language – English – as the international lingua franca. However, you could also argue that everyone gains from adopting one relatively easy to learn language that is already widely spoken. This way, Indians can communicate with Koreans, Finns can speak with Nigerians, and so on.

    Promoting greater use of Chinese abroad helps China gain recognition as a world power, whether within international organizations, or on a cultural level. However, I think that China has far more to gain in its political and economic relations with the rest of the world by jumping on the English bandwagon instead of trying to get everyone to speak Chinese (which, as any waiguoren who has tried studying any Chinese languages, requires considerable discipline).

  3. edwardng Says:

    China has its own unique culture and the Chinese always have pride on its bright history when its culture exerted great influence over its neighbours in old days – such as Japan and Korea – even the Japanese characters and language were invented partly based on Chinese ones. However, it was the past. In modern time, China lacks its appealing ‘soft’ power. Although its military or economic capabilities may become even stronger in near future, it will still be incapable of exporting a set of values, thoughts and lifestyles that were different from the existing ones held by the West and that, most importantly, would be universally accepted by other states.

    As China is short of sufficient ‘soft’ power, it cannot be expected that Chinese culture and language could not be used as a tool for increasing or strengthening its role in international arena. Further, it seems that the dominance of English and the values promoted by the West will still prevail in the foreseeable culture. Although the soft power of the United States relatively has declined as compared that during Cold War Period (partly due to the accusation that she usually acts unilaterally as a hegemony and violates the rights of other states), the values promoted by her and other Western states, including individual freedom, protection of human rights and democracy and so on, are generally accepted by the majority of the states all over the world, despite that different states may have different interpretation and accept the values to a different extent. So it would be English and the Western cultures promoted by the United States that will have dominant (but not overwhelming) influence over global affairs in near future. But certainly China may exert more influence to some Asian states, such as Vietnam, Koreas, Malaysia and Singapore, in which Chinese-related/Confucian culture is rooted, than to the rest of the World, as she is more assured to be a regional power in East Asia.

  4. mark Says:

    One language for the whole world? Esperanto – it failed, but mainly because it was forced to fail…

    China may be the next hot thing in the world and people are indeed, flocking to learn chinese, but I don’t think English will be usurped just yet. In fact there are more varieties of english than ever before with more and more “localisms” creeping into England’s English. So if anything, its the original English which is changing at a faster rate than any langauge in the world!

    With the dominance of the US movies and music, with England, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Singapore and of course the US as the leading immigration and business terminals, English can only spread fiurther to the detriment of other languages….

    The french are always giving incentives to certain african countries all the time if they keep[ French as their national language – the power of “Fracophonie” has not been lost on the French government.

    In fact Chirac is gets quite stroppy when English is spoken in France – let alone if a government representative dares to address an English question in English -…

  5. G. Daniel Says:

    About Chirac: Funny fact considering that he has himself a decent level of English coming from some studies in the USA.

    The US culture is so pervasive partly because it is not a ‘high culture’ but rather consumerism. And everyone wants to buy-in a beautiful life.

    To the ones already protesting about my bold assertion that the US lacks culture, let me correct my point: it does not export it significantly. Woody Allen is not the most popular director in the world and Edward Said ‘orientalism’ is not on top of the bestseller list.

    Culture is a limited soft power on its own as the experience of the Francophonie shows. Otherwise you would all be talking to me in French and be real socialist! Vive la Francophonie!

    And yes English is adapting, partly because the language is no bigger than the power it represent. but also because in its most casual versions it is a simple language that can get you around with a very limited number of words. I might shock a few but Putonghua is NOT a simple language that can be understood even when mispronounced.

    We all would like to have our language spoken by more people. It is a bit of a question of pride, of practicality when going abroad but also a question of cultural exchange. We usually feels more comfortable expressing our opinions in our own language. Let’s all take some consolation in the fact that most of the English spoken over the world is always a bit weird to a native speaker. We all share the same pain.

    Speaking of language as vehicle of idea, let me correct a rather annoying point. English=US=Western=all rich countries. NO … NOOOOOO !

    Ask yourself, what is the West? A shorthand for the US and its allies? The European plus North America and Autralia? A discourse creating the illusion of unity among any and all above groups. Don’t be fool! Accept no substitute! Buy the real thing! Western ideas are not a coherent unity that is vehicle unaltered by English. Some ‘Western’ ideas are in German, Spanish and even French. I would bet that the same applies for Asian/Confusianist ideas.
    Funny fact about ‘Western’ culture: did you know that French impressionism has been greatly influenced by Japanese art?

    Language is a mediator, a tool to exchange and play with ideas. There is no dispute that the number of people learning Putonghua is rising, some suggest 30 millions worldwide right now. That should have an interesting effect on what appears to me as a fairly coherent, stable and controlled culture.

  6. entlau Says:

    I agree with Meryam that “hard” power comes first in the case of China. It is the growing presence of China in the international arena, both politically and economically, that has led to the increasing interest in the study of Chinese by foreigners. And the growing use of Chinese language, together with the spread of Chinese culture, in turn helps heighten China’s international standing and enhance its global competitiveness. The hard and soft powers reinforce each other and it has become a virtuous circle. And of course we have the Confucius Institute, China’s answer to Alliance Française, Goethe Institut and the British Council. These joint ventures, run by partnerships between Chinese Universities and local universities in the host countries, further help promote the Chinese culture to an international community eager to learn Chinese in order to gain a share of China’s exponential economic growth.

  7. Michael Says:

    A very interesting approach to the application of power aiming towards world economic leadership. Chinese philosophy has been for the most part “for the good of the collective” as opposed to the capitalist approach “for the good of me”. With China emerging as a world super-power, it will also start shedding its outer shell and allow for more free trade, more openness. With that, there will be an increased interest in foreign investment thus bringing China even more to the forefront of a modern industrialized nation. I believe that Fragile is correct in the fact that sooner or later it will be highly beneficial to learn Chinese. China in itself is a far richer country culturally as well as historically then the European continent is. It has however not been openly known or chronicled until the reported travels of Marco Polo in the mid-late 1200’s – the first European (Italian – Venetian) tradesman who actually lived amongst the Chinese for as much as 17 years chronicling his experiences meticulously in his famous book “Il Milione” (which I highly reccomend to read in its native language Italian).

    As more and more people will learn to appreciate the beauty of the China, its history and its people (hopefully I will have the opportunity to do so myself at some point in time), businessmen will realize that China constitutes the largest by far market for any business opportunity – up to 20% of the entire world’s population! True businessmen try to the average john/jane doe; something that will be optimized only if the language of the customer is mastered.

    Best wishes,


  8. ralphchow Says:

    With the peaceful rise of China, Putonghua will definitely become more popular particularly for those who want to tap the economic benefits in the mainland.

    However, we obviously don’t want to see the conflicts arising from of clash of civilisations as suggested by Samuel Huntington, between China and the major English speaking countries (especially the U.S. which may feel that its hegemonic status comes under challenge by the soft power of China).

    From my personal experience, I realise that Chinese is a difficult language to learn and it’s quite unlikely that it can replace English to become the international language in the future. I recall that my daughters were able to read and write very simple English in about a year’s time after they went to school, but it had taken them a few years to do the same after mastering at least a few hundred basic Chinese vocabularies. That’s why the Chinese Communist Government had introduced the simplified Chinese to help alleviate the illiteracy problem in China.

    But for those who have already gone through the painstaking process to learn Chinese, they will certainly appreciate their capability to communicate with more than 1/5 of the people on earth, which is very convenient indeed especially when travelling around in China.

  9. Shermann Says:

    I am inclined to agree with Daniel’s observation that use of certain language doesn’t mean an acceptance of a particular culture. Even many native Chinese in Hong Kong do not accept some aspects of the Chinese culture. The use of a particular language is more related to its function as a vehicle to convey ideas and messages to your listeners. This view can be changed very easily as what you can see the rise of learning Japanese and then Korean in the last few decades in Hong Kong. The wide adoption of English today, in my opinion, is mainly due to its ease to learn, to use and to be adjusted for one’s purpose. It is what Ralph has observed with her daughter’s experience and what’s happening to many local Chinese children in Hong Kong’s international school.
    In the book “Empire of the World: A Language History of the World” , Nicholas Ostler tried to examine the reasons for the rise and fall of a language and in particular the notion that the rise of a language is related to the military (hard) and economic power of a people. What he found, by drawing examples from the fate of historical dominant languages in the world, that immigration and fertility are more important in determining the fate of a language. One of the examples he used is the lingua franca in Mesopotamia when Babylon was dominating was a language used by a defeated race. He also projected that Chinese or Arabic will rise to the same position as English. This is a book worth reading though I found it quite difficult to swallow. I could only read a few chapters before the start of this semester.
    As Ralph has said, it will be amazing if you know Putonghua as you can immediately communicate to 1/5 of the world’s population. But it is also lucky for us who are taught at the early age with Chinese that we don’t need to go through this process of learning a difficult language at an later age.

  10. A link for your reference
    . It is about the number of speakers of different languages.

  11. Thanks to Fragile and Joyce! Your post is very interesting. And I am sorry that I made a mistake in my last post. The link doesn’t work…

    Anyway, let’s go to the home page of the United Nations’ Web site. In how many languages is the Web translated? Six. But according to the research of UNESCO in 2001, we should have more than 6,000 languages in the world. A more interesting point is that we only have the Web in Simplified Chinese but not Traditional Chinese. What does this imply? What are the principles followed by the United Nations when picking up the languages as “official” languages? Language is an indicator of “hard power.” This is what most of my classmates already implied in their posts. (More to come…)

  12. Me again. Sorry, I was working…

    As in the case of the language used by UN web site, we may see that language can be politicized. But a bolder statement is that language is politics.

    We have talked about learning Mandarin. But why Mandarin, not Mongolian, not Tibetan, not Hakka, and not Cantonese? Which language should represent China? This is a political decision. More importantly, legitimization of a language as the official language of a state is one of the ways for the ruling class to legitimize its status. Another closely related issue is accent. Beijing accent versus Taipei accent. Queen’s accent versus Eastenders accent. British accent versus Australian accent. There is a cultural hierarchy in the languages and accents that we use.

    UNESCO states that “[l]anguages are vehicles of value systems and of cultural expressions and they constitute a determining factor in the identity of groups and individuals.” I agree that the “use of certain language doesn’t mean an acceptance of a particular culture.” But languages are something more than vehicles of ideas. Language creates a sense of belonging among people, and more importantly, it can define our thoughts. A philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein said that “the limits of language mean the limits of my world.” (Sorry, I haven’t read through his books. I may misunderstand his words.)

    There is a longlasting debate on Eskimo langauges in linguistics. Some people aruge that in Eskimo languagues, there are far more “lexemes” when describing snow, far more than the number in English (but other studies show that this claim is not true.) True or not, the question is that when you can grasp the lexemes about snow, you will know about the different forms and different colors of snow. You will know how to appreciate the beauty (/ugliness) and complexity of snow.

    Another example. I often find it very difficult to explain the concept “Yuan”(緣) to people who don’t know Chinese despite one could argue that the concept actually finds its root in non-Chinses culture – probably, Buddhism. My American friend who knows both Chinese and English finds that “Yuan”(緣)cannot be directly translated into any English word or phrase like destiny or fate. The same conclusion is reached by my friend who lived in Canada and has learnt Fung Shui, astrology, tarot and many other non-traditional sciences for a long time. It is often the case that we don’t know a concept because we don’t have the related word in our language.

    Language defines thoughts. It is therefore possible that language shapes our worldviews which in turn guide nations’ policies to each other although, because of the brevity of my discussion, it may be too early for us to conclude that language, or more generally, culture, has salient soft power on its own.

    Lastly, I would say, understanding at least of the “major” languages in the world, we enjoy a privileged position. Imagine that we could only speak in one of the “endangered languages,” how would we feel? Why should a Chinese learn English before s/he could change it to Chi-glish? (But I am not saying that Chinese is better than English ar.)

  13. G. Daniel Says:

    To illustrate the relation between language, ideas and power I would like to share with you my own experience.

    The last NGO I worked for has 4 official languages, English, French, Spanish and Arabic. My department was a fairly mixed/cosmopolitan group of people. On a team of 30 the most represented nations would have 4 peoples, some of them bi-nationals. English, Spanish and French were all effectivelly working languages in the office. However Arabic was not. One person only was fluent in Arabic, a situation repeated in most other departments.

    The organization is very language aware. Language is regularly the subject of heated debates, and there is an integrated translation department. However the problem is operational. When you recruit a new staff it is for her/his skills. In some cases a specific language is absolutly needed but in most cases it can only be a secondary criteria. Even if you have a staff in the right position with the right language to communicate to external partners in their own language you still have to share the information with your colleages, which can proove difficult or time consumming for technical matters. Things get even more complexe when you have to report some of the information gathered to other external partners.

    You could argue that Arabic did not reach the watershed number of speakers in the organization beyond which it could be effectively used as a working language. It is only part of it. The multiplicity of language in an organization creates richness but it also complicates every tasks, including the most trivials one, and in some cases it just creates duplication of tasks. This is something that can be acceptable to an organization with a strong political consciousness but businesses do not tend to run multilingual offices, at most bi-lingual offices.

    The operational difficulty of running a multilingual office, the increasing cross-language communication needs and the increasing speed of communication in the globalization era create a push towards simple solutions. English is a fairly expediend solution for communication between speakers of different languages because of its simplicity and its existing numbers of non-native speakers. In turns it does give an edge to native speakers in an economy which is increasingly knowledged based.

    By contrast Chinese as a language faces the same problem as Arabic. It is not a simple language and its ‘non-native speakers’ tends to be the children of the diaspora. In operational terms it means that to deal outside the diapora community native speakers of both languages have to use another language. As it stands language is a bottleneck for international dealing with/for putongha speakers. This is certainly slowing down China’s expansion and penetration by external actors.

  14. Maximus Says:

    I would like to see a continuation of the topic

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