Chinese has become the new “it” language to learn across the Western world, with everyone from Facebook executive Mark Zuckerberg to former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd grappling with Mandarin’s tricky tones and complex script.

Today, the surge in demand for courses in Mandarin is largely a product of China’s rapid economic growth. Language proficiency is seen as the key to understanding how to do business in China’s huge marketplace. To capitalize on this interest, the government in Beijing has built training centers on every inhabited continent and has sent teachers everywhere from Southern California to Mozambique. Skeptics have decried these language programs as Trojan horses for China’s political agenda—a view that may not be far off the mark, given that Chinese state media present these programs as a key institution for spreading China’s “soft power”.

But China is not the only government player spreading Chinese language learning around the world. Taiwan has built its own programs to compete with China’s—and some students may think this is a more palatable alternative to schools that might be linked to China’s political motives. Is it?

Governments of China have established language schools on foreign soil since the early 1900s, when the last imperial dynasty of China, the Qing, established fully-fledged schools in Chinatowns across the Western world. These schools served Chinese children whose families wanted them to return to China. By the end of the 20th century, these schools had become weekend and after school programs for teaching Chinese language to ethnic Chinese students who attended local schools full time.

The Nationalist Party overthrew the Qing in 1911 and established the Republic of China in 1912. The party then retreated to the southern island of Taiwan in 1949, when it lost the Chinese Civil War to the Communists. On the Mainland, the Communists proclaimed a new government, the People’s Republic of China. Both the Nationalists and the Communists claimed the territory that the other party controlled.

From the northern Taiwan city of Taipei, the Nationalists ruled under martial law and waged a long campaign to take back the Mainland. In addition to military preparations, it crushed ideological dissent and actively tried to define what it meant to be Chinese. For the Nationalists, Chineseness was about loyalty to the government in Taipei and opposition to the government in Beijing. It was also about speaking Standard Mandarin, a modified form of the Beijing dialect that is very different from the language spoken by the majority of Taiwan’s population.

The Nationalist nation-building project extended overseas as well. The Chinese language schools were one of the main institutions for creating loyal Chinese subjects abroad. The Taipei government produced propaganda-heavy textbooks, which they sent to schools around the world. These books taught young Chinese overseas that their ethnic and national loyalty was to China and that China had one legitimate government—the one now ruling from Taipei. A lesson from one such textbook published in the 1970s reads:

I am Chinese.
I love China. I also love the country where I live.
We are all Chinese. We are all Overseas Chinese. We all love the country where we live. We all love China, as well.

This lesson in identity politics clearly bears the marks of the political circumstances under which it was produced and distributed. But those political circumstances changed dramatically again in the next few decades.

By the end of the 1970s, most world governments had accepted the Beijing government’s claim to be the legitimate government of China. Beijing replaced the Taipei’s seat at the United Nations in 1971, and the US broke off official diplomatic ties to the Taipei in 1979.

The 1980s and 1990s was a time of great geopolitical change in this region. Beijing liberalized emigration in the late 80s, resulting in a changing demographic and political balance in Chinese communities overseas. As historian Denny Rey writes in Taiwan, A Political History, martial law in Taiwan ended in 1987, and the country began to blossom into one of East Asia’s most vibrant democracies. The movement to establish an independent republic in Taiwan (thereby shedding the Republic of China label and all claims to Mainland territory) became a legitimate political force and challenged the ties between Taipei and self-identified Chinese abroad.

However, Taipei maintained its strong ties to Chinese language schools throughout this political change. For instance, it continued to produce and subsidize textbooks for these schools—though with far less overt propaganda than in the martial law era. It also continued to offer training workshops for teachers and allowed schools to use space in consulates and cultural centers.

Taipei’s ties to these schools has been central to its response to the global popularity of Chinese language education and to the cultural and geopolitical threat of Beijing’s Chinese language programming. Through the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (Hanban) and cultural centers known as Confucius Institutes, Beijing pays teachers’ salaries, funds exchange programs, and subsidizes cultural events. Other forms of control include pushing for China’s point of view or sidestepping sensitive topics like Tibet or Falun Gong. A number of universities around the world have ended their relationship with the Confucius Institutes over alleged, perceived, or feared infringement of academic freedom.

Taipei has responded to the aggressive expansion of the Confucius Institutes with its own analogous program. The Taiwan Academies are attached to Taiwan’s diplomatic missions and promote Taiwanese culture, traditional Chinese characters, and Taiwan’s version of standard spoken Mandarin. In parallel, it is trying to mobilize the existing network of language schools to respond to local demand for Chinese language instructors and materials.

One distinct advantage that Taiwan has is that most of its language schools are local, grassroots efforts. Most of the schools that I’ve encountered in my fieldwork in Los Angeles are run by volunteers and rent facilities from neighborhood public schools. Most of the teachers and administrators are mothers of current and former public school students. Unlike teachers sent abroad by Beijing, these teachers and administrators are familiar faces in their communities and are financially independent from any foreign government.

The Taiwan authorities recognize this advantage and have tried to harness it for the government’s ideological ends. In a teacher training workshop that I attended in 2013, a bureaucrat from the Taiwanese ministry that oversees diaspora affairs suggested that language school administrators should reach out to their school districts and offer their teachers, materials, and instructional expertise as a counterpoint to China’s offer. Getting schools to use textbooks that have been vetted by Taipei was especially important, he argued, because books backed by the Beijing government are too “ideological”:

Mainland and Taiwanese textbooks are always going to be different. From an objective standpoint, Taiwanese materials are more lively and diverse. We won’t use them to inculcate any political or ideological messages. Through this soft power device, we spread Taiwan’s message to children overseas, but not through ideological means.

Ideology, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. This is especially clear in the teaching of Chinese, for which there is no politically neutral choice of writing system. In 1956, the Mainland began using simplified Chinese characters. Taiwan has held on to the traditional script and sees simplified characters as a vivid symbol of Communist cultural corruption: “Let’s take 愛,” someone said at the teacher training workshop, referring to the traditional character for “love.” “Does the simplified 爱 have a 心 (heart) in it? From this example, you can see the nature of the characters Mao Zedong created.” Taiwan-backed books may not have the political messages that worry those who see China as a real or potential enemy, but when even the choice of script has a clear anti-China purpose, they cannot claim to be “non-ideological.”

Perhaps Taiwanese teachers and materials will be more acceptable in American classrooms than Chinese ones simply because they aren’t as overtly threatening—Taiwan does not loom large as a political and economic threat in the American imaginary (if it registers on the radar at all).

But it is important to note that language and language teaching cannot be divorced from social, political, and economic drivers. Even a completely home-grown set of teachers and materials, not to mention students, will have to engage with the geopolitics and linguistic politics of the Chinese language.

Language learners and parents of language learners should think critically about why they are learning the language and what language learning options are out there. What are the motivations of the people and organizations offering the materials and teaching services? Can they reconcile their motivations for learning the language with the motivations that other people have in teaching the language?

Further Reading:

Image credit:   Steven Depolo via Flickr

About The Author

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Calvin Ho is a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA studying the political dimensions of immigration and emigration. His current project examines how different national governments allow foreign students to become labor migrants. This project is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program for promising doctoral students in the social and natural sciences.