In China, authorities are worried that the technical ease of typing Chinese characters means that people are forgetting how to write them. As a result, they are urging schools to re-introduce mandatory calligraphy classes.
I’m learning Chinese, and so I have become accustomed to keyboard technology that does much of work for me. If I want to type out a sentence in Chinese, I switch my language preference in my word processing program from English to Chinese. Then I write the sentence in pinyin, the Latin alphabet version of Chinese. For each syllable, I am offered a variety of character options that correspond to a syllable or sound. For example if I type wo, I can choose between 我 , 沃, 握 and several other characters.
I must, of course, be able to recognize the character: I need to know what it looks like in order to choose the right one. But I don’t need to learn or remember how to write it. The computer does that for me.
The trouble is, it’s not just Chinese learners like me who are using this character-inputting shortcut. Native Chinese speakers do it too. If they have access to a computer, they don’t need to write characters. Naturally, many people are forgetting how to write. Others don’t adequately learn characters in the first place. So calligraphy, the traditional practice of writing characters with the strokes of a brush, is back as a mandatory part of the curriculum for many Chinese school kids. Without this, educators fear that many Chinese will never be able to write in their own language.
Abroad, it’s a different story. Across the globe, there’s an explosion of Chinese-learning. The government in Beijing is playing its part. In the past seven years, China has opened almost 300 Confucius Institutes around the world. Still, you might not expect to find an institute in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. But there it is, offering Chinese language classes to (mainly) young Rwandans.
Rwanda does not have great stability in its language policies. Most Rwandans are native Kinyarwanda speakers. But many also speak English and French. In the wake of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda switched its language of instruction from French to English (there are suspicions among some Rwandans that the French were complicit in the assassination of the Rwandan President, that led to the genocide). Now some Rwandans are learning Chinese. More on this in Mary Kay Magistad’s blog post.
Another example of the expansion of Chinese soft power: the government-run China Radio International is seeking out new audiences in the United States.
The latest place you can hear it: WILD, an AM station in Boston. For much of the last four decades, WILD broadcast soul music and talk shows hosted by people like Al Sharpton and Tom Joyner.
But In June 2011, the station began leasing its airtime to an English language service of China Radio International.
CRI’s programs offer a mix that Voice of America listeners might recognize: news, programs on Chinese culture and society, cheesy, retro pop music programing, and the occasional Chinese language lesson. Nothing especially controversial, and absolutely nothing cutting edge. The very softest of soft power.
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