China Radio International has built up an avid fan club of listeners among the Tamil speaking populations of Sri Lanka and South East Asia, but most specially Tamil Nadu itself.
While north India’s Buddhism-threaded historical links to China are well known, the relationship between the erstwhile Middle Kingdom and Tamil speaking peoples also has a long history. Trade linkages between south India and China stretch back to the medieval period. As a result, several Tamil inscriptions dating between the 9th and 13th centuries have been found in certain parts of coastal China, like the port of Quanzhou.
Unknown to most, this medieval connection continues on in a modern avatar: that of shortwave radio. The state-owned China Radio International (CRI) broadcasts an hour-long programme in Tamil every evening from its studios in western Beijing and has over the years built up an avid fan club of listeners among the Tamil speaking populations of Sri Lanka and South East Asia, but most specially Tamil Nadu itself.
The radio station was first established in 1941 with the aim of broadcasting Chinese news and views to the world, in the language of the intended audience. Today CRI broadcasts 290 hours worth of programmes every day in 43 languages, including four Indian languages: Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and Urdu.
All four South Asian language departments are housed on the twelfth floor of the broadcaster’s headquarters, but what’s remarkable about the Tamil service in particular is the volume of letters sent in by its audience. Last year the Tamil department received a staggering 530,000 letters from listeners, some one-fourth of the total number of letters received by all 43 language services of CRI
Ms Zhu Juan Hua, the department’s Director, pats her carefully coiffured hair in satisfaction when revealing this information. “Tamil is not the national language of a single country and so the other departments sometimes consider us a less important service. But the popularity of our broadcasts and the loyalty shown by our listeners more than compensates for this,” she says.
CRI’s Tamil service comprises 15 Chinese and two native-speakers of the language. Both the language experts are from Chennai. While F. Maria Michael has been in Beijing for 11 months, his colleague Antoni Cleetus has already worked at CRI for over two years. Their main task is to polish the language of the Chinese journalists. In addition they also write and present show segments of their own.
“What’s amazing is the purity of the Tamil the Chinese in this department speak,” says Cleetus. “Our own Tamil is mixed in with slang, regional quirks and English words, but they (Chinese colleagues) speak absolutely pure, classic Tamil. It’s unbelievable!”
As a result the Chinese presenters are able to interact smoothly with listener call-ins and letters. Cleetus reveals that there are some 300 CRI Tamil service listener clubs that dot Tamil Nadu comprising short wave radio enthusiasts who gather together in groups to tune into the CRI broadcast every day at 7.30 p.m. IST.
Zhu adds that 28,000 people from India have formally registered with the radio station. Those who register are eligible for free gifts like T-shirts and are also sent copies of the service’s newsletter and magazine.
Zhu is better known to her audience by the Tamil name of Kalaiyarasi. In fact all the Chinese in the department have adopted Tamil monikers. Michael says that while Kalaiyarasi is probably the most popular, in addition to being the most experienced, of the programme presenters, the two deputy directors Cai Jun and Zhao Luo Shan, a.k.a Vani and Kalaimagal are also well liked.
Many of the over 500,000 letters CRI received last year were thus addressed specifically to these names. Zhu says that while around half of the letters contained feedback on the various programmes that comprise CRI’s hour-long broadcast, others were responses to competitions held by the service.
Michael adds that recent listener queries have included questions regarding China’s earthquake relief efforts, the construction of its world-class infrastructure as well as more general enquiries about Chinese culture and society.
“People even ask questions about how to adapt Chinese cuisine to Tamil food habits,” he smiles.
CRI’s Tamil service is also unique in that despite the ups and downs of Sino-Indian relations it boasts an unbroken broadcasting record starting from right after the 1962 border war. “We began to broadcast in 1963,’ says Zhu and we didn’t stop for even a single year, including during the Cultural Revolution.”
The department director joined CRI in 1975, towards the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. She was an English major but was trained by the radio station’s Tamil service veterans in the language for 20 months after joining. She has since studied Tamil for a year as a student in Thanjavur and visited India a total of six times.
The service continues to take on a few recruits every year with no background in Tamil who are then given an intensive language training course. However, the majority of the department’s broadcasters are hired from the Communications University of China (CUC).
CUC is the only university in China to offer Tamil as a major and it does so only once every four years. Located in the opposite end of Beijing from the CRI headquarters, to the far east of the city, CUC currently has 15 first-year students learning Tamil. They are taught by three teachers, the youngest of whom is Chen Juan or Devi, a 23-year-old who only graduated a year ago, also from the CUC’s Tamil department.
Chen Juan and two students Xu Fei and Li Yi show off the Tamil text book they use in class. It’s part of a series written by a retired CRI Tamil service director Sun Guo Qiang. Materials to teach Chinese students in Tamil are scarce. What is even more scarce are opportunities for the youngsters to practise their oral Tamil by interacting with native speakers.
CUC has no link up with any partner institution in Tamil Nadu and hence the students are unable to spend time in India studying in an atmosphere where they can steep themselves in the language.
They try and compensate for this lacuna by watching Tamil films. Rajnikanth is predictably a favourite. Xu Fei says she finds the film actresses a “little fat” but loves the song and dance sequences despite the fact that the songs “often have no connection with the plot.”
Over the next four years the students will have classes in reading, writing, listening comprehension, oral Tamil as well as newspaper reading and Tamil culture. Newspapers like Dinamani are borrowed by the university from CRI where a regular supply can be found.
Learning Tamil is no walk in the park, the students confess. The problem stems from it belonging to not only a very different language group to Chinese but also English, the other foreign language all university students in China are expected to learn. “I think the pronunciation [of Tamil] is the hardest part,” giggles Li Yi, “the words are very long for us.”
Until recently the only career options Tamil majors had was either with the CRI language service or teaching. Li Yi however, wants to tap into the growing Sino-Indian trade relationship. “I think India and China are two big countries and have a lot of potential on the economic front,” she says, believing that her Tamil language skills will help in finding related work.
Both Li and Xu Fei hope to be able to study in India at some point.
“We may be a small group but we are enthusiastic about Tamil language and culture,” teacher Chen Juan says towards the end of the interview. “It would be really great if you could help us find a partner university in India with whom we can develop further exchanges.”