Interest in Hindi growing in China

Pallavi Aiyar

Five years ago, Jiang Jingkui of the Centre for India Studies at Peking University had trouble filling up his classes. Today, he finds courses oversubscribed.

IT IS a crisp autumn morning at Peking University, China's most prestigious centre for higher education. Earnest, bespectacled, twenty-somethings scurry around the campus on their way to class, thoughts focussed on future careers.

In one unassuming building near the sprawling campus' east gate, a class is in progress. The dozen seated students sip tea from their flasks and peer into their textbooks with furrowed brows. The teacher stands up front writing out sentences on the blackboard. It is a scene that is mirrored in dozens of other classrooms across the campus with one startling difference. The teacher is not writing in the pictographic characters used in Mandarin Chinese but in the Devanagari script of Hindi.

With Sino-Indian trade poised to touch the $20 billion mark by the end of this year, interest in learning Hindi and other Indian languages is burgeoning in the Chinese capital.

Jiang Jingkui, Vice-Director of the Centre for India Studies at Peking University, recalls how only five years ago he used to have trouble filling up his classes. Today, he finds courses oversubscribed many times over.

"Until very recently we knew nothing about India in China. Only Western countries like America and Europe and of course Japan occupied all our attention and resources," he says. "Then I don't know what happened, but it was like people went to sleep one night and woke up having discovered India. Now everyone wants to know more, given what a large country it is and that its economy is growing swiftly."

The Centre for India Studies that Professor Jiang is affiliated to was set up in 2003, having been inaugurated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It focusses on teaching languages and specialises in Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, and Bengali. In addition to language, courses on religion, history, and culture are also taught. Currently, 50 full-time students study here, including half-a-dozen pursuing PhDs.

The Centre is partially supported by a Rs.50 lakh grant given by the Indian Government spread out over five years. But the bulk of its funding comes from the Chinese Ministry of Education, which has identified it as one of eight key foreign studies departments across the country.

Students who graduate from here are primarily interested in tapping into the increasing trade between the countries. "My friends thought it was strange for me to choose to learn Hindi because in their minds India is a poor country and Hindi a useless language. But my father told me that relations with India would be key to China in the future and that by learning more about India I would be securing a bright career," says Li Jian, a fourth year Hindi language student. Li hopes to be able to work for Huawei, a Chinese telecom major with a large research and development centre in Bangalore, after he graduates next year.

But Professor Jiang says that some students are disappointed when they discover that after having spent years mastering Hindi they must use English when working in India. "It's a big problem and a challenge for Indian languages. If you [Indians] don't speak your own languages then why will those from other countries bother?"

Every year the Centre sends a few students to India for a year of intensive language study in addition to inviting professors from India to teach. Currently, Ravi Ranjan from Hyderabad University's Hindi department is resident at the Centre where he takes advanced, fourth-year classes. A quick visit to his class reveals the challenges he faces. Reading out a story from a textbook about a coolie helping a passenger on to the inter-class bogie at a railway station, he is confronted by a row of blank faces who have never heard of inter-class or bogies or even coolies.

"There are so many differences in our [Indian and Chinese] cultures and society that it's often very difficult to teach our languages and literature here," explains Professor Ranjan. "For example, in China there is no concept of a coolie. Everyone here lifts their own luggage."

Lack of opportunities

But the biggest issue for young Chinese who aspire to learn more about India is simply a lack of opportunities. The Centre for India Studies is currently the only Indian languages department in the country. Given that virtually every university in China offers courses in English, Japanese, and the major European languages this lacuna is glaring.

By contrast in India, learning Chinese is becoming big business. Apart from several universities that offer Mandarin courses, private schools teaching Chinese are springing up in every major city. The push to teach Mandarin to foreigners is spearheaded by the Chinese Government for whom this drive is an integral part of its foreign policy.

"The demand for a language represents the country's overall national power and image in the world ... more importantly, it forecasts the country's future," said Chinese Vice-Minister for Education, Zhang Xinzheng, at a conference in Beijing last year.

According to the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language in Beijing, there are approximately 30 million people learning Chinese around the world currently and it is the country's stated purpose to ensure that this number grows to 100 million by 2007. It's an audacious goal, and the Government is backing it with funding to the tune of nearly $25 million a year.

To ensure the demand for Mandarin continues to grow, Beijing had begun to establish a series of "Confucius Institutes" aimed at promoting its teaching abroad. While India still does not have a Confucius Institute, the Chinese embassy in New Delhi holds regular events aimed at popularising the language such as Mandarin contests, the winners of which get a chance to visit Beijing.

"It's such a pity that India does not spend more money and attention on developing an interest in its languages here [in China]," says Professor Jiang. "Young Chinese today realise that relations with India in the future will be key and they really want to know more," he continues.

"But while this is exciting for people like me who devoted ourselves to India at a time when no one else cared to, it's also saddening that there are so few opportunities for these youngsters to satisfy their interest."

Professor Jiang reveals that Beijing's Foreign Languages University has plans to start up a Hindi department next year and he hopes that with time more universities around the country will follow suit. But for the moment, for college students in this nation of 1.3 billion people, there remain only 50 seats at Peking University to learn the languages of the 1.1 billion Indians south of the Himalayas.

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