Asia Society’s National Chinese Language Conference was recently held in Los Angeles, California. Kevin Rudd, senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and former prime minister of Australia, spoke on the current misperceptions Americans have about China, including the difficulty of learning Chinese.
by Jeff Wang
On an autumn day in 1971, in a small Australian town, Kevin Rudd’s mother handed him a newspaper. The headline announced that China had joined the United Nations. The impression it left led him to a lifelong study of Chinese language and culture. That small, but catalytic act might have had an impression on the world. Rudd later became prime minister of Australia and one of the founders of the G20, and helped avert a global economic depression.
At Harvard, his work is defined by three questions: Is a new strategic relationship between the United States and China possible? Can it be inclusive of the values of both societies? And what would it look like?
As his work at Harvard gets under way, he spoke primarily about the danger of mutual misperceptions between powers such as China and the United States. Rudd cautioned against these commonly held myths about China:
- China is a single monolithic state. Though it may speak with one voice, China is vast and diverse. Language is a vehicle for understanding this complexity.
- China intends to rule the world. Historically, China has focused on domestic issues. It has been far more concerned about trade than imperial ambition. This was true during the era of the Ming voyages as it is today.
- China is motivated by wealth, power and, above all, face (面子). The West is also concerned with these things and China is no more concerned than others.
- There are fundamentally conflicting values between the West and China. There are many values—equality, freedom, solidarity with those across borders, and sustainability—that we increasingly share. Many of the philosophical and historical traditions bear some similarity, and it requires deep understanding and study before we write them off as different.
- Chinese is too hard to learn. Chinese grammar is easy and straightforward, and far simpler than Germanic languages, for instance. To learn another’s language is a mark of respect and a doorway to understanding. It is do-able even if you start later in life.
Rudd ended his remarks with a truth. He told the audience of educators that it is their work foremost—above that of statesmen—that drives the future of the U.S.-China relationship. Teachers build bridges “of the future, to the future.”
Video: Kevin Rudd’s 2014 NCLC Keynote (14 min., 59 sec.)
Jeff Wang is director for Education and Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society. This piece is reprinted from Asia Blog.
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