Asia Society Director of Education and Chinese Language Initiatives Chris Livacarri chooses five books for The Browser. His picks include histories of China’s languages and its relationships with the outside world, and translations of Zhuangzi, Lu Xun’s short stories and ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’.
You have said that many students of Chinese in the US come away with a very narrow understanding of Chinese language, culture and society. Are the five books you’ve chosen a way of counteracting that?
Yes. I recently asked some schoolkids, “If you had the opportunity to go to China today, what do you think you would see?” One of the students said there would be a lot of lanterns everywhere, a lot of red, and a lot of dragons. I thought, “Wow. If this kid stepped into Shanghai in 2012, he would really be bowled over.” A lot of people in the US and other countries have a very narrow, stereotypical idea about what China is. It’s really important for Americans to understand that China is an incredibly diverse and even multicultural society. It is not a monolith, it is not isolated from the rest of the world, and there is, at the end of the day, no easy definition of what it means to be Chinese or China.
There has been an explosion of interest in Chinese language learning in the US …. Why do people want to learn it? It is because China is going to be – or is – an economic powerhouse?
I think it is as simple as that. Most schools, school districts and universities have a Chinese programme because parents want their children to be offered the opportunity to learn it. It’s almost exclusively driven by economic interest: “What can I learn to get a better job? What can I learn to make me more marketable in this global world I’m going to graduate into?” It’s interesting to me because I have studied and taught both Chinese and Japanese. I started learning both languages in the early 1990s, and I saw the flip-flop. In 1991 it was Japanese that was the language of the future, that MBA students and law students wanted to learn. It was a way to get a leg-up and be ready for a more global future in which Japan would be dominant. Now the shift is towards Chinese.