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Will China join the culture club, or wield it?

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Beijing ‘Wo ai Beijing,” Serena Williams told a Chinese television audience in passable Mandarin: I love Beijing. And the Chinese love her, chanting “Sah-Reen-Na” and singing happy birthday — in English — as the American tennis star turned 23 at the China Open tournament last month.

Tennis isn't a sport for the masses here. But the crowd's devotion never wavered, even when Ms. Williams took umbrage at an official's call at the women's final and smashed her racquet into a bench. Cheered on by her Chinese fans, Ms. Williams rallied to defeat her Russian opponent and then, beaming, presented her replacement racquet to the mayor of Beijing.

A foreigner going out of her way to speak Chinese and kowtowing to a Chinese mandarin; a Chinese crowd embracing her foreign combativeness and singing in her language: It's all so 8th century.

And so 21st.

China reached its zenith in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), one of the most open and confident periods in the country's history. Back then, the Middle Kingdom entranced the world, at least the parts that had heard of it, the way Hollywood mesmerizes us today.

Now, 1,100 years later, a newly confident and increasingly wealthy China is again opening up to outside influences. The question is: Who will be more affected, China, or the rest of the world?

Every great power — Spain, France, Britain, ancient Greece, Rome — exported its language and culture. Everyone is watching to see how China walks that path. Which language will dominate the world in 25 years, English or Chinese? Whose culture will reign supreme, America's or China's? Are we on the cusp of a new world order, or could we all end up with a hybrid blend of both worlds?

To be sure, it's hard to predict the cultural-linguistic future. No one in 1759 imagined that losing a single battle at the Plains of Abraham would ensure the decline of French culture and language in North America. Or in 1945 that a handful of refugees from Europe would create a pop culture in Hollywood that within a half-century would spread American English, mannerisms, values — the whole idea of cool — to the rest of the world.

But certainly the 19th-century idea that everyone would one day speak English is dead. In the past decade, English has declined as a native language from 9 per cent to just 5 per cent of the world's population. The global penetration of U.S. culture aside, Chinese is already the most-spoken language in the world, with three times as many native speakers as English. And through the diaspora, rather than old-fashioned colonization, the Chinese language is spreading into other countries. In Canada, for example, it's now the third most spoken language, after English and French, according to government statistics.

Soon, Chinese could be chosen ahead of English as a second language by people around the world, says David Graddol, managing director of The English Company and the author of a study on this topic.

“In the next decade, the new ‘must-learn' language is likely to be Mandarin,” Mr. Graddol told the Independent in London.

Many of the major population increases of the past century took place in China, not in English-speaking countries. Now, the Internet and satellite television allow immigrants to stay in touch with their mother tongue. With China's population already the world's largest, it will be impossible to ignore when its economy overtakes that of the United States. In Asia, businesses whose employees are not multilingual will find themselves at a disadvantage. Already, they're looking beyond English.

In Beijing alone, 50,000 foreign students are learning Chinese. That's a drop compared to those studying English worldwide, but way up from the two Westerners — myself, the lone Canadian, and an American teenager from Yale University — who were learning Chinese there in 1972. (We kept company with one wounded Palestinian guerrilla fighter, two Laotians and nine North Koreans.) Already, the current contingent of Canadian students in Beijing is so huge it recently inspired a Friends-like Chinese television sit-com called Vancouver.

About 440,000 foreigners work in China, according to the China Daily. These numbers don't even include the thousands of Russian, Uzbek, Iraqi and African traders in the Jianguomen Wai area in Beijing who bargain fiercely in Mandarin, scooping up bales of fur coats, silk lingerie and fake Prada purses.

Of course, there are skeptics. Joan Hinton, an American who works for the Chinese Ministry of Agricultural Machinery and who has lived in China since the 1940s, thinks the language is too difficult for most Westerners to learn. There are the four tones in Mandarin, the official dialect. Then there is the hurdle of written Chinese: Reading a newspaper requires memorizing at least 2,000 characters.

But Ben Mok, a Canadian who is general manager for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Ltd. in Tianjin, a city of 13 million, says he will no longer hire any foreigner who isn't fluent in Chinese. “That wasn't true 10 years ago,” he said.

“Now it's just like the Tang Dynasty. If foreigners want to work here, they need to speak Chinese,” said Li Bincheng, 67, retired head of the Tang history research group at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

There they are again, the echoes of the Tang Dynasty. Its capital, Changan (present-day Xian), was the first-millennium terminus of the fabled Silk Road, a network of far-flung trade routes across the Gobi desert. The Chinese forever commemorate that dynasty by rendering the term “Chinatown” as Tang Ren Jie — Street of the Tang People.

Like China's immense cities of the 21st century — Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin — Changan was bigger than any metropolis in Europe and the only city in the world of its time to attain a population of one million. So many foreign entertainers, merchants and scholars flocked to Tang China from present-day India, Africa, Turkey, Armenia, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Japan and Korea that the imperial government had a special ministry devoted to housing, feeding, and providing tutors for foreigners.

Today, “China is absorbing and reinventing all sorts of influences from outside, just as they did in the Tang Dynasty,” said Susan Whitfield, who heads the Silk Road project at the British Library.

Filmmaker Norman Jewison is another skeptic who doubts we'll all be speaking Chinese in the near future. But he is impressed by China's cultural impact on that most American of industries, movies. China has already influenced camera work, directing style and action sequences in films as diverse as The Matrix, Kill Bill and Charlie's Angels.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the first commercial breakthrough,” he said. “America dominates the screens of the world. That's why the Chinese are making their moves there, and nothing is going to stop them.”

“John Woo [ Paycheck; Mission: Impossible II] gets $3- to $4-million (U.S.) to direct a picture for 18 weeks,” added Mr. Jewison, 78, whose own hit movies include In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck. “You don't think this is influence? China today influences every single film festival in the world and is starting to dominate.”

Mr. Jewison first went to China in 1976, shortly after Mao's death, to explore the possibility of making a movie about Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who died of septicemia while treating Communist troops in Yanan. He never made the film, but he returned to Hollywood enthralled.

“I told everyone that the 21st century belongs to China. I said: ‘In the next 50 years, watch this country.'”

Zhang Zhilian, professor emeritus of world history at Beijing University, is more sanguine.

“This is not China's century. China has too many problems,” said Mr. Zhang, 88, who is both a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur of France and an honorary fellow at Corpus Christi College at Oxford University.

For one thing, China is not on the front line of scientific research, a status that can catapult a language and culture into global use. (Those who argue that English is unassailable as the lingua franca of high technology may have forgotten that Latin was once the language of science, in the 17th century.)

But is China really so far behind? Between 1981 and 2003, it churned out a 20-fold increase in research papers published in scientific journals, according to this month's issue of Nature. The Chinese have already leapfrogged into the wireless age, and who knows about tomorrow? It would be foolhardy to underestimate the folks who invented the compass, paper, gunpowder and printing.

In the Tang era, foreigners flocked to China because the country was on the cutting edge of high technology. Its craftsmen had perfected the hard, white porcelain that gave China its enduring English name. It used paper money when other countries didn't even have paper. Baghdad cracked China's paper-making monopoly only when it captured some artisans conscripted into the Tang army and forced them to give up the secret.

As for cultural exports, Tang China sent its written characters to Japan and Korea. From the sixth to eight century, Kyoto modelled its whole artistic output on the Tang. China also transmitted a Sinicized version of Buddhism to its neighbours. (It had in turn imported the religion from India.)

For the moment, China is embracing the outside world and its influences, just like in Tang times. It's hiring the best foreign architects, building the world's only magnetic-levitation train with German technology, and hosting the next Summer Olympics. In January, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Phantom of the Opera will open in Shanghai.

Disinclined to wait for the West to learn Chinese, select kindergartens are immersing toddlers in English. Some universities have gone all-English in textbooks and lectures. At the multiplex cinema at Beijing's Oriental Plaza, many customers opt to watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in its original language. (“When you want to dominate a country, the first thing you do is learn the language,” said Mr. Jewison, the filmmaker. “The French-Canadian priests of a hundred years ago could all speak Cree and Ojibwa.”)

Beijing's youth continue to look outside China for their concept of cool, copying their counterparts in other Asian countries, who in turn have stolen the look from the West. In Shanghai, they dye their hair orange and platinum. Young women apply South Korean false eyelashes, one lash at a time, with a kind of black Krazy Glue.

But China does have a je ne sais quoi appeal in Europe. This year, the French festooned the Eiffel Tower with sparkling red lights and silk lanterns to celebrate the Chinese New Year. It's impossible to imagine them draping it in bunting for the Fourth of July.

Whenever China has absorbed foreign cultures in the past, it has always transformed them, both within and for re-export abroad.

“Right now we ape Western musicians, but we will have our own music soon,” said Zhou Min, whose Beijing hair salon is frequented by Russian and Iraqi traders.

With globalization and the Internet, it may only be a matter of time before English-speaking kids in Etobicoke or East Vancouver embrace some as yet unforeseen Chinese fashion.

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