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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.)