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Speech at the Seminar on Chinese Language and Culture in Secondary Education held at Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching
2006/04/10

H. E. Ambassador Xue Hanqin

April 5, 2006, Leiden

Mr. Vice-Rector Van Haaften,

Dear teachers and students:

As always, it gives me great pleasure to come to Leiden University and address the academic society on Chinese education. Chinese studies at Leiden University is well-known in the world, and it is not a coincidence this time that Leiden is one of the driving forces in promoting Chinese language and culture in secondary schools in the Netherlands. At the outset, I wish to express my congratulations on the opening of this seminar and my thanks to all the people involved in organizing this meaningful event. With much appreciation of these commendable efforts, I would like to share with you some of my views on the policy considerations on the overseas Chinese language studies as my contribution to the discussions of the seminar.

To begin with, language is a tool for communication, a means by which people exchange ideas and get to know each other better and deeper. During my two years and half stay in the Netherlands, I have come to realize that, despite the increasing trade volumes and business contacts between China and Europe, how little China is known by the general public in Europe and how much China has to do to introduce itself to the outside world, because whenever issues concerning China are being addressed and debated here, one cannot fail to notice that there is such a lack of information and communication on the European part. In this aspect, I must say that portraits of China in the western media more often than not tend to be fragmented and unbalanced, primarily catering to the local debate on the current issues. This observation may be arguable from the media perspective, but the purpose of mentioning this observation is not to make any comments on the work of the press, but to reflect on our own job. For the Chinese, we often feel that although there is a lack of mutual understanding between China and the west, it seems the Chinese knows about the west better than the west about China. This may be true but we have to ask ourselves why so. As far as languages are concerned, information about the western world in non-western languages, including Chinese, is far more than that about China in western languages. Besides, there are fewer western people who can directly communicate with the Chinese people in their language, learning by first hand their life and culture. To rectify this situation and enhance mutual exchanges, we are now ardently promoting foreign languages studies in China. At the same time, it naturally becomes relevant for the objective to offer Chinese language studies to foreign nationals. Today in a globalized world, when a world language has proved impossible, foreign languages studies are not merely useful but essential for developing common discourse and common interests among nations.

Secondly, language is culture. When I say that language is culture, I do not mean it in a philological sense, but lay more emphasis on the social functions of language. Leiden is famous for its Sinology. Throughout its history, it has turned out a large number of Sinologists, some of whom were to be the leading figures in the China-Dutch relations. Today I just want to mention one particular person here, Mr. Robert H.van Gulik. Mr. Van Gulik was a Sinologist and a diplomat. He served a number of years in Dutch foreign service in China. More importantly, he wrote many books about China, Chinese poems and Chinese novels. I can say that Mr. Van Gulik is much more famous in China than in the Netherlands, his home country. The reason is simple: his love and studies of Chinese language, history and culture have deeply touched the Chinese people. His mastery of Chinese language not only enabled him to go deep into the Chinese history and classic literature, but also made him an outstanding envoy between the two peoples. Today when our two countries have developed such extensive relations, Chinese studies should go well beyond academic pursuits and serve more daily purposes. When Dutch people are going to do business with or in China, they are often advised to build up guanxi, connections or relations. I would say that learning Chinese is one of the best ways to develop good connections, because when you can directly communicate with the local people, you would be in a better position to understand the mentality of the Chinese people and build up fast mutual confidence and trust with your local partners. This is actually true in every culture, including the Netherlands. That is why we encourage our people to learn Dutch language as well as English if they choose to stay here to develop their business. However, as foreign language studies in China are still not well-developed and foreign language-speaking population remains small, it would be desirable to tackle the problem from the other end as well by promoting Chinese language studies.

In view of our cultural relations, there is a positive trend with general public support to further promote cultural exchanges between various cultural institutions of two sides. With more Chinese tourists coming to the Netherlands, we notice that many tourist spots have provided services and introductions in Chinese. We hope this trend will continue with the help of Chinese language learning.

My third point is that it is better to study Chinese language from young. Of course, this does not in any way mean to discourage grownups to learn the language. With its thousands years of history, Chinese language is very rich and beautiful, full of idioms, proverbs and metaphors. However, we must also admit that Chinese is not an easy language. When we learnt it as our mother tongue, we did not feel the difficulty, but when we watch others to learn, we realize that it needs a lot of practice and exercises. That is why I feel extremely pleased to see that you plan to start Chinese language studies in secondary education as children can pick up a foreign language far more quickly and naturally; once they learn it, it will stay with them. Again, this may sound common knowledge. However, when we tackle the shortage of expertise in Chinese language and culture as the demand from business circle as well as cultural sector is on the rise, we should start with normal education and in an early stage. In this aspect, I think that China can learn from the Dutch side to promote our foreign language education in China. So far there are already a few Dutch middle schools offering Chinese course. We are very interested in their teaching experiences. The Chinese side would like to offer its assistance in terms of teacher's training, exchange programs, teaching materials such as textbooks and multi-media teaching materials.

Last but not the least, language studies is an effective way to enhance bilateral relations and educational cooperation. At the end of 2004, when our Premier Wen Jiabao was visiting the Netherlands, Mr. Balkennende, the Dutch Prime Minister particularly mentioned the newly-opened Chinese course at Koning Willem I College in his State dinner speech. He praised it as a symbol of our closer relations and greater interest of the Dutch people in China. Indeed, there are an increasing number of foreign schools, colleges and universities offering Chinese language courses, while there are a huge number of foreign students now studying in China. Some of the courses have been very successful and popular. Of course, the most active participants of Chinese language learning come from our neighboring countries and biggest trade partners. We expect that this momentum will continue to grow. To accommodate these rapidly growing needs and interests, China has set up various programs, such as "Chinese Bridge", "Confucius Institutes", "Volunteer Teachers Program", etc. At the moment, more than 400 Chinese universities enroll foreign students. With increasing educational and cultural exchanges between China and other countries, our cooperation in various fields will become more substantive and substantial.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, in conclusion, I would like to reiterate our sincere support from the Embassy to your programs on Chinese language and culture in secondary education. The contact point for you is the education section of the Embassy. I wish the seminar a great success and wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

Thank you for your attention.

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