With 1.1 billion speakers, Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language on the planet. Until recent years, China and the U.S. were close trade partners with 18 percent of Chinese exports sent to the U.S. But despite the relevance of the Chinese language in modern-day society, Chinese Studies is the smallest language program at Willamette. The size of the program can be attributed to a number of factors, both internal and external to Willamette University.
“Historically, our Chinese program has been small, and it is relatively new,” said professor Juwen Zhang. “It really started when I came here, I was the first full-time person.”
Zhang came to Willamette in 2003, making the Chinese Studies program the youngest out of all the language/culture programs by quite a few years. It would be expected for a new program to start out small, but for a language as widespread as Chinese, the program has, in fact, been shrinking in recent years.
Part of the shrinkage could be due to lack of study abroad opportunities in Chinese-speaking countries. In 2015, Willamette cut its ties to its sister school in China, East China University of Political Science and Law. The only sister school in China that Willamette has now has unknown future prospects.
“XiaMen University was our sister university but the agreement was signed over 10 years ago and it has never been renewed. Theoretically it has expired but we somehow send our students there,” said Professor Zhang.
“Learning about culture is important when learning any language, but Chinese especially because the culture and language are so interwoven.”
Funding is another problem that the Chinese program currently faces. While cuts don’t directly affect the Chinese program, they affect complementary programs.
“We are in a city where there are not a lot of opportunities to learn about Chinese culture, therefore we try to promote Chinese culture through various events. In the past years we had more support from the Center of Asian Studies and for many years we held more than 10 events a year, inviting speakers, hosting concerts and so on and so forth. But in recent years we haven’t done as many, mostly because of the funding.”
To fill the gap that the lack of culture-event funding created, Professor Zhang started two new classes last semester: one about Chinese food and medicine and another about Chinese instruments. They aid the language learning aspect because they give a fuller perspective on Chinese culture.
“Learning about culture is important when learning any language, but Chinese especially because the culture and language are so interwoven,” said Saša Binder, a fourth-year Chinese major and the president of the Chinese Taiwanese Cultural Association (CTCA). “There are cultural anecdotes with almost every character. Chinese culture is rich in history and cultural traditions that make learning the language more engaging because of the stories of the people and the cultural values that are integrated in how words are written and spoken.”
Majoring in Chinese might also not be considered by many because it is considered a highly difficult language to learn for English speakers. While the same could be said for Japanese, one of the larger language programs at Willamette, Japanese studies students have the advantage being around many native Japanese speakers, who make up the majority of campus ASP students.
“There are a few people, faculty or staff, when they advise students they hold the idea that Chinese is so difficult, so distracting or so on, whenever you have a challenge drop Chinese first. That’s the wrong message I think,” said Zhang.
The last detracter from the Chinese program is the small amount of Chinese students at Willamette. Students with a Chinese background are more likely to take Chinese classes than other students because they already have a cultural connection to it.
“I am half Chinese but I didn’t grow up speaking Chinese, so I saw this as an opportunity to become more connected to the culture and to the language,” said Binder. Only six percnt of Willamette students are Asian, and even less than that are specifically Chinese. If the Chinese population of Willamette were to increase, the amount of students in Chinese Studies would likely increase.
“In my year there are no Chinese majors that are actually Chinese. I might be the only one,” said Binder.
The Chinese language program may be small, but it is kept alive by culture present in individuals, organizations and the classroom. Clubs like CTCA and professors in the Chinese department prevent this important program from dissolving.