It’s hard to imagine that, at one time, intellectuals seriously debated whether Esperanto (世界语) should replace Putonghua entirely. Yet China remains one of the few nation-states that support the world’s best-known artificial language.
A World Language Teachers’ Association was established as recently as 2013, the same year the All-China Esperanto League opened a museum in Shandong province. Many universities still offer Esperanto classes, and the language of “common brotherhood,” as Polish creator Ludwig Zamenhof called it, even has its own state-run media.
The reasons lie with Esperanto’s coincidence, in the late 1880s, with the birth of labor movements, resistance to Western colonialism, women’s suffrage, and, in China, the “century of national humiliation.” “The development of Esperanto relied on the international situation and culture, which is why it was created in the 19th century, the ‘Century of Peace,’” Zhao Wenqi, former General Secretary of Guangdong’s Esperanto Association, told TWOC. “It brought people an unparalleled surge of confidence in the world’s outlook, making them more likely to accept this ideal world language.”
Western-educated scholars, officials, students, and anarchists attempted to bring progressive ideas to the stale swamp of Qing rule. Their goal was to thoroughly shake up its rigid Confucian society.
Zamenhof had envisaged Esperanto as way to break down barriers and bring people together as equals; Esperanto seemed an easy, modern solution for China’s multitude of dialects. Fortunately, Esperantists such as Hu Yuzhi and Ye Laishi decided to focus on more realistic goals: popularizing Mandarin, simplifying the characters, and creating a Romanized writing system (pinyin). Thus, the modern Chinese language was born.
But support for Esperanto continued. The Republican government appreciated Chinese Esperantists’ efforts to alert the international community to Japanese imperialism through their articles; despite suspicions about their contacts with the West, the Communists had their own propaganda goals for Esperanto. After 1949, the government established Esperanto magazines, such as El Popola Ĉinio (The People’s China), a radio station (China Radio International has run a continued Esperanto broadcast since 1964), and a news site to promulgate its revolutionary ideology. The Ministry of Education enabled Esperanto to be chosen as a foreign-language university course, and as a part of the postgraduate entrance examination.
Esperanto enjoyed a further revival during the 1980s, according to Zhao, when reform and opening-up spurred an interest in all things foreign. Esperanto’s idealism inspired China to host a World Esperanto Congress in 1986 (and again in 2004), and, at the height of Esperanto’s popularity, China had an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 speakers.
But although Esperanto was offered at around 60 universities, “Because of the socio-economic conditions, international exchanges were very expensive,” said Zhao. “There was almost no opportunity to use what was learned; only a small proportion of people persevered until today. Looking at it now, the boom was more like a bubble.”
English has long since taken the international language crown, and those who do not learn it risk slipping out of competition in the globalized world. Yet World Language supporters such as Wang Ruixiang, Vice-President of the All-China Esperanto Association, keep the flame alight (and according to Beijing Today, at least one province, Sichuan, retains Esperanto as a foreign-language exam).
“Esperanto is not influenced by race, culture, religion and other factors,” said Wang. “It has irreplaceable advantages, that is why [the government] is happy to support it.”
“Tongue Ties” is a story from our issue, “Go”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.