The Babylonian Lottery

Posted by in March's Magazine

I started learning Chinese a few years ago. Partly as a pretentious method of differentiation but mainly as personal insurance for the day the tanks roll down Princes St. My first point was shattered completely on hearing school kids chattering away in mandarin at the back of a bus one day. Surely the nation’s educational boards hadn’t conspired solely to belittle my meagre achievement, so why have Scotland’s youth been introduced to this language?

The Chinese are not our geographical neighbours yet our next generation will reach over Europe to them for cultural exchange. This seismic shift towards the learning of mandarin in Scottish schools has huge importance on our national psyche. Language and culture skip hand in hand and linguistics holds the key to enlightenment. Unlike French and German, which qualified my generation to order a currywurst or state that the ‘monkey is on the branch,’ with Chinese there is a genuine end product, which holds far more significance than annual leisure pursuits. When the world’s next superpower turns and speaks to you, it helps if you can answer.


Judith McClure is an instigator and architect of the learning of Chinese language within Scotland’s schools. As Head of St Georges in Edinburgh she was quick to introduce mandarin into the curriculum. “Even at that point people could see … the size of China, 1.3 billion people, the need to learn the language, it’s very obvious that actually it’s our future.” This forward thinking resulted in Judith creating the Scottish Chinese Education Network (SCEN) in 2006. Its aim: to bring together individuals, national agencies and associations keen to promote teaching and learning Chinese language and culture in Scottish schools. This immediately got support throughout Scotland with sixty organisations, mostly universities, colleges and local authority schools, signing on. SCEN grew and in 2007 had a conference at the EICC with the First Minister in attendance. The political echelons were taking notice.

Confucius classes
In the past three years particularly, the Scottish Government has taken a number of steps to extend the teaching of Chinese culture, history and language (panda rental being the most populist and public face of this). More importantly it has included the launch of 10 Confucius Classrooms throughout Scotland serving 15 local authorities and over 60% of the school population across the country. New qualifications in Chinese languages at Higher and Advanced Higher level have also commenced. I was informed of all this work by MSP and Education Secretary Michael Russell who stressed the key importance of communication in our modern world: “We see modern languages, including Mandarin, as key to achieving the overall purpose of creating a more successful Scotland…It is important for Scotland’s prosperity that young people are attracted to learning languages (and become) well equipped with the skills and capacities needed in the 21st century global marketplace.” China may be only one piece of the global jigsaw, but what a vital piece. “Learning Chinese languages is one part of learning about China, its history and its growing role in the modern world. This will help Scotland to strengthen its links with China. The need to do so is becoming increasingly more apparent in the current economic climate.

The Chinese government have more than matched Scotland’s enthusiasm, investing time and finance in promoting mandarin learning worldwide. The handwringers may claim a subtle attempt at Sino hegemony. Michael simply feels that they “are perhaps more proactive than others, however, this can be explained by the fact that they are an emerging, modern nation who are keen to promote their culture and language.” It seems only sensible; the US spreads its influence clandestinely through movies, music and popular culture. Is it not better to do so through a transparent academic and linguistic push? Their key apparatus is the Confucius Institute in Edinburgh, a national centre to promote educational, economic, and cultural ties between Scotland and China, set up with Sino-Scottish national backing in 2005. Its Director is Professor Natascha Gentz.

Natascha invited me to her office at Edinburgh University where she has held the position of Chair of Chinese since 2006. Like Judith’s home, the office walls and shelves are adorned with Chinese art and characters. Maggie Cheung gazes serenely from a Cinema China poster, a wonderful event held in 2007 (and if Mark Cousins is reading, we are due another!). Professor Gentz painted Confucius as a comprehensive institute, one that involves itself with cultural aspects of China such as calligraphy, kung fu and dance alongside language. There is also an aim to use history and current affairs to help comprehend the current significance of China, the middle kingdom to us. “The aim is to let people know about the relevance of China…I think it’s really important for people to see what role it plays in the world.” Since Deng Xiaoping dragged China from their rigid brand of Socialism to free market in the 80s, commerce has been on the nation’s agenda. Someone keen to sit at this table is Director and founder of Power of Youth, Adam Purvis.

Open letter
Power of Youth is an organisation set up to introduce young successful entrepreneurs from around the globe, a matchmaker for aspiring Richard Bransons. His first stop was China and the simple truth dawned that to do business we must communicate. “If there’s any language a young Scottish person should learn it’s Chinese…in about five years time if the state system doesn’t offer Chinese, it’ll be seen in the European community as seriously holding somebody back.” Private schools may have flexibility to adopt and finance Chinese classes but state institutions told me varying tales. Prioritising depended very much upon their local authority. Without developing the nationalised approach to the language there will be an income related disparity that a modern Scotland should not allow. Some proactive Edinburgh schools such as Trinity have organised Chinese clubs, but should the onus be on them? At a recent SCEN event an open letter was drafted to Michael Russell outlining the hopes of Scottish pupils and schools for the advancement of Chinese language. His earlier answers suggest that he’ll be on side.

At this event former Governor of Hong Kong Lord Wilson of Tillyorn spoke eloquently about how his lifelong dream of an open China has been realised. Conversely his nightmare of conflict between us remains. China is the Babylonian lottery; a maze of realities and opinion of which Borges would be proud. Some in the west view it as a fresh and exciting future, others as a world of staid oppression. Those of either persuasion cannot deny that they are coming our way and we must understand them as a nation. Judith told me, “…it’s not just a case of their language but their history, their society, and I can understand that we don’t like some of the things they do but there are a lot of things that we do and have done which are not very appealing to the Chinese.” The dominance of the English language has never been challenged in our times; now that the world has turned we can only embrace the change. The tower of Babel can’t fall again.

Info: & confucius

Alan Bett

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