Hispanism in China. Teaching Spanish in Asia’s Giant: a Chronicle

Raúl L. Parra
In the People’s Republic of China (China hereafter) two words are often heard: millenary and giant. This applies to the National University’s Entry Examination, known as Gaokao (高考), which is part of a tradition established by Confucius 2500 years ago, when the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) instituted the civil service examinations of imperial China, to select the best talent to become officers. The meritocratic system of ancient China has been a source of inspiration for the development of modern Professional Career Services.

Gaokao, in addition to its millenary reminiscences, is also gigantic, since its application requires large-scale logistics of national and human resources; an event that surprises locals and strangers. Every year in June, young people across the country take the exam on the same day, at the same time, under strict supervision, to ensure that no one cheats. 

No wonder. They literally stake their academic destiny and, in many cases, their life projects, on the outcome of that exam. In addition, they are under great pressure because their families’ expectations are placed on them. Psychological support is even offered during this period to alleviate stress. To appreciate the importance of the Gaokao, it is worth mentioning that parents start preparing their children from childhood with extracurricular courses to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to compete for a much desired place in the most prestigious Chinese universities.

In 2022, a new record was set for the number of applicants taking the Gaokao: 12 million students participated. Considering that top universities offer only 50,000 places, the Gaokao becomes the most competitive admission exam in the world.

Those who do not make it to the main universities can still secure a place at another institution. 80% of Gaokao applicants are guaranteed a place in one of the more than 2,000 universities in China. Students fill out a form with a list of up to twenty options in order of preference. The first three options are the most important. From this list, the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) is usually the preferred choice for studying Hispanic Philology. Applicants must obtain the highest grades, as each year BFSU admits only 70 students to this program, and available places are distributed among China’s 33 provinces, which means that an average of two places are offered per province.

BFSU is considered the best Chinese university for foreign language studies. One hundred and one languages are taught, covering those spoken in countries with which China has diplomatic relations—BFSU is also renowned for training diplomatic cadres for the Chinese government. Dating back eighty years, Beiwai​ (北外)​, as it is colloquially known in Chinese, is also considered the cradle of Hispanism in China, since the first Spanish School was founded there in 1952.

“This exam has a very deep root in Chinese culture because, since ancient times, the country’s talents have been selected through this method,” says Chang Fuliang, dean of BFSU’s Faculty of Hispanic and Portuguese Studies. According to him, the Gaokao has become too important in the lives of young people, but he also recognizes that if it did not exist, with such a large population in China, it would be difficult to select the best. The dean says that studying Spanish in China is attractive, compared to other languages, because graduates have good job prospects: 

At Beiwai, we admit two groups each year; one is dedicated to the study of the Spanish language, and the other to language and international business. In 2022 a third group was opened, in collaboration with the People’s University (Renmin), which sends five students; from BFSU there are 15. This group is oriented to Spanish teaching  and journalism. We need Spanish-speaking journalists so that the Chinese people know news about Latin America and Latin Americans know news about China.
At the undergraduate level, we have 300 students divided into four levels per year of entry. The degree lasts four years. We have two master’s degree programs: translation and interpretation, with 16 students, and the research program, in which six students are admitted, one or two of which may opt for the Shared Curriculum in Latin American Studies that has been established with UNAM’s Coordination of Graduate Studies. Altogether, we have 20 Chinese teachers. Foreign professors are hired by the Central Government and there are currently two of them. 

 The First Spanish School 
When the People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949, after the victory of the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) at the Civil War, the new nation needed to gain international recognition, so great importance was given to its foreign policy and it sought relations with countries not aligned with the great powers. In this spirit, in October 1952 China organized the Peace Conference of Asia and the Pacific Region, which included the visit of a delegation of Latin American representatives composed of one hundred people from eleven countries. But in those days there were no people who spoke Spanish  and help as guides and interpreters. China’s prime minister at that time, Zhou Enlai, instructed BFSU to select a group of students to learn Spanish. They recruited sixteen students from the French and English schools, and gathered them at the Beijing Hotel, located at Tian’anmen Square, to devote full time to study Spanish for two months before the conference.

Since there were no Spanish teachers either, they found two individuals that knew the language, who were diplomats for the Chiang Kai-shek government, one in Chile and the other in the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles, USA.

Among the students in that group, 89-year-old teacher Cen Chulan survives. She was eighteen years old at the time and studying for a degree in French when her professors told her that she would have to devote herself to Spanish to attend the Latin American delegation. Since then she has dedicated her life to the study and teaching of the language. In an interview for China’s state television, Cen Chulan recalls: 

At that time, the teacher taught us the Spanish pronunciation, which was similar to French. In 20 minutes we learned the alphabet and punctuation marks, and the next day we started studying sentences, words, and conversations. To increase our interest, the teacher taught us two folk songs: one from Chile, “Soy marinero” [I’m a Sailor¨], and the second from Mexico, “Guadalajara”. Two weeks of intense study went by. We had three classes a day and studied until nightfall, even until one or two in the morning. Those were hard days. At that time, the Chinese military was fighting in Korea and we were sweating in the August heat, but we had to learn from the military to achieve world peace. 

 This first generation achieved the mission of serving as interpreters, initiating Spanish studies in China. In 1952, BFSU’s Spanish School was created and the following year a second one was founded at the University of International Business and Economics. The two professors who trained these students are considered the fathers of Spanish language teaching in China, according to dean Chang Fuliang.

Now retired, teacher Cen Chulan continues to teach Spanish online for free as a way to keep busy. In the dean’s opinion, the method Chinese use learn the language is her work; he himself was her student, as countless generations of Hispanists were.

The importance of Latin America 
From the early years of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai highlighted the importance of relations with Latin America. The region is now seen as a strategic ally in the development of China’s international policy. Chang Fuliang considers: 

With the Economic Reform and Openness Policy, China needed more communication and exchanges with this region. Because of the current trade and political conflicts between China and the United States, solidarity and cooperation with Latin America are required. China’s fast development progressively evidences the complementarity: Latin America needs Chinese manufactured products, while China buys raw materials from Latin American countries. Therefore cooperation between the two regions has a great future, so there is a demand for talents in China who know Spanish to facilitate understanding, communication, and exchange between us and our friends in Latin America. 

Chang Fuliang reports that there have been two important moments in the teaching of Spanish in China. The beginning occurred between the 1960s and 1970s, and declined between the 1980s and 1990s, and, with the beginning of the 21st century, there was a new upturn.

In 1952, no Latin American country had diplomatic relations with China because they had recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (Taiwan). This began to change in 1959 with the victorious Cuban Revolution. In 1960, Cuba established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic, prompting another group of countries to follow suit.

It was not until the 1970s, with the approval of Resolution 2758 by the General Assembly of the United Nations (recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China before that organization) that several countries established diplomatic relations, among them Japan in 1971, and the United States and Mexico in 1972. Changes in foreign policy spurred interest in learning Spanish.

The establishment diplomatic relations between China and the Latin American nations led to the opening of some 20 Spanish teaching centers at the universities of Beijing, Renmin, and those of Foreign Languages at Canton, Xi’an, Tianjin, Dalian, and Shanghai.

Due to economic crises at the end of the 1980s in Latin America, coupled with the Economic Reform and Openness Policy, China focused on developing its commercial and economic relations mainly with Japan, the United States, and Europe; Spanish took a back seat; young people wanted to learn English and Japanese (English is still the most studied foreign language). It was during this period of decline that Chang Fuliang opted to learn Spanish: 

I entered university in 1986. At that time, of every 100 youngsters who took the Gaokao, only 30 were admitted. I studied Spanish when the first time of boom for this language had already passed. Precisely because there was not much interest in Spanish, there was not much competition and it was easier to be admitted. The majority preferred English or Japanese. 

 Chang Fuliang studied Spanish at Xi’an University of Foreign Languages, and then worked as a tour guide in Guilin, the capital of Guangxi province. Since there were few Spanish-speaking tourists there, he had a lot of free time and spent it reading and improving his Spanish. To enhance his job opportunities, he decided to continue studying, and, in 1993, he entered BFSU’s master’s program in Chinese-Spanish translation.

If the first Spanish boom in China was the result of changes in foreign policy, the second one is the result of progress in trade relations and occurred with the least expected person.

The beginning of the 21st century was the best time to do business with China. This was the experience of a South Korean businessman who had made a fortune in Spain, although all his workers were Chinese immigrants: 

To show his gratitude, the Korean businessman wanted to open a Spanish teaching center in China and train more Spanish-speaking Chinese to boost cooperation with the Hispanic world, mainly with Spain. To this end, he invested in Jilin University. 

This university’s Spanish School was founded in 2001. The following year, Dalian University of Foreign Studies also opened its Spanish School, somewhat as a reaction to Jilin’s: both are located in neighboring provinces, Jilin in northeast China, on the border with North Korea. Each of these schools hired retired Spanish teachers from Beijing:

More centers began to open because they saw that Spanish graduates from these universities were finding good jobs. This was also because China began to have more trade deals after joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. On the other hand, Spain began to show greater interest in China and wanted to create a Cervantes Instutute in Beijing, which was founded in 2007. 

In addition, the need for more translators and interpreters in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics contributed to the opening of more language centers. 
Spanish in High School 
In 2018, China’s Ministry of Education included Spanish language instruction as an optional foreign language in high school, alongside French and German. The languages were chosen after reviewing the curriculum because they are among the most widely used globally, and cover a larger region of the world, as the Ministry informed. These languages are added to those already taught in high schools: English, Japanese, and Russian.

According to Chang Fuliang, the inclusion of Spanish in Chinese high schools is not entirely new, but rather a resumption of what happened years ago: 

Zhou Enlai, who was very concerned about international relations, instructed in 1960—starting with diplomatic relations with Cuba—to incorporate Spanish teaching in high schools in Beijing, which depended on the Capital’s Normal University. In 1962, two more high school Spanish teaching centers were created, one under BFSU and the other in Shanghai, at the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) high school. 

Two of today’s most prominent Chinese Hispanists studied in these programs: Liu Jian, former dean at BFSU, who began his Spanish studies in high school at BFSU when he was 12 years old, and Lu Jingsheng, who began his studies in the SISU-affiliated high school and is also a former dean at SISU. 

These cases show that Spanish was already being taught at the basic levels in China at that time. But in the 1980s, as we have said, this trend was interrupted and Spanish was no longer taught in high schools. The Government’s policy of incorporating Spanish at the high school level is not new, but rather takes up what already existed in the 1960s. 

It is a fact that Spanish already occupies an important place in the foreign language curriculum in the Chinese educational system, from elementary to postgraduate levels. In 2000, 12 universities offered Spanish as a degree. By 2022 the number has increased to 105 universities, with approximately 15,000 students, according to a survey conducted by BFSU, and the numbers continue to increase year by year. 

studying Only Spanish Is No Longer Enough 
Spanish teaching has grown fast and has generated a high demand for teachers that, in the beginning, could not be met. Now the situation has improved and competition is higher. In universities, Chinese professors who teach Spanish are required to have doctoral degrees, says Chang Fuliang: 

My generation was only asked to study Spanish. Young people are now required to have Spanish as a degree, in addition to another discipline such as business or international relations. We need young people who, in addition to using Spanish as a communication tool, apply it to various fields in industries and specialties. 

With China playing a more active role on the international stage, the Central Government has promoted increased training for professionals in all fields of knowledge to ensure a greater global presence. 
“Through UNAM, Mexico has influenced Hispanists of several generations”

Collaboration with UNAM 
In this context, Chinese institutions favor strategic relationships with foreign universities, as is the case between UNAM and BFSU. In 2012, UNAM’s Office in China (UNAM and BFSU’s Center for Mexican Studies) was created, a project that in a decade has consolidated as a platform that seeks to generate greater opportunities for linkage, cooperation, exchange, and mobility for both universities’ student, academic, scientific, and cultural community.

Among some of the joint projects is the creation of the Shared Postgraduate Degree in Latin American Studies, with a double degree granted by BFSU and UNAM, an unprecedented academic program in the relations between Chinese and Latin American universities.

Concerning the dissemination and certification of the Spanish language, UNAM, as one of the founding institutions of the International Spanish Language Evaluation Service (SIELE), promoted the collaboration of BFSU as a SIELE partner university, becoming the first incorporated institution from Asia.

The two universities also organized China’s National University Spanish Short Story Competition, in which 162 students from 42 universities participated in an unprecedented initiative in Sino-Mexican educational relations. The stories were published in a bilingual Spanish-Chinese book under the Literatura UNAM imprint. Dean Chang Fuliang notes:

Almost all my professors in Xi’an, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong, mention their studies at UNAM. Although I have not had the opportunity to visit Mexico, I know that UNAM has contributed a lot to the formation of Hispanits in China. The story continues every year, at least before the pandemic, with BFSU students traveling to Mexico to study at UNAM. 

When they return, my students write their theses on Mexican topics. Through UNAM, Mexico has influenced Hispanists of several generations. That is why I want to deepen cooperation to train talents because China attaches greater political importance to Latin America, which will surely increase shortly. We need to improve Latin American studies in China and UNAM collaborates with us with great encouragement and commitment.

Raul L. Parra studied a degree in Communications in the Superior Studies School at Acatlán, and obtained a mater’s degree in the School of Policial and Social Sciences, both at UNAM. He specialized in political communications, digital media and intercultural communication, and has worked as co-editor of the internet version of Reforma newspaper and as editor in the Revista Mexicana de Comunicación. As a foreigner expert, he was part of the Spanish Department of China’s International Radio.Coordinator for Linkage and Communication at UNAM’s Office in China, where he publishes the electronic newsletter En el ombligo de la luna.

Some Reference Materials on Hispanism in Chin
Cen Chulan, one of China’s first Spanish teachers, CGTN in Spanish, June, 6, 2018 (https://espanol.cgtn.com/news/7a38464e324d7a6333566d54/p.html).

Liu Jian, dean at the Beijing Foreign Studies University: “Muchos chinos aprenden español por sus ídolos” [Many Chinese learn Spanish due to their idols], El Periódico de Aragón, March, 29, 2005 (https://www.elperiodicodearagon.com/aragon/2005/03/29/liu-jian-decano-universidad-estudios-48185472.html).

“La enseñanza del español en la República Popular China” [Teaching Spanish in China’s Popular Republic], by Taciana Fisac, in Anuario, Cervantes Institute (https://cvc.cervantes.es/lengua/anuario/anuario_00/fisac/p02.htm).

Interview with Lu Jingsheng, Professor of Hispanic Philology, Revista electrónica de didáctica de español como lengua extranjera 24, 2012 (https://www.educacionyfp.gob.es/dam/jcr:165e526b-18eb-414b-9c90-8367a98c4a2a/2012-redele-24-28lu-jingsheng-pdf.pdf).
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