Photo: Peraza Forte, Iramsy

BEIJING.– Since Latin America and the Caribbean became an especially attractive area for China, the country has not spared any effort to understand our continent's culture and learn its language.

The boom underway in Chinese-Latin American ties since 2000, thanks to the expansion of political dialogue and strong economic relations, has led many Chinese to develop an interest in the region.

Currently there are more than 50 institutions in the country devoted to studying our continent. Before the end of the 20th century, there were only three, according to Guo Cunhai, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute for Latin American Studies (ILAS), an institution that makes its research available to both the government and enterprises.

The rapid growth of bilateral relations; the emergence of a new generation anxious to learn about this other part of the world; and the desire of the Chinese government to considerably expand such research, were among the factors that generated the change, Guo told Granma International.

Years ago, Spain and other English-speaking countries served as mediators for contact between China and Latin America and the Caribbean. This pattern, which still exists, is nevertheless increasingly unnecessary, stated Guo, also director of multidisciplinary studies at the ILAS.

"A change of paradigm occurred in China with respect to studies of Latin America and the Caribbean. Previously, to learn about the region, all that was done were some translations of scientific articles written in the United States, Europe, or other countries of the region," he said.

"We are transforming this pattern by drawing directly from the area's intellectuals and academic publications," he explained, adding that the primary purpose of research on the continent in the past was more political than academic. Today, a balance between the two approaches is being sought, involving a range of disciplines and strengthening the teaching of Spanish and Portuguese.

Eliminating the mismatch between extensive bilateral trade and limited linguistic proficiency is one the principal reasons the teaching of Iberian languages has expanded so rapidly in China, according to Chang Fuliang, assistant dean of the Spanish and Portuguese Language Department at the University of International Studies in Beijing.

According to the Chinese Minister of Education, 30,000 students are officially enrolled in Spanish courses in more than 100 universities, a significant number considering that, in 1999, Spanish was offered in only 12 institutions, with 500 students participating.

Today, Spanish is the second most popular option after English, Chang Fuliang stated, adding, "The demand in the job market is growing, trade is increasing, and the principal obstacle is communication. Anyone proficient in the language finds a good job."

Although the teaching of Spanish in China has been officially supported since 1952, for years it was considered less important than English, Russian, French, and Japanese.

Having more parity in terms of university Spanish and Portuguese departments, as well as the proliferation of language academies, has helped to meet needs.

Inma González Puy, director of the Cervantes Institute in Beijing, commented, "Spanish is fashionable at this time, with thousands of people who are interested in not only the language, but the culture as well, and the diversity of accents."

This past academic year, the Cervantes had more than 5,000 students, noted González, pointing out that more native speaking teachers are needed.

She added, "The best-known Spanish study manual last year sold 100,000 copies, of its first level alone."

Lou Yu, researcher at the Academy of Social Sciences, believes that along with expanding relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, cultural exchanges between the two areas encouraged interest among Chinese readers, not only in the classics, but also works by younger authors emerging in Latin American literature.

Lou reported that, between 1949 and 2016, published in China were 506 books by 210 Latin American authors, but that more than half of these, 355 titles, were released after 2000.

Que despierte el leñador, by Pablo Neruda, was the first work from the region to be translated to Mandarin, and Cien Años de Soledadby Gabriel García Márquez, has seen the most editions. Neruda and García Márquez are, in fact, among the most published in the country. From Cuba, Nicolás Guillén stands out.

The majority of researchers and academics consulted believe that giant steps forward have been taken, although there remains much to do. While Spanish is a major area of study in China, the lack of institutional support for the teaching of Chinese in Latin America and the Caribbean, beyond the Confucius Institute in Cuba, hampers mutual understanding in the two regions.