Esperanto language grows in China, helps people from different cultures and backgrounds express themselves

By He Keyao Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/25 18:23:39

Esperanto helps both Chinese and expats understand each other and develop strong social connections. Photo: IC

When Xu Jie came across a book introducing Esperanto while browsing in his university library years ago, he had no idea of the exciting journey that lay ahead.

"I found it an interesting and easy language to learn, but I never thought it could become part of my life and career," he said.

Xu, who is in his 30s, has friends from various countries, cultures and social backgrounds. He socializes with fine and interesting people from all walks of life and even has a start-up with people from seven different countries. He attributes all of it to one thing: Esperanto.

Created by the Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof in 1887, Esperanto was introduced into China more than a century ago and once enjoyed great popularity in the circle of cultural professionals, with people like 20th-century Chinese writers Lu Xun and Ba Jin leading the trend. Even though the number of Esperanto speakers today is small, the language is still used in many societies across the globe. In China, the language is a special channel through which Chinese and foreigners explore different aspects of communication and understanding.

A way to speak to the world

Xu started to learn Esperanto by himself when he was still in college in Jiangxi Province. Drawn by its interesting history and easy-to-learn nature, Xu immediately fell in love with the language. Searching online, he found many free learning materials and online communities and started to connect with other learners. Later, he moved to Chengdu in Sichuan Province where he found a fresh new world through Esperanto.

"Many people speak Esperanto in Chengdu, and they are from all walks of life, including company managers, educators and language lovers. I started to meet people from different countries in the Esperanto circle," he said.

Xu attended an Esperanto corner in Chengdu called Senkrokodila kunveno, which has been running since the 1980s. The experience has been rewarding, and he has met a lot of interesting people. For example, he met a Swiss family who traveled around the world in a motor home and communicated with people they met along the journey using Esperanto, a Briton who promotes vegetarianism in Europe, and made friends with a Nepali who travels around Chengdu. Xu also visited different countries to participate in Esperanto events and made many friends, further expanding his global outlook and understanding of the world.

To share his love for Esperanto, Xu set up public Esperanto platforms on Chinese social media in 2012. He recently cooperated with some friends from an online community to run a newly created social network app called Amikumu that connects Esperanto speakers from around the world.

A public WeChat account that Xu set up for Chinese Esperanto speakers has garnered around 4,000 followers, and the number is still growing.

"I feel many young people are interested in the language and want to learn it, and the majority are from metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai," Xu said.

Jiang Limin, the vice-director of the China Esperanto Association's general office, echoed Xu's opinion.

"Compared with the past, the number of association members is now smaller, but many young people like to learn online, rather than through associations," said Jiang.

He also noted that more and more people have started to speak Esperanto out of pure interest and passion for the language, instead of practical reasons.

Esperanto events organized by young people are more fun and diverse, and include activities such as Esperanto film festivals, according to Jiang.

Chinese Esperantists during a visit to an Esperanto center in Sweden. Photo: Courtesy of Jiang Limin

More than a language

With a similar experience to Xu, Zhao Wenqi, 27, who works in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, thinks that Esperanto is more than a language.

"It's a kind of lifestyle, and it brings people with a similar belief and interest together," Zhao said.

He started to learn Esperanto in college and has traveled to different countries with his Esperanto friends. He thinks that the world language brings people closer to each other regardless of cultural differences or physical distance, and no other language can do the same.

"I still remember the fun and happy moment when more than 30 friends from different countries and I traveled together by train in Europe," he said, recalling his experience of participating in the World Esperanto Congress years ago.

"If it were not for Esperanto, I wouldn't know anyone from countries like East Timor and Benin."

Esperanto also embodies internationalism and equal dialogue, which is another attraction for learners across the globe.

"It makes me feel comfortable and equal when I speak Esperanto, and the language itself is just easy to learn," said Rafael Henrique Zerbetto, an Esperanto speaker from Brazil.

Even though he is proficient in English, he likes to communicate with others in Esperanto. For him, it is a more graceful and beautiful way of expression.

Fascinated by Esperanto, Zerbetto changed his university major from physics to literature and later did a master's degree in Esperanto literature. He made a lot of friends because of Esperanto and now works in Beijing as an Esperanto news editor.

"Esperanto is more than a communication tool. It has its own unique culture and history," he said.

There are many literary works in Esperanto, and masterpieces from different countries, including China's four great classical novels (Journey to the West, The Water Margin, A Dream in Red Mansions and The Romance of Three Kingdoms ), have also been translated into the world language.

Hiroyuki Usui, an Esperanto expert from Japan, sees Esperanto as a growing culture that is constantly enriched by its speakers. According to him, it also creates a unique cultural identity and value system through communication. For example, "Nekrokodil" (meaning no crocodile) is a rule commonly seen in Esperanto circles where a krokodil (crocodile) refers to people speaking in their mother tongue. The phrase encourages everyone to speak Esperanto and to be inclusive of people from different countries and languages. The idea of sharing, unity and inclusiveness is conveyed in other similar practices.

Connecting with China through Esperanto

Esperanto is also a channel into the Chinese society, and it helps expats build stronger communication with the Chinese. For Usui and Choi Man-won, another Esperanto expert from South Korea, this is the case.

Usui first learned about Esperanto through a China Radio International program in the early 1980s, and it was through Esperanto that he developed a strong connection with China. When he first visited China at the age of 16, he could not speak Chinese, but that didn't prevent him from communicating with his new Chinese friends, thanks to Esperanto.

Now, working in Beijing for four years, he is still amazed at how Esperanto can make the concept of cross-nationality so vivid.

"Esperanto allows us to interact with the world without being brainwashed, not like English," he said. "It is neutral and equal, and it doesn't have any Western mainstream cultural value attached to it, and I think that's a part of the reason East Asian people like it."

He plans to travel around the globe using Esperanto in the next few years.

Choi has a similar experience to Usui. He came to China in 1992 right before the country and South Korea established diplomatic ties. It was with the help of his Esperanto friends from China that he was able to travel around the country smoothly. He made many Chinese friends and is now working in Beijing. He said his experience and connection with China are due to Esperanto, and he is grateful for it.

China the future of Esperanto?

"China is considered by many to be the hope for Esperanto's future," said Ragnar Baldursson, a minister counselor at the Embassy of Iceland in Beijing, who is also an Esperantist.

He came to China in the early 1970s, a time when most Chinese could not speak English and foreigners were rarely seen in the street. Having learned no Chinese, Baldursson once struggled to integrate into the Chinese society. However, all the clouds disappeared soon after he found the silver lining - Chinese Esperanto media.

"Esperantists are much closer to each other than people who speak other languages. I was often invited to my Chinese friends' homes for a get-together, which was very rare for a foreigner at the time," Baldursson said.

Over the years, he made many a close friendship at China Report, an Esperanto magazine, and made many Chinese Esperantist friends in different cities. He traveled to different places in China, was well received by Chinese Esperantists and enjoyed a happy time along the journey.

"I got into the Chinese society much earlier than my other expat friends because of Esperanto. The world language groups in China are very active," he said.

 Chinese are inclusive and open to learning different things, and China has given its official support to the world language, so many Esperantists see China as a star in the future, he said.

"The word Esperanto means hope. It aims to foster friendship among peoples, international cooperation and unity of human kind," said Chen Haosu, the chair of the China Esperanto Association.

"After all, it represents the universal love of mankind."


Newspaper headline: One language for all


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