06/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Learning About America, the Chinese Way

In January, Premier Wen Jiabao proudly noted that more than 300 million Chinese are studying English. This staggering number, roughly the population of the United States, reveals the Chinese government's enormous educational efforts to prepare China's students for international involvement and engagement.

Living in China as an American student and talking with Chinese students, I have become increasingly aware of the quite obvious point that learning English and learning about the United States are far from being the same thing. So I wanted to know: how do Chinese students learn about the United States, and what understanding do they glean from doing so?

Most Chinese young people I've spoken to say that the major sources of their information about the United States are their textbooks, the news media, and entertainment like movies and TV shows. Peking University professor Fan Shiming, who has extensively studied the way that different societies perceive each other, believes that, particularly when the topic is the United States, "most people get their information from the media . . . Most education is popular education."

"My original impression of the United States was from books," said Shi Xiaoqin, a graduate student also at PKU, "but watching American movies and TV shows was an important supplement for me." Friends is still popular here, and many Chinese teenagers admit with a blush that they've watched American Pie, asking if high school in the United States is really like that.

These diverse sources combine to create an image of the United States in the minds of many Chinese students. Of course, this "popular education" has problems, most notably its lack of objectivity. It comes in the context of the love-hate relationship that the Chinese people have long had with the United States, and the efforts of the Chinese government to shape those feelings. As an example, Shi observed that when discussing the American economy today, "Our newspapers and TV shows are telling Chinese people that the U.S. situation is terrible. They exaggerate the American situation to make Chinese people feel better." On the other hand, many young people here admire the openness and freedom of the American society that they learn about through these outlets.

These problems of perspective suggest that the necessity of a more academic, less popular approach; indeed, at the same time as the introduction into China of American media, marked by the re-normalization of Sino-American relations in the early 1970s, the academic field of American Studies began to grow in China. Priscilla Roberts of the University of Hong Kong writes, "Once Mao Zedong authorized significant links with the American government, understanding the political, strategic, and economic working of the US system immediately became a pressing imperative." Of course, these objectives continue to motivate much of Chinese study of the United States today.

Many other factors certainly contribute to the increasing success of American studies in China. Roberts observes a "near hypnotic popular obsession with the United States." In a phone interview, she argued that the United States "far overshadows" other countries in the imagination of young Chinese, regardless of their political beliefs: "Even if they hate it, they are still fascinated by it."

In an additional respect, she suggests that the Chinese want to "use American Studies" to understand their own situation, which she calls "the impulse to use the United States as a prism through which to view aspects of China itself." She sees this phenomenon "particularly as a way of exploring issues that are in some way controversial."

Shi agreed with this point, adding, "The central goal of studying the United States is to improve our own system and learn from the other." Echoing the observations of many scholars interviewed, young Chinese people told me that the pursuit of jobs at multinational firms, a better understanding of American popular culture, improved English-language skills, and a desire to study abroad in the United States are their other major reasons to become involved in American Studies.

This final point -- wanting to study abroad in the United States -- is an essential aspect of the way Chinese students think about America. In the 2007-2008 academic year, the Institute of International Education reports that over 81,000 Chinese students came to the United States, an increase of nearly 20% from the previous year and almost double the amount who came to the United States a decade ago. China is the second-highest country of origin for international students in the United States, behind India.

Shi exemplifies this trend: she spent time studying abroad in Oklahoma, which she describes as "eye-opening." "I saw how little Americans understand China, which made me reflect that I myself probably understood the United States only superficially, less than I thought," she said. "Like many students, I had studied English, but I didn't understand American culture."

Professor Fan encapsulates these many and various dynamics in a neat English mnemonic of his own invention, which he calls the "5E Formula." The titular five Es are:

  1. "Egocentricism . . . means that when we look at America, we think of ourselves."
  2. "Events . . . can sometimes change perceptions."
  3. "Education" provides a foundation, and is both academic and popular.
  4. "Emotion . . . can explain the derivation of people's perceptions from what is right or what might be expected."
  5. "Experience," such as study abroad, "can adjust these derivations, can adjust misperceptions."

Fan believes that these five primary factors determine how the people of any country understand another. They certainly seem to apply to the situation of Chinese people learning about the United States.

It is easy to see that this formula's results -- the sum total of how Chinese people understand the United States -- are constantly in flux. What these dynamics will mean for the future of the U.S.-China relationship cannot be said with certainty.

But articulating the factors that will form this future certainly points to several important things that the United States could do to improve the prospects. This includes planning events, like President Obama's upcoming visit to China, in ways that are likely to promote more positive Chinese perceptions of the United States. It also includes giving more Chinese students the experience of coming to the United States to see what our society is really like. These are small investments that would pay great dividends.