Huang Wenyu, a university student about to start her fourth year of studying Arabic in Beijing, says many of her young compatriots learn the language because of the career avenues it will open. With trade between China and the Arab world extending beyond oil flowing one way and consumer goods in the other direction, Ms Huang says her classmates at Beijing Foreign Studies University are optimistic about their post-graduation prospects.
"They see many business opportunities there," the 21-year-old says. "They want to create enterprises there." A decade ago, only seven universities in China offered Arabic, but today the figure is closer to 30, according to Dr Xue Qingguo, a professor in the Arabic department at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The UAE is doing much to promote Arabic in China, having funded the construction in 1994 of the UAE Centre for the Study of Islamic Culture and the Teaching of the Arabic Language in Dr Xue's department. This year, the Court of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, is funding a US$2.8 million (Dh10.2m) refurbishment of the centre, which is being renamed The Sheikh Zayed Centre for Islamic and Arabic Studies.
While the teaching of foreign languages and higher education as a whole has expanded rapidly in China in recent years, with the number of graduates each year now about 6 million, up from about 1 million little more than a decade ago, Dr Xue says the growth in the popularity of Arabic is exceptional. "Arabic has specifically witnessed very fast growth," he says. "The main reason is the growing links between China and the Arab world, not only trade but cultural, political and exchange of people. There are many opportunities to use Arabic for young people in China."
In addition to the countless universities offering Arabic, there has also been a growth in the number of Arabic schools linked to mosques, especially in parts of western China with large Muslim populations. "They like to know something about Islam as a religion, to read the Holy Quran. There are many young people [studying at such schools]," Dr Xue says. There are also likely to be more people in the UAE learning to speak Chinese, as the Confucius Institute, a network of Chinese government-supported language schools, is launching a branch at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, while a Chinese school and kindergarten have already opened in Abu Dhabi.