Is Esperanto Dying in China, we ask.

It’s probably difficult to picture a Shanghai where Esperanto is spoken in lieu of Mandarin Chinese, but that was a future that some Chinese radicals had once envisioned. 

Today, the constructed language of Esperanto is likely unknown to most young Chinese people, but the country is home to one of the world’s few Esperanto radio stations, publications, and museums. Esperanto has a long, complicated history in China, leaving it an active present-day community. 

It was 1887 when Ludovic L. Zamenhof, a Polish linguist, published a booklet envisioning an international language under the pen name Doktoro Esperanto (literally, the one who hopes). The constructed language — soon to be known as Esperanto — focused on simplicity, with few grammatical rules, genderless nouns, and uninflected verbs. Its vocabulary, too, is largely based on other European languages.

His project quickly gained interest across Europe, and it only took a few short years for the first Esperanto societies to emerge in Russia and France — and eventually it was brought to China at the turn of the twentieth century as the country searched for its own path to modernization.

Anarchism and Chinese liberation

Zamenhof was raised during the Russian occupation of Poland, where he witnessed ethno-linguistic tensions and saw his politically neutral language — designed as a common second language, against the hegemony of any dominant group — as the remedy. It was for that reason Esperanto gained popularity among anarchists and socialists who saw the project as a vehicle for internationalist movements and revolutionary ambitions.

In the years leading up to the May Fourth Movement in 1919, reformists in the Chinese literati sought to replace classical Chinese in written texts with vernacular Chinese, or baihua, to improve literacy rate. At the same time, Chinese anarchists in Japan, France, and China also debated over the adoption of Esperanto as a national language — as seen in prominent literary magazines including La Jeunesse, founded by Chen Duxiu, as well as the Guofeng Ribao published by the Esperantist Jing Meijiu. 

The Republic of China government was, at first, sympathetic to the Esperanto movement. Cai Yuanpei, the Chinese educator who headed the Ministry of Education under the Republic of China government, ordered the nation’s teachers’ colleges to set up Esperanto electives in 1912, before setting up the Beijing Esperanto College in 1923. As the president of Peking University, Cai appointed the Esperantist Sun Guozhang to introduce Esperanto to its official curriculum, later inviting the famous Russian poet Vasilij Erošenko to join the department. A leading Esperantist who sought refuge in China after being expelled from Japan, Erošenko lived with the novelist Lu Xun (in Esperanto, Lusin) and his brother, Zhou Zuoren, also an Esperantist.

In the 1930s, amid internal conflicts over the United Front campaign against Japanese invasion, as well as crackdowns by the Kuomintang, the Chinese anarchist movement began to lose momentum. Ba Jin (in Esperanto, Bakin), the Chengdu-born anarchist writer who had studied in France, attempted to pivot his Esperanto literature away from the political movement in which he was involved, despite criticism from his activist peers. A vast number of Esperantists — including Hu Yuzhi, who would become a politician after the Civil War — also moved away from anarchism to align with the Chinese Communist Party, wanting to use the language to advocate internationally for China’s anti-Japanese resistance and its national liberation. (They were joined by non-Chinese Esperantists, such as the Japanese anti-imperialist Teru Hasegawa, better known by her Esperanto name Verda Majo.)

Enshrined in the way of true revolution

The trajectory of China’s Esperanto movement changed its course after the Communist triumph in 1949. Indeed, the Esperanto community had been largely supportive of the CCP — and its vision aligned well with the new government’s internationalist ideology. In response to the Esperanto association in the Communist stronghold of Yan’an, Mao Zedong wrote in 1939, “If Esperanto is taken as a form and enshrined in the way of true internationalism and the way of true revolution, then Esperanto can be learned and should be learned.”

Esperanto associations around the country were allowed to resume their operations, and a national organization, the All-China Esperanto Association (also known as the China Esperanto League), was founded in Beijing in 1951. The PRC’s official Esperanto publication, El Popola Ĉinio (“The People of China”), was founded in 1950 as a monthly magazine. The People’s Republic in the 1950s also sent delegates abroad to attend the Universal Congress, organized by the Universal Esperanto Association; it soon hosted its first national Esperanto work conference in Beijing in 1963.