Seventy years of Chinese language education in New Zealand: A transdisciplinary overview

Research Highlighted:

Wang, D. (2021). Seventy years of Chinese language education in New Zealand: A transdisciplinary overview. In Y. Zhang & X. Gao (Eds.), Frontiers in the teaching and learning of Chinese as a second language (pp. 170-184). London: Routledge. (Please feel free to contact the author for a published version of this publication).

Dr Danping Wang, University of Auckland

Research highlights

This research output is supported by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand. It is part of a large-scale project that aims to map out the past and present of Chinese language education in New Zealand. Due to its geographical isolation and its small population, New Zealand can be easily neglected or misunderstood compared to other English-speaking countries. It is apparent that the case of New Zealand has been a missing puzzle on the knowledge map of research on Chinese language education in Anglophone countries (Wang, 2020b). This article is the first to present transdisciplinary insights into Chinese language teaching and learning in New Zealand.

This chapter adopts the transdisciplinary framework in understanding and analysing the multifaceted nature of Chinese language education in an increasingly diverse and multilingual New Zealand. The transdisciplinary framework recognises language teaching and learning as a highly complex process that involves a variety of macro-, meso-, and micro-level factors that have the power to influence the rise and fall of a language in a country (Douglas Fir Group, 2016). It emphasises the importance of exploring language education from multiple levels of forces beyond the micro-level focus on cognitive and linguistic development (e.g., phonetic, lexical, grammatical, character reading and writing). Therefore, this study shifts the attention to a more macro level (e.g., demographic, economic, political, and cultural) and a meso level of language learning (e.g., formal, and informal education organisations such as schools, universities, and community schools).

Chinese language education in New Zealand has gone through a history of 70 years as of 2020. In terms of the time frame, Chinese teaching in New Zealand started in the same year as it did in China. In October 1950, the earliest Chinese lesson was published by a local Chinese magazine with a specific goal for New Zealand Chinese children to maintain their Chinese literacy skills and cultural roots (Stanbridge, 1990). This marks the beginning of the education of Chinese as a heritage language in New Zealand. Within mainstream society, the most prominent and earliest Chinese language programme appeared in a formal educational establishment in 1966. In this year, the University of Auckland formed a teaching team and began to provide Chinese language courses for university students for the first time in history. These students were purely European descendants curious to explore the mysterious Chinese language and culture.

Demographic shifts. Population censuses are by far the most common source of data to provide reliable evidence of the size, growth, and characteristics of language-defined population groups (Siegel, 2018). First, the People’s Republic of China has become the second-largest foreign birthplace for New Zealand people (2.9%), following England (4.5%). It is evident that New Zealand has an increasingly large group of Mandarin speakers, and the trend will continue to grow (Spoonley, 2020). Second, the Chinese language (Mandarin, Cantonese, and other Chinese varieties combined) has become one of the most commonly spoken languages in New Zealand.

Eco-political backgrounds. Eco-political backgrounds are important macro-level factors in understanding the complexity and vulnerability of Chinese language education in Western countries. In the New Zealand context, as Kennedy (2016) noted, Chinese “has experienced different trends in popularity, often partly depending on the country’s political and economic ties with New Zealand at the time”. New Zealand is the first developed country that signed the comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with China in 2008. As part of the Free Trade Agreement, New Zealand and Chinese Education Ministries put forward a Mandarin Language Assistants (MLA) Programme. It is worth noting that the stable and comparatively positive political and diplomatic relationships between New Zealand and China have provided a relatively favourable environment for the development of Chinese language education. In contrast, many other Western countries have witnessed drastic measures taken in closing numerous Confucius Institutes and a concerning trend towards politicising Chinese language teaching and learning (see, e.g., Weinmann, Neilson & Slavich, 2020).

Chinese as a heritage language. Chinese immigrants were one of the earliest and the largest non-European immigrant groups but were “never considered to be real New Zealanders” by the European settlers (Ip, 2009, p. 1). Chinese have suffered legislative discrimination and systemic racism for about a century in New Zealand, similar to what they experienced in other Anglophone countries. Despite the long history of Chinese settlement in New Zealand since the mid-19th century, Chinese language teaching practices only took place in the 1950s. Nevertheless, Chinese communities have shown fluctuating interest in preserving Chinese heritage, and the passion for Chinese learning gradually faded over the years. The views that associated Mandarin with communism remain relevant today both inside and outside the Chinese community (Clark, 2020). The political image of Mandarin could have influenced people’s interest in learning Chinese in a subtle but sophisticated way.

Chinese as an additional language. Mandarin Chinese was first introduced to New Zealand secondary schools in the 1980s and officially entered the New Zealand curriculum in 1995, although there were only a limited number of schools offering Chinese to students at that time. Today, compared to other Anglophone countries (see, e.g., Zhang, 2009), the overall development of Chinese language education in New Zealand is smaller in its total number of enrolments, but proportionally speaking, it is relatively larger. In 2017, there were 8.8% of total school students in New Zealand studying Chinese as a subject in all types of schools (Year 1 – 13). As a proportion of the population, more New Zealand students were studying the Chinese language than in Australia (4.7% in 2016) and the U.S. (2.13% in 2014-15) combined. However, the passion for Chinese learning “has cooled off on university campuses” (Wang, 2020a). The causes of the decline in language learning are complex, and the phenomenon is not unique to New Zealand. The calamitous decline of language learning has become a crisis faced by all Anglophone countries

(Lanvers, Thompson & East, 2021).


Clark, P. (2020). Time for a reality check on Chinese interference. https://

Douglas Fir Group. (2016). A transdisciplinary framework for SLA in a multilingual world. The Modern Language Journal, 100(S1), 19–47.

Ip, M. (2009). The Dragon and the Taniwha: Māori and Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press.Kennedy, J. (2016). An exploration of when and how New Zealand secondary school teachers introduce Chinese characters to beginners. The New Zealand Language Teachers, 42, 8–20.

Lanvers, U., Thompson, A., & East, M. (Eds.). (2021). Language learning in Anglophone countries: Challenges, practices, ways forward. Palgrave Macmillan.

Spoonley, P. (2020). The new New Zealand: Facing demographic disruption. Massey University Press.

Stanbridge, J. (1990). An early attempt at preserving Chinese literacy in New Zealand: An analysis of the Chinese lessons in the New Zealand Chinese Growers Monthly Journal [Unpublished MA dissertation]. The University of Auckland.

Wang, D. (2020a). Studying Chinese language in higher education: The translanguaging reality through learners’ eyes. System. 10.1016/j.system.2020.102394

Wang, D. 王丹萍. (2020b). 新西兰汉语教育发展与研究. 国际汉语教育史研究, 2, 205–217. [Research and development of Chinese language education in New Zealand. International education history of Chinese language. Commercial Press.]

Weinmann, M., Neilsen, R., & Slavich, S. (2020). Politicisation of teaching Chinese language in Australian classrooms today.

Zhang, X. 张西平. (2009). 新西兰的汉语教育. 世界汉语教育史, 432–440. [Chinese language education in New Zealand. In History of Chinese language education. Commercial Press.]


This publication was supported by the Marsden Fund Council from New Zealand Government funding, managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi. The project number is UOA1925.

Author Bio

Danping Wang  is Senior Lecturer and Major Specialisation Leader of Chinese at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She received the Teaching Excellence Award in 2014 and the Early Career Research Excellence Award in 2020. Since 2020, Danping has been invited by the New Zealand Ministry of Education to review the national qualifications for senior secondary school students. She is currently leading a Marsden Fund project supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand to explore new theoretical directions for Chinese language education through the decolonial lens in the New Zealand context. Her research focuses on translanguaging, plurilingualism, and Chinese language education. Email:

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