China Unicom may be hopeless at selling iPhones, but the company is great at customer service.
And not only does Unicom offer a helpline in Chinese, English, French, German, Spanish, Malay, and Arabic, but it also has an option to speak to its representatives in Esperanto, the "international auxiliary language" devised by Ludovic Zamenhof in the 1870s.
Zamenhof, a Jew brought up by Russian and Yiddish-speaking parents, raised his children to speak Polish and came up with Esperanto in order to bring the linguistically disparate ethnicities of the Russian empire together
The number of Esperanto speakers worldwide is unknown, with estimates ranging from just 10,000 to as high as two million. We called the China Esperanto League in order to get an idea of how many speakers there are in the Middle Kingdom, but we got no reply. There’s only one Esperanto university course in the country – at the China Media University in Beijing – which takes around ten students, but doesn’t fill its places every year.
However, Esperanto (or Shijieyu – ‘World Language’) has a surprising pedigree in China. It is believed to have entered China via the trade routes from Russia into Harbin. It may have also come to Shanghai with students who had studied in Japan, France and England.
The China Esperanto League was founded in 1951, after the Communist Party came to power. Ba Jin, one of China’s most distinguished revolutionary authors, served as the vice president of the league. The novelist became fluent in Esperanto after a year of study at Dongnan University in Nanjing in 1923.
Somehow, Ba Jin managed to persuade Zhou Enlai to back the project, and Esperanto received the blessing of the Party and was even promoted during the 1980s as China opened up to the world.
Today, there’s no sign that the Party continues to see Esperanto as a vital tongue, except of course in its inclusion in the state-owned China Unicom’s customer service line. When we tried to choose the Esperanto option, however, the line rang out and then, on a second try, was answered by someone speaking English. "We do not get many callers to this line, very few," he said, before dialling off.