SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — SEOUL, South Korea - After years of slogging through her English lessons, stumbling over impossible pronunciations and baffling rules of syntax, Chae Chang Eun had a better idea.
The 33-year-old science teacher switched to Chinese.
It wasn't that the language was easier. But studying Chinese felt like a homecoming, a return to a culture and way of thinking closer to Chae's roots as a South Korean. Besides, with China on its way to surpassing the United States as South Korea's largest trading partner, she figured its language would be more advantageous in landing a job in business.
"When America was leader of the world, we all studied English," Chae said. "Now that China is rising to the top, the interest is swaying toward the Chinese language."
South Korea is one of the United States' staunchest allies. But in what might be a sign of things to come, China is a current object of infatuation.
Chinese studies are booming throughout Asia. At the largest chain of private language schools in Japan, enrollment in Chinese in 2003 was double that in 2002 - displacing French as the second most popular language after English.
For most students, the motives are strictly mercenary: They believe that command of Chinese will give them an edge in the job market, and they don't develop much of a corresponding interest in Chinese culture. Some study Chinese - once scorned by a society intent on Westernizing - as a conscious gesture of rejection of the United States.
"The interest in Chinese does reflect some antipathy to U.S. hegemony and arrogance," said Suh Jin Young, an international relations professor at Korea University in Seoul.
In the past two years, half a dozen private Chinese schools have opened in downtown Seoul. In December, Seoul National University announced that Chinese had replaced English as the most popular major among liberal arts students. The country's largest electronics companies recently started offering free Chinese lessons for their employees in anticipation of expanded operations in China.
Since 2000, the number of South Koreans studying in China has more than doubled. There were 35,000 as of the end of last year, making South Koreans the largest nationality of foreign students in China. Meanwhile, the number taking the entry exam for Chinese universities has increased threefold, according to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul.
At the same time, student visa applications to the United States are down about 10 percent this year from the year before, a U.S. diplomat said. He attributes it to a combination of tighter security requirements and what he calls "the competing pole from China."
"People are sending their teen-agers to China to learn Chinese. They are really crazy about China," said Nam Young Sook, an economist with the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.
In Thailand, so many students are taking Chinese that one university official calls it an epidemic of "China fever."
"They see that the future belongs to China," said Prapat Thepcatree, director of Thammasat University's Center for Policy Studies in Bangkok.
Prapat says it is not unlike the rage for learning Japanese in the 1980s, when Japan's economic might was at its zenith, but he believes that anti-American sentiment is also a factor. As a matter of practicality, more Chinese tourists are visiting Thailand while Westerners, fearful of terrorism, are staying home.
The tilt toward China comes at a time when American policy-makers are increasingly fretting about the U.S. image abroad.
"Net favorable sentiment toward China has since caught up with - and on a number of occasions even surpassed - that for the U.S.," warned a report on South Korea released last month by the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank.
Scott Snyder, a senior associate with the Asia Foundation think tank in Washington and until recently head of its Seoul office, said the U.S.-declared war against terrorism has alienated Asian allies not because they necessarily oppose it but because they believe it is not relevant to their concerns.
"The Chinese are coming and essentially saying, 'Let's get rich together,' and that is a more compelling message for Asian partners," Snyder said.
With the United States and China basking in relatively warm relations, South Koreans do not have to choose between the two. But they might in the future - and it is not a given that they would side with the United States.
"We have to ask ourselves, at what point does South Korea's economic relationship with China impinge on the U.S. alliance? Can we imagine, for example, that South Korea would vote for a U.S.-introduced human rights resolution condemning China?" Snyder asked.
China has been the dominant foreign power for most of Korea's recorded history, and many aspects of Korean language and culture - from chopsticks to the Confucian family structure - are derived from China.
Historians say that the close relationship is natural and that the half-century estrangement during the Cold War was the anomaly. China intervened on behalf of the Communist North in the 1950-1953 Korean War, and relations with the South were severed. Ties were re-established in 1992, and since then, the relationship has blossomed.
Bilateral trade between China and South Korea was worth $63.2 billion last year and is expected to reach $100 billion within the next year or two, according to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul.
Yang Houlon, deputy chief of mission at the embassy, said that China is the biggest importer of South Korean products, the biggest destination for direct foreign investment and the biggest tourist destination, with about 2 million South Koreans visiting annually.
Virtually all of South Korea's top corporations - Hyundai Motors, LG, Samsung and SK Corp. among them - have made significant investments in China in the past few years. Tsingtao, just a commuter flight across the Yellow Sea from Seoul, has become a "little Korea" of sorts, with about 4,000 South Korean companies having set up shop.
Companies that a few years back were attracted by the vast reservoir of cheap labor are now setting up research-and-development facilities to take advantage of Chinese technology and to better understand the Chinese consumer market.
"Whatever business you're in - whether you run a small drugstore or build golf courses, you have got to think about doing business with China," said Kim Jo Han, 57, a textile company manager who said he was studying Chinese because of his company's plant in Tsingtao.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.