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Leading with Music: Using Chinese to Connect Hearts Half a World Apart


After graduating with a degree in East Asian studies, Abigail Washburn knew she wanted to use her newly acquired Chinese language skills in her career. In fact, after visiting the country in 1996, she saw a need for improved U.S.–Chinese relations and promised herself that she would become an international lawyer to fix them.

Nevertheless, before she made her move to China, Washburn decided to take a detour.

After a trip through Appalachia, a few country music conventions, and a record deal later, Washburn found herself using her Chinese skills in a totally different way: Through her music.

She became invested in connecting American bluegrass with Chinese culture and was soon recording Chinese songs with her band, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet.

In 2005, almost ten years after she visited China for the first time, Washburn toured the country again, this time as a music superstar. However, her superstardom in China would not culminate until 2008, when she and her band performed at the Beijing Summer Olympics.

Although Washburn’s music has since shifted away from always incorporating Chinese language and culture, she has continued her support of U.S.–Chinese relations over the years. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, she traveled back to the region to connect with victims of the disaster. There, she saw “the power of music to connect hearts” when singing with a local Chinese girl.

Washburn recounts in that moment that “we weren’t our American selves, we weren’t our Chinese selves, we were just mortals sitting together in that light that keeps us here.”

What started out as two separate passions, Washburn’s love for language and her love for music combined to create an expansive and inspiring career. Her story is a testament not only that combining language skills with any other interest or skill is possible, but that it can absolutely lead to an exciting and fulfilling career.

Interested in learning more about the Chinese language? Visit our Lead with Mandarin page to learn more about career opportunities, scholarships and grants, and college programs to get you started on your language learning journey.

Has music—or another passion—played an important role in your language learning story? Tell us about it @LeadWLanguages on social media!