Confucius Institute: Bridge Builder for Chinese and World Civilizations (Overseas Chinese Brand)
“In my class, you can see young people decorated with Chinese elements from head to feet, old people who have kept studying for almost ten years, and readers fond of Chinese works by Mo Yan and Yu Hua. They are really fascinated by Chinese,” said Madam Wang Hong, Chinese Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Helsinki in Finland, when describing her Finnish students.
Thousands of personnel sent abroad like Madam Wang and the Confucius Institutes can give answers and help to foreigners on their interest in almost everything related to the Chinese language, culture and society, including China’s calligraphy, poems in the Tang and Song dynasties, facial makeup in opera, folk art forms, and even questions such as “why some Chinese children wear open-crotch pants” and “how to control smog in China”.
With 2.1 million students of various types from 511 Confucius Institutes and 1,073 Confucius Classrooms in 140 countries, the Confucius Institutes have become a “bridge builder” for exchanges and mutual learning between Chinese and world civilizations, an important window for the world to know China better and for China to deepen friendship and cooperation with other countries, and a Chinese brand standing at the front door of foreigners.
Born amid the “Chinese fever”
“Do you know the differences among the Great Seal Script, the Small Seal Script and the Official Script, teacher?” When suddenly asked such a professional question by a student at a usual evening class on Chinese language, Li Yiqi, a volunteer with the Confucius Institute at the University of Dublin in Ireland was quite surprised. As Li was still in astonishment, the student who raised the question began holding forth his own ideas on the matter. The questioner was a 60-year-old retired man who wanted to write a book on the history of the development of Chinese characters.
Some students carried the book Three Hundred Tang Poems and had discussions with Li whenever possible. Through such great enthusiasm in learning Chinese, Li, who is also a postgraduate student from a first-class university in China, perceived the upsurge of learning Chinese in Ireland. In Ireland, the Confucius Institutes (Classrooms) have realized a full coverage from students in kindergartens, primary schools, middle schools and universities to other members of the society. And the number of primary and middle school students learning Chinese surpasses 5,000 every year. Besides, the Confucius Institute at the University of Dublin offers contents to a TV program named Hello, China which is broadcasted to the whole society once a week.
Students from the Confucius Institute at Cleveland State University visiting Qingdao of China’s Shandong Province for exchanges on May 25th. Photo: Yu Fangping, People’s Daily
As Chinese products stepping into millions upon millions of families in foreign countries, the Chinese language, culture and society behind it have started to attract worldwide attention. The Confucius Institutes emerged on the very beginning of this tendency. Since 2004, China has learnt from the experience of the UK, France, Germany and Spain in promoting their own languages, and tried to set up nonprofit educational organizations for the purpose of teaching the Chinese language and spreading the Chinese culture. In the same year, the first Confucius Institute in the world was established.
In terms of the principles of the Confucius Institutes, the Constitution and By-Laws of the Confucius Institutes reads that “Confucius Institutes devote themselves to satisfying the demands of people from different countries and regions in the world who learn the Chinese language, to enhancing understanding of the Chinese language and culture by these peoples, to strengthening educational and cultural exchange and cooperation between China and other countries, to deepening friendly relationships with other nations, to promoting the development of multi-culturalism, and to construct a harmonious world.”
Unexpected High-speed Development
“The high-speed development of the Confucius Institutes is beyond our expectation now,” said Madam Xu Lin, former Director General of Hanban. The original plan of the Ministry of Education was to establish 100 Constitute Institutes in ten years around the world.
Unexpectedly, 46 Confucius Institutes were established in the first year and another 100 in the next year. Twelve years later, there are now 511 Confucius Institutes in 140 countries across five continents.
Students from the Confucius Institute at the Kenyatta University practicing Chinese calligraphy on Sep. 15th. Photo: Pan Siwei, Xinhua News Agency.
In addition, the development model of the Confucius Institutes has gone far beyond mere Chinese teaching. Since designated as the Chinese Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Helsinki in 2014, Madam Wang, an Associate Professor of English from Renmin University of China, has not only taught Chinese and held Chinese culture experience activities with Chinese teachers and volunteers, but also invited Chinese scholars to give lectures and exchange ideas in Finland for many times. She also offered opportunities for Finnish students to study in China.
“Chinese teaching is the basic ground where we take our root; cultural activities are to expand influence; and academic activities are to attract more scholars and intellectuals in further understanding China.” two-year on-field experience has offered Madam Wang clear working ideas.
With one Constitution for all Confucius Institutes yet quite different conditions in various countries, what should the Confucius Institutes do then? It is a test for each Confucius Institute to integrate itself into the local community and be welcomed. During her teaching, Madam Wang once experienced embarrassment caused by local culture. They then worked out a solution. With high altitude, cold weather and short daytime in winter Finland, the themes of cultural activities held by the Confucius Institute at the University of Helsinki are always related to sunshine and warmth. And because of the introverted character of the Finnish people, the Confucius Institute brings the students’ strengths into play and lays stress on teaching Chinese writing.
In 2016, over 240 Confucius Institutes in 78 countries all over the world have set up courses related to such Chinese culture as traditional Chinese medicine and Tai Chi according to local needs. Adjusting measures to local conditions with its own characteristics is exactly what each Confucius Institute does in its development.
Removing Doubts by Increasing Trust
As the Chinese Director, Madam Wang needs to deal with many relations. She worried a lot upon arrival, however, she has won recognition and praise from local participants after doing earnest work. “To tell the real situation through their mouths is more powerful than through our own,” she said.
At the beginning of the establishment of the Confucius Institute, voices of doubt with “China threat theory” as their core rose from time to time. Over the past three years, the Confucius Institutes at the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Stockholm University have been closed down in succession. Arguments of reckless distortion and slander of the Confucius Institutes emerged once again in the international community.
However, those disparaging views do not hold water at all. In fact, the procedure of the establishment of a Confucius Institute is that a foreign university or relevant educational institution first needs to apply to the Confucius Institute Headquarters. After approval, the Institute will be jointly run by the foreign and Chinese side. Directors are responsible for the Confucius Institutes under the leadership of the Council, and the daily operation and management of the Confucius Institutes is in the charge of both Chinese and foreign Directors.
In actual operation, it is generally the foreign Director who puts forward demands, and the Chinese side offers cooperation and assistance. Take academic activities as an example. The two sides jointly decide topics and invite researchers who study issues related to China or East Asia to present their views and have academic debates. In Chinese language and culture classes, which are more common in the Confucius Institutes, teachers do their best to teach students learning methods and display a splendid and multi-dimensional Chinese society.
“It is actually a false proposition to discuss these disparaging views”, said Li. Nobody takes them into consideration in actual work, and these voices themselves perhaps show the misunderstanding and incomprehension to China, Li added.
Students from Confucius Institutes in Germany learning Fengyang drum dance and Chinese martial arts on July 25th. Photo: Li Bangjun, People’s Daily.
“The Confucius Institutes are a bridge to the Chinese language and culture as well as a provider of learning resources.” Li believes that the Confucius Institutes play an irreplaceable role, because it brings a face-to-face and experiential learning behavior. The inter-personal communication between Chinese teachers and volunteers of the Confucius Institutes and people in the local communities brings the latter a tangible and touchable China.
After reading a newspaper article arbitrarily attacking the Confucius Institutes, Madam Wang’s Finnish colleague showed it to her and refuted it angrily. Madam Wang just laughed it off. She said that we just need to manage our own business and people who understand us will know the truth.
Next Key Crossroad
“At present, the Confucius Institutes are at a key crossroad. We should seriously think about how the Confucius Institutes are going to develop and what kind of path should we take,” Madam Xu once made such comments on the development of the Confucius Institutes over the ten years.
According to the development plan of the Confucius Institutes, the overall global layout of the Confucius Institutes will be completed by 2020 to unify quality standards, test certification, and designation and training of teachers, realize multilingualism and wide coverage of international Chinese language textbooks, establish a global communication system of Chinese language and culture with fairly comprehensive function and wide range, and make Chinese one of the languages for foreigners to learn and use widely.
When it comes to the future development of the Confucius Institutes, the teaching staff is an inevitable topic. Nowadays, the majority of teachers in the Confucius Institutes are professional teachers and volunteers dispatched from China. They need to sign a fixed-term contract which lasts from one to four years, including the Chinese Directors. Most of the teachers will assume their original positions in China after teaching, and a new group of teachers will be selected for the Confucius Institutes around the world.
During her two-year stay in the Confucius Institute, Madam Wang has witnessed the shifts of two groups of volunteers and many other shifts of staff in the project. “It actually adds difficulties to our work,” she said. Every batch of staff needs to be trained to get familiar with the work from scratch. Li has returned to China after finishing the one-year voluntary work and was reluctant to leave the Confucius Institute at that time. “It’s time to return to China when I just started to get familiar with the teaching there. I know all of my students and their characters, but a new teacher needs to start from the very beginning while continuing the teaching plan, which is a challenge for both the teacher and the students,” she said.
Localization of teachers has been frequently mentioned in the development of the Confucius Institutes in the recent two years. However, take Finland as an example, only a few Chinese language teachers hold local teacher’s certification, among whom ten at most are Finnish. In fact, localization is a long-term and complicated project.
Madam Wang is pondering over another matter recently. She hopes to provide educational and consulting courses for local enterprises in Finland, so that the Confucius Institute will have more links with the local community and receive diverse financial support at the same time, which also concerns the future sustainable development of the Confucius Institute.
Photo 1: Students of the Confucius Institute at the University of Abomey-Calavi competing in a tug-of-war on June 6th. Photo: Yuan Jianglei, Xinhua News Agency
Photo 2: Confucius Institute in Croatia holding a dragon boat race on June 11th. Photo: Michot Lisinen, Xinhua News Agency
Photo 3: Confucius Institute at the University of Helsinki hosting a “Happy Spring Festival” temple fair.
Photo 4: Students of the Confucius Institute at the University of Helsinki studying.
Photo 5: Current staff of the Confucius Institute at the University of Helsinki.
Photo 6: Teachers and students of the Confucius Institute at the Kenyatta University celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival on Sep. 15th. Photo: Pan Siwei, Xinhua News Agency
Photo 7: Teachers and students of Moi University performing Tai Chi on March 30th, 2015. Photo: Sun Ruibo, Xinhua News Agency
Photo 8: Chinese painting class of the Confucius Institute at the University of Helsinki.
Photo 9: Irish students making their own booth at the “Confucius Institute Day” workshop of the Confucius Institute at the University of Dublin.
Note: Photos that do not indicate the source are all from the Confucius Institutes.
Story by Li Jie, People’s Daily Overseas Edition (Dec. 26, 2016, Page 9)