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The language of Chinese soft power in the US

By Will Wachter of the Asia Times

NEW YORK – The main entrance to the China Institute in New York City looks like most other brownstones on the Upper East Side, distinguished only by its imposing red door. These days this door is open to welcome visitors down a short hallway that leads to two small galleries of Chinese art, currently exhibiting a collection of various teapots and Chinese calligraphy. Sometimes, a stumbling chant like “Lao shi jiao wo men shuo zhong guo hua” (“The teacher teaches us Chinese”) can be heard on the way.

Founded in 1926 as the product of a partnership between American John Dewey (1859-1952) and Chinese Hu Shi (Hu Shih, 1891-1962), both noted educational philosophers and scholars, the China Institute has long served as the paragon of educational cooperation between the United States and China. From its galleries to its cultural exchanges on literature and business practices, the China Institute has been a primary facilitator in the exposure of Americans to Chinese history and tradition.

Since last year, the China Institute has also been home to one of the first Confucius Institutes in the US. To the Western ear, the difference between China and Confucius is merely semantic. However, the establishment of this Confucius Institute and others like it reflects a sea change in China’s foreign policy toward not only the US, but also to the rest of the world.

With the stated goal of “enhancing the understanding of the Chinese language and culture among world Chinese learners”, the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (Hanban) has, since late 2004, established Confucius Institutes in South Korea, Germany, Sweden and Africa, in addition to the US.

Nevertheless, the long-term effects of the Confucius Institutes remain to be seen. Most are limited to a small number of classes and a restricted budget, and many are still trying to get on their feet. While the institutes have been funded with an initial grant of US$100,000, the Hanban expects that its institutes will become self-sufficient within five years.

Rebecca McGinnis, coordinator of the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland, said, “As with anything that’s new, you want things to move forward. We’re trying to get our momentum going.”

While classes in Maryland have been steadily growing, they still only have about a dozen students. McGinnis attributes this slow growth to the existence of so many other options in Chinese-language training in the area, making it more difficult to attract students to the Confucius Institute. She is optimistic, though, hoping eventually to be able to offer certification for teaching Mandarin as a foreign language.

According to James Cui, a teacher at the Maryland Confucius Institute, “American students who visit the institute are very interested in Chinese; they do not come here for credit, only to enjoy Chinese language and Chinese culture.”

This interest is reflected in the diversity of students who attend language classes – military people, business people, and people with Chinese spouses. However, these language classes remain separate from the university’s Chinese-language programs, and students are segregated between the two.

Considering the Confucius Institutes in the context of China’s soft power – the term coined by Harvard professor and co-founder of neo-liberalism Joseph Nye to describe “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments” – some have viewed their rise with skepticism.

Although “soft power” was first applied in reference to the US in Nye’s Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, the changing nature of international relations has meant that soft power is becoming an increasingly important tool to such countries as China that wish to exert their influence abroad using non-military, non-economic means.

The choice of Confucius as the figurehead of this bold new policy would seem surprising to most scholars of recent Chinese history. One of the great ironies of the peaceful co-existence of the Confucius Institute and the China Institute is that at the beginning of the 20th century, Hu Shi believed that “the way of Confucianism is unsuitable to modern life”.

In the 1960s and 1970s, China repressed much of Confucian culture as part of its Cultural Revolution, burning temples and smashing artifacts in an attempt to purge the country of traditional influence. Fears persist that the Chinese government may attempt to exert a coercive influence through its Confucius Institutes, and some universities have refused to accept them as part of their educational programs.

However, in the decades since the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party has come to re-embrace Confucian values, at least in name. Chinese President Hu Jintao has recently advocated the Confucian notion of a “harmonious society”. Confucian morals are likewise experiencing a revival within the Chinese populace, encouraged in no small part by a recent best-selling book adapting Confucius’ The Analects for the modern Chinese citizen.

In presenting Confucius as the vanguard of China’s influence in the rest of the world, China wants others to “look to the history and the glory of the past in order to encourage more acceptance of contemporary China”, said Gilbert Rozman, a professor of sociology at Princeton University.

Rozman added, “A rising power is likely to increasingly think of ways in which soft power can serve national interests.” He continued, “There is no reason to be opposed in principle. Cultural diffusion raises their standing, and the spread of language teaching is generally a positive influence.” The use of such cultural institutions is nothing new – France’s Alliance Francaise and Germany’s Goethe Institutes have existed for centuries.

However, cultural institutes like Alliance Francaise have historically been independent; most Confucius Institutes have been set up in partnership with existing universities or educational systems. Robert Davis, director of the Confucius Institute for the Chicago Public School system, is quick to allay any fears of direct influence.

“There’s no agenda,” Davis said, adding that his interactions with the Hanban have revealed it to be “among the most modern, forward-thinking group of people in China”. He added that Confucius Institutes have total autonomy in their course materials and teachers.

While classes are growing slowly in Maryland, in Chicago, supply can barely match demand. Davis says that in 1999, only three schools in the Chicago area taught Chinese. The number is now 28.

“In fact, China is a little late to the game,” Davis said. The Chicago initiative for Chinese-language instruction has only recently been complemented by a Confucius Institute, which joined ongoing efforts last year.

“It’s a very natural and organic partnership,” commented Davis regarding his relationship with the Hanban. “You can’t always rely on politicians to bring cultures closer together,” he added, although he mentioned Chicago Mayor Richard M Daley’s dedication to building a strong relationship with China.

The Confucius Institute of New York has already implemented a program to help train Chinese teachers in language instruction, with the hope of allowing a greater portion of the New York community access to Chinese-language teaching.

Meanwhile, the wide array of services offered by the scattered Confucius Institutes – teacher training, adult language training, administration of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (Chinese-language Proficiency Test), cultural exchanges and exhibits – indicates that even if their means are far from uniform, the Confucius Institutes want to allow Chinese culture to play an increasingly important role in the lives of ordinary US citizens.

Increased US interest in Mandarin has led to the creation of a Chinese Language and Culture AP (Advanced Placement) Exam, raising Mandarin to the level of such stalwarts as French, Spanish and Italian. Last month, the Maryland Confucius Institute held an exhibit devoted to Confucius as well as a calligraphy demonstration, both of which were well attended.

While the attraction of Mandarin has certainly played a large factor in the propagation of Confucius Institutes, its effectiveness as a form of soft power is still largely in question.

Perry Link, professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, said, “The Chinese language belongs to all people.” He said he also feels there is a fundamental contradiction in the way China’s government has used Confucius to represent its culture abroad, while using it to justify authoritarianism at home. Moreover, he believes that recent scandals in the US regarding pet food and other tainted products manufactured in China generate publicity that negates the country’s projected image as a benevolent rising power.

According to Link, the Chinese Communist Party holds a deeply rooted belief in the unity of national identity, correct language, and correct society. However, he said, “It is naive to think that teaching language will ultimately [garner] support.”

The future of China’s soft-power initiative is unknown, except to hear people stumbling through Mandarin in more and more places. Thus far, 105 Confucius Institutes have opened in more than 40 countries, and China has no plans of stopping, as the government has attached great importance to the operation of these institutes overseas.

During an inspection of the Hanban late last month, Li Changchun, one of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo in charge of ideology and propaganda, stressed that the construction of Confucius Institutes “is an important channel to glorify Chinese culture, to help Chinese culture spread to the world”, which is “part of China’s foreign propaganda strategy”.

 

This article was originally posted in the Asia Times.

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Quinn Cash
Quinn Cash
Quinn Cash is a contributor to HSK Tests Online and a Chinese/English translator.

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