Monday, January 30, 2006

Confucius Comes to America

We hear a lot about China’s “soft power” these days. It is a term coined, I believe, by Harvard Professor Joseph S. Ney a few years ago. He was referring to the seductive pull of China’s long cultural history as opposed to the usual levers for projecting power, such as armies and navies.

The effects of soft power are especially evident throughout Southeast Asia, where many countries have done a complete about turn by encouraging Chinese language training and developing a new appreciation and tolerance for ethnic Chinese minorities, and not just for their money.

Only a few years ago simply publishing a photograph that showed a sign with Chinese characters on it could get your publication banned in Indonesia. Now national newscasters occasional broadcast in Chinese. The Chinese Lunar New Year is an official public holiday.

Recently China’s soft power has come to the U.S., at least in a small way, through the proliferation of branches of the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute. The first was established last year at the University of Maryland (serving Washington, D.C.) Others are in Chicago, Kansas and San Francisco.

The institutes are organized, promoted and funded by the China National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, a division of the Ministry of Education. The ministry hopes to open about 100 branches all over the world with a goal of pushing the number of people studying Mandarin Chinese worldwide from about 30 million to 100 million.

The Institute is patterned after similar institutions such as the British Council, the Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institute, which are designed to promote English, French and German and other aspects of the national culture of Britain, France and Germany.

The accent, naturally, is on language instruction in Mandarin. The Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland, for example, offers a full gamut of instruction from introductory courses to advanced Chinese. The Institute also offers a few non-language courses in calligraphy, Chinese painting, tai chi and martial arts.

Beijing has opened Institutes throughout the world, including Japan, Australia, Sweden, even Nairobi in east Africa. In the U.S. courses have begun, in addition to the University of Maryland, at Kansas University, the Chicago Public Schools system and San Francisco State University, possibly some others that I haven’t learned about.

A couple decades ago, the Chinese probably would have called these institutions something like the Mao Zedong Institute. After all, back then Confucius was considered a throw back to feudal times. Confucianism itself was considered one of the reasons for the country’s decline and poverty.

Of course, anything labeled the “Mao Zedong Institute” would have been banned outright throughout Southeast Asia and certainly not welcome in the U.S. or most other parts of the world. In the 1960s and 1970s countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines took the threat of Chinese-directed communist insurgency seriously.

These days Confucius epitomizes the much more benign image that Beijing is eager to project throughout the region. For that matter Confucianism as a doctrine is undergoing a kind of rehabilitation in China itself (see previous post, “The Confucian Renaissance.

That doesn’t mean that the Chinese seem interested in propagating the ideas of their most famous philosopher. I know of nobody who is clamoring to study the Analects at these schools. Calligraphy, cinema, martial arts, perhaps acupuncture and herbal medicines, these besides language training, are the main elements of China’s soft power.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

another great blog from you guys. i'd point you to mine but it isn't yet the way I'd like it. i do have a website that I think is cool, kind of almost about choosing a martial art

August 1, 2006 at 12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

another great blog from you guys. i'd point you to mine but it isn't yet the way I'd like it. i do have a website that I think is cool, kind of almost about art colorado martial school

August 1, 2006 at 1:34 PM  

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