Confucius says: it’s time to learn Mandarin

Hamish McDonald – Melbourne AGE

China is beginning a very different cultural revolution with the launch
of language centres around the world.
Long resentful of being the target of “cultural imperialism”, China is
embarking on an ambitious plan named after the great sage Confucius to
spread the use of its language around the world.
The Government is setting up language and cultural institutes in major
foreign cities and dispatching modestly paid volunteers to teach in
small communities.
The face of this export drive is modelled on Alliance Francaise,
sponsored by the French Government, Germany’s Goethe Institutes, the
British Councils and Spain’s Cervantes Institutes.
But rather than revolutionary leader Mao Zedong or the communists’
favourite writer, Lu Xun, the Chinese institutes are named after
Kongfuzi (551-479 BC) – better known in the West as Confucius – whose
ideal of a state guided by highly ethical scholar-bureaucrats still
resonates in China and some neighbouring countries.
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“To name this institute after him shows the longevity and profundity of
Chinese language and culture,” an official explanation states.
“It also embodies the development trend of the integration of the
Chinese language and culture into the world in the new century.”
The irony of the fact that the Chinese communists unleashed a campaign
to destroy Confucianism during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 is
lost, or at least not mentioned.
“The demand for a language represents the country’s overall national
power and image in the world,” a Chinese Vice-Minister of Education,
Zhang Xinsheng, recently pronounced. “More importantly, it forecasts
the
country’s future.”
The Confucius Institutes are being set up with local counterpart bodies
and are partly funded by the Chinese Government through its National
Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language.
The first opened in Seoul last November and about 100 are planned in
other cities over the next four years.
The national office estimates the number of non-Chinese getting their
vocal cords around the four tones of Mandarin and their eyes to
recognise the hundreds of common written characters is now about 30
million, but will be about 100 million in five years.
Although about 2300 universities in 100 countries offer courses in
Chinese, most of the demand is coming from people who want to use
Chinese in occupations, tourism or trade.
Worldwide, there is a shortage of qualified Chinese language teachers,
national office director Yan Meihua told official media.
Malaysia, alone, wanted another 90,000 teachers and Indonesia wanted
100,000. Authorities in Australia, South Korea and Japan had also sent
requests for help.
In response, the office launched a volunteer teachers’ scheme a year
ago, where people aged up to 65 with at least a bachelor degree in
Chinese language, Chinese history or English are given three months’
special training and then sent off on stipends of about $A511 a month
to
community schools around the world.
Chen Shuyi, a graduate in Chinese from Fujian Normal University, was
one
of 16 volunteers sent to the Philippines last year. Her students were
out of date on China, she reported back, saying: “Some still regard
China as a very poor country without sufficient supplies.”
Chinese educationalists such as Peking University’s Lu Jianming insist
the aim is to promote understanding on both sides, rejecting
allegations
of Chinese cultural imperialism voiced by some South Koreans soon after
the Seoul Confucius Institute opened.
“This is by no means cultural expansion, as some have claimed, which is
something we must guard against,” Professor Lu said.

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