Another Chinese Export Is All the Rage: China’s Language

January 11, 2006 – Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SHANGHAI, Jan. 10 – Conquering the world is not supposed to be easy, but that’s exactly how things must look some days to Xu Lin, head of the government’s new effort to promote the Chinese language overseas.
Ms. Xu is creating a global network of Chinese cultural centers, called Confucius Institutes, to teach foreigners throughout the world a language with a forbidding reputation for difficulty. But far from having to round people up, Ms. Xu is finding they are beating down her door.
“There is a China frenzy around the world at the moment,” she said. “The launch of this program is in response to the Chinese language craze, especially in neighboring countries.”
For decades, people in those countries have viewed China with deep suspicion. But now mastering Chinese as a door to lucrative business opportunities, or simply as a matter of popular fashion, is suddenly all the vogue – not only there but in the United States and Europe as well.
Just as new, though, is the decision of the Chinese government to ride the wave, not just capitalizing on the newfound chic that surrounds the language but determined to perpetuate it as a way of extending Chinese international influence and good will toward the country.
For some, the choice of a slightly fusty name like Confucius Institute, which evokes images of anything but a rising new power, might seem odd given Beijing’s increasing penchant for high-tech imagery and slick public relations. Yet the carefully selected label speaks volumes about the country’s soft power ambitions.
Among other things, using the name of the country’s oldest and most famous philosopher avoids reference to the official ideology, which remains Marxism. Confucius, who was an educator and quasi-religious figure, also stands for peace and harmony, values that China insistently proclaims today, hoping to disarm fears about its rapid rise.
Judging by the reactions of its long-wary neighbors, the effort appears to be paying off. Indonesia, which for three decades banned the teaching of Chinese because of Beijing’s support for Communist rebels, recently lifted the prohibition. Vietnam, which has long had strained ties with Beijing, has accepted a Confucius Institute amid a boom in Chinese language instruction. In South Korea, an American ally that fought alongside the United States in a war against China’s troops a half century ago, Chinese has reportedly outstripped English as the most popular foreign language among students.
“Chinese is as popular in Korea today as English is in China,” Ms. Xu said enthusiastically.
Although Chinese language studies may be most advanced in neighboring countries, where the ability to understand the Mandarin dialect has traditionally been considered a mark of cultivation, they are making huge strides farther afield. Eleven Confucius Institutes are up and running, in Europe and Africa as well as Asia.
One center is already operating in the United States, at the University of Maryland, and five others are expected to open soon in Honolulu, Kansas City, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Twelve more are under discussion.
Even before that first center opened, the College Board, the body that administers advanced placement exams, added Chinese to its list of foreign language tests, the first time an East Asian language has been included in its testing.
In a 2003 survey of American high schools, the College Board found that 50 said they would like to add advanced placement courses in Russian, about 175 said Japanese and 240 said Italian – and 2,400 said they would prefer Chinese. “We had no idea there was such an incredible interest out there,” Tom Matts, a College Board official, told CNN.
Ms. Xu said that “education officials from several states, actually several dozen states, have sent us requests” to help them establish Chinese language programs.
In many respects, China’s Confucius Institutes seem like a throwback to the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the United States, the Soviet Union and leading European countries were competing intensely for international prestige and influence. Moscow distributed magazines like Soviet Life through its embassies, and others promoted their languages through cultural organizations like the Alliance FranÁaise, the Goethe Institute and the Cervantes Institute.
As China becomes a major economic and military power and its diplomacy becomes more assertive, Beijing is also working harder at winning friends and influencing people. Indeed, taken together with China’s recent launches of manned space flights, and the huge push to build world-class universities and to produce prize-winning scientific research, some have called the language initiative part of this country’s “Sputnik moment,” after the first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.
But where Sputnik fed a sense of alarm in the United States and elsewhere about the rise of an aggressive new superpower, the Confucius Institutes are intended to do almost the opposite, elevating the country’s prestige while easing anxieties over the arrival of a new power.
“They are using Chinese culture to create a warmer, more positive image of Chinese society,” said Nancy Jervis, vice president of the China Institute, a nonprofit Chinese-language study group that will be home to a Confucius Institute in New York City. “That’s probably why the State Council has funded them, and why they’ve given a fair amount of money in turn to the College Board.”
China’s re-entry into the contest for global influence reflects the broader strategy of a nation that is still poor by many measures but is moving fast and making a big impression. The approach often involves advancing with frugal means through lots of hustle and word of mouth.
“The British Council spends over 3 billion pounds a year,” or more than $5 billion, Ms. Xu said, adding that China is spending only about $12 million on the Confucius Institutes. Instead of building expensive new headquarters in each city, the institutes team up with local partners, taking space in their buildings or getting foreign governments to pay for their housing. Instead of sending teachers who will instruct foreigners directly, the institute sends teacher trainers who can help upgrade the skills of local Chinese teachers.
“The vision for this sort of thing has existed in China for a very long time,” said Wu Yongyi, deputy dean of the International College of Chinese Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai, who has been involved in overseas language instruction missions since the 1980’s.
Mr. Wu said China worked hard to promote its language among third world nations from the 1960’s to the 80’s, when he got his start teaching in Africa and elsewhere overseas.
Today, about 90,000 foreign students come to China every year to study the language, he said, with 30 million more people around the world studying Chinese.
“After China’s economic reforms started, we discovered we had an urgent need for communication, and we found that it’s not enough that we learned foreign languages,” he said. “Communications could be better if other people could speak Chinese. We need two-way communications, and now that our economy is strong, we can support this.”

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