The language of Chinese soft power in the US

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu May 24 14:02:40 UTC 2007

The language of Chinese soft power in the US
By Will Wachter

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 ay.

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. Nvertheless, 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

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

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".

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list