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September 4, 2009

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Spreading Chinese culture through karaoke and kabuki take on Kunqu

JAPANESE students are singing Chinese karaoke, and masters of kabuki and Kunqu Opera are preparing an experimental kabuki drama "The Peony Pavilion" for the upcoming Shanghai International Arts Festival.
Both the singing competition, sponsored by the Confucius Institute in Tokyo, and the kabuki take on a Chinese cultural icon are signs of warm people-to-people relations as the 37th anniversary of the normalization of the China-Japan diplomatic ties approaches on September 29.
The lucky Japanese singer, Akio Okuda, 29, works in a foreign trade company in Kyoto. Last week he realized his dream of winning a singing contest, this one in Shanghai, with his rendition of the popular Chinese song "Friends."
He wowed the Chinese audience with his pronunciation and nuanced delivery in the competition at Shanghai Tongji University.
"China has exerted major cultural influence on Japan," says Okuka. "I hope this beautiful song can be a testament to and bridge of China-Japan friendship."
The karaoke competition is just one small part of the worldwide work of China's Confucius Institutes that spread Chinese language and culture and build understanding.
This particular competition, starting in Tokyo and ending in Shanghai, attracted hundreds of Japanese students and young white-collar workers seeking to compete in the finals here. Thirty of them survived elimination rounds to make the trip.
After the contest last weekend, they attended a carnival at the Lu Xun Park in Hongkou District and joined with Chinese students in singing theme songs of the World Expo Shanghai and expressing friendship.
This was the third year of the Chinese karaoke contest for Japanese, initiated by the China National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language and the Confucius Institute. It is also a traditional program hosted by the Confucius Institute at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo and Tongji University.
In April, there were around 340 Confucius Institutes in 82 countries and regions, offering language training, courses in Chinese calligraphy, art appreciation, traditional operas and philosophy, among others.
The Confucius Institute, named after the Chinese sage, is a nonprofit educational organization promoting Chinese language and culture around the world. The world's first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul, South Korea, in 2004.
Akimasa Mitsuta, director of the Confucius Institute at J.F. Oberlin University, says more than 30,000 Japanese high school students are studying Chinese. More than 600 high schools in Japan offer Chinese language courses, he says.
He attributes the interest in China to the nation's booming economy and the growing worldwide network and influences of Confucius Institutes.
John Woo's historical epic film "Red Cliff" was extremely popular in Japan, Mitsuta says.
"The number of applicants for our Chinese karaoke competition is ever increasing," he says.
Zhou Weisheng, director of the Confucius Institute in Ritsumeikan, Kyoto, says each institute has characteristic programs, such as Peking Opera and traditional Chinese medicine. All have a common goal of increasing understanding of China and its culture.
Zhou's institute sent a student team to visit Shanghai to report on the city's economy, resources and efforts in environmental protection. The institute hosts more than 50 lectures annually on calligraphy, traditional operas, literature and other subjects.
At the same time, Chinese students in Shanghai are impressed with the Japanese karaoke singers. For them, the cultural events of Confucius Institute also act as a friendly envoy.
Chen Minmin, from Shanghai Tongji University, has worked on stage design for three years.
"Japanese students used to be considered to be very reserved and cool," Chen says. "But the contest made us be good friends. They were really diligent and passionate about Chinese culture."
It is believed the Confucius Institute can help improve China's cultural competitiveness and soft power.
Sociology Professor Gu Xiaoming from Fudan University, however, suggests the institutes go beyond language and karaoke and add more depth and philosophy to the curriculum.
"The Confucius philosophy, which stresses morality, harmony and personal character-building, has universal appeal and importance in the world education system," says Professor Gu.
"The institutes should combine the spirit of Confucian ethics and thought with teaching. Otherwise, they deliver a superficial interpretation of Chinese culture and history," he says.


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