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November 30, 2011

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Institutes spread Chinese culture

MORE people are realizing the value of learning Chinese as China is increasingly playing a more important role on the world stage. The Confucius institutes are expanding rapidly across the globe amid this growing interest.

A group of teachers and students from the University of Missouri visited Shanghai Normal University at the end of last month to discuss the newly launched Confucius Institute at the US university.

Before this institute opened, Shanghai Normal University successfully operated Confucius institutes at Fukuyama University in Japan and University of Botswana in Botswana, Africa.

"The martial arts courses in Botswana and calligraphy courses in Japan have been extremely popular among locals," said Lu Jingying, coordinator of Shanghai Normal University's International Exchange Division.

Shanghai Normal University is very confident that its past experience will help it run a good institute in the United States.

The UM-based Confucius Institute is the No. 323 worldwide, according to the SNU.

China began setting up Confucius institutes in 2004 to teach Chinese language and introduce Chinese culture to people in other countries. The institutes can be found in more than 90 countries and regions now.

The institutes are sometimes compared to language and culture promotion organizations such as France's Alliance Fran?aise, Germany's Goethe-Institut and Spain's Instituto Cervantes.

But these institutes expand at a much slower rate. Since the first Goethe-Institute was launched in 1951, a total of 149 Goethe-Institutes have been established in the past five decades. A total of 70 Instituto Cervantes have been set up since 1991.

In comparison, China has set an ambitious goal to improve the number of Confucius institutes to 500 by 2020.

The rapid international expansion of the Confucius institutes has aroused concerns and controversies both in China and abroad.

The institutes, which aim to bolster Chinese "soft power," have been deemed a cultural intrusion and "brainwashing" by some overseas countries.

The Confucius Institute Headquarters has reiterated that they have nothing to do with exporting Chinese values.

Xu Lin, director of the headquarters, said that the institute is not trying to force others to accept Chinese values.

"I hope that the institutes can blend different cultures," she said in a public form early this month.

Meanwhile, some Chinese scholars are questioning the value of investing so much money in the institutes.

Xue Yong, an associate professor at Suffolk University, opposes spending lavishly on building the institutes in rich countries while many Chinese children still live in poverty.

Chinese-American journalist Wu Qixing said that the Confucius institutes have had many problems regarding textbooks, education methods and education guidelines.

The Confucius institutes boast a flexible method - teach what the students need. So it has no fixed textbooks, curriculum and education plan. The classes rely on the arrangements of the teacher. However, these casual teaching methods have been widely criticized.

Moreover, Wu found that many Chinese teachers are using traditional methods that American students don't buy into.

Most of the teachers are dispatched to the overseas institutes by Chinese universities and they don't have much experience in teaching students from other countries. They are accustomed to lecturing students, assigning homework and launching quizzes, Wu said.

The institutes are facing a big shortage of good teachers, which may hamper expansion plans.

Some students are disappointed to find the institutes, named after the Chinese master Confucius, are mostly about language training and only give a basic introduction about Chinese culture.

Xu said the problems exist because China has little experience in teaching foreigners languages and culture, different from some English, French and Spanish-speaking countries that have decades of experience in transmitting their languages.

Despite all the controversies, the young Confucius institutes have improved exchanges between Chinese and foreigners.


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