Confucius schools prep for new sites

Updated: 2013-04-09 11:48

By Joseph Boris in Washington and Liu Yuhan in Boston (China Daily)

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 Confucius schools prep for new sites

Xu Lin, director-general of Hanban and chief executive of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, speaks at the National Chinese Language Conference in Boston on Monday. Liu Yuhan / China Daily

The opening of Confucius Institutes this week in New York and Washington brings a key part of China's "soft power" initiative to the United States.

On Tuesday, administrators at Columbia University will cut the ribbon to inaugurate the Confucius Institute at the Ivy League school in Manhattan. A day later, it will be George Washington University that does the honors, on a campus within walking distance of the US State Department and blocks away from the White House and Capitol Hill.

"We're very excited about this role for GW and our outreach around China," said Peg Barratt, dean of George Washington University's Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. "We have many faculties engaged in Chinese language and culture activities, and this will foster research ties with China."

A priority for the Confucius Institute on her campus, Barratt said, will be to provide instruction in Chinese language and culture to Washington professionals working in diplomacy and international business. The capital is home to global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are also near the campus.

Xu Lin, director-general of Hanban, talked about the Confucius Institutes' changing priorities in a speech on Monday to the National Chinese Language Conference in Boston.

"In past years, we and our partners focused more on opening up classes to teach Chinese language, but in the future, we hope we'll put more effort into introducing culture to each other for more cultural exchanges," she said.

Xu said she hopes the cultural exchanges will enhance understanding between Chinese and people in the institutes' host countries.

Although George Washington fits the standard university-based model for the Confucius Institute project financed by the Chinese government, it will depart from the usual mission of teaching beginner-level Mandarin. In the Washington area, that service is already being provided by the University of Maryland - where the first Confucius Institute in the US opened in 2005 - and George Mason University in Virginia.

"This is really more about professionals - people who might need to refresh or update their Chinese-language skills," Barratt said. "We would certainly be open to offering, say, lunchtime classes for busy professionals, reaching out to people so they can be successful perhaps in terms of doing business in China or being engaged with Chinese culture."

The dean also envisions the university's Chinese and Asian studies programs, which she oversees, as occasional presenters for events at the institute. She and other administrators, however, pointed out that classes won't provide academic credit and are meant to complement, not replace, university courses.

At Columbia in New York, the focus of the new Confucius Institute will be research into the teaching of Chinese as a second language, said Liu Lening, a professor of East Asian languages and cultures who will be the institute's director. The city already has one Confucius Institute, at Pace University in downtown Manhattan, which caters to the broader community.

Following the model endorsed by Hanban, Columbia and George Washington will run their programs through partnerships with Chinese universities that provide instructors, materials and support.

Columbia's partner is Renmin University of China in Beijing, with which it already conducts cultural and research exchanges, organizes international conferences, and translates and publishes academic works.

Liu said the two universities have co-hosted a conference at Columbia on country-specific Chinese language teaching materials; trained teaching assistants for Chinese-language classes through the university's graduate teaching school; and helped organize, with the Chinese consulate in New York, events around the Lincoln Center's Chinese Film Festival.

Setting up a Confucius Institute takes time. Columbia's affiliation with Renmin dates back to 2008, when the university's school of public health began a program. For George Washington, a chief concern was the physical space needed to house the new institute.

"The process is not easy - there are lots of things to accomplish," said Taoran Sun, a finance administrator at GW, who also serves on its organizing committee for the Confucius Institute. The university, with its partner Nanjing University, decided to apply to Hanban for accreditation in spring 2011 but the application wasn't submitted until that August, with approval granted some 18 months later.

Sun said the insitute will receive direct support from the nearby Chinese embassy. She said the interest of top Chinese diplomats working in the US will provide the institute "synergy" in hosting conferences and assisting with exchange programs for high-level government officials.

Eight years after the first one opened, there are now 92 university-level Confucius institutes in the US, along with 318 Confucius classrooms, mainly affiliated with public schools.

Another speaker at the annual conference, Henrietta Fore, a business executive and co-chairwoman of Women Corporate Directors, said interest in Chinese-language education in the US is sure to increase.

"As China has taken its place on the world stage, more and more Americans have been developing an interest in learning Chinese and connecting with China," she said. "By most estimates, the number of students in Chinese-language programs in the United States has increased by more than 200 percent over the past decade, and this growth is showing no signs of slowing.

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