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Chinese Language “Going Out” - a Chinese Perspective

GB Times - From the founding of the world's first Confucius Institute in Seoul, South Korea in 2004 till now, more than 1,000 Confucius Institutes and Classrooms have left their footsteps across the world. Finland is one of the latest countries with such a footprint.

With GBTIMES pioneering the on-air Confucius Classroom in Finland, this makes Finland the second Nordic country with more than one Confucius Institute and Classroom to date (after Denmark).

To explore the implications of this second Confucius platform in Finland, GBTIMES sat down with Hu Zhiping, Deputy Director of Hanban (Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language) and Confucius Institute Headquarters, and Gao Shijun, Director of European Section from China Radio International (CRI).

“We all know that exchange between China and European countries, especially those in Northern Europe, have become closer and closer in recent years. People have growing needs of understanding China and learning Chinese. Particularly in Finland, we have only one Confucius Institute in Helsinki at present. Now that GBTIMES’ Confucius Classroom has been set up, I believe it can make use of its advantages on broadcasting and web to serve local people’s need of studying Chinese and understanding Chinese culture better,” Mr. Hu explains.

A Window to Chinese Culture

Beyond a language-teaching institution, Confucius Institutes offer a window for local audiences to have a glimpse into Chinese culture. Among the diversity of Chinese-learning channels possible, Confucius Institutes as an institution centrally coordinated by Hanban provide a systematic and trusted channel for people to pursue a unique linguistic and cultural experience.

Having stationed in Paris for years, Mr. Gao testifies to the growing interest in China in Europe, “More and more people are interested in China, China's development model and Chinese culture, but quite a considerable number of people from different backgrounds still do not know much about China. Some even do not have proper channels to understand China. Therefore we want to launch a new channel and platform for people from different countries to get more comprehensive, authentic and objective information about China by setting up Confucius Classrooms.”

Confucius Institutes as a Joint Initiative

Figures from Hanban show that 419 Confucius Institutes and 582 Confucius Classrooms have been set up in 113 countries around the world so far, forming what Mr. Hu calls “a global network”.

As ambitious as the initiative to set up such a vast network may seem, the process of disseminating Chinese language and culture via the Confucius platform is also underlined with a great degree of cultural sensitivity and respect for the local audiences.

“One point I want to highlight is that we don't go overseas to ‘expand’ Confucius Institutes. It is more the case that we cater to the local needs in order to support the establishment of Confucius Institutes in various local countries,” Mr. Hu goes on to emphasize, “Confucius Institutes and Classrooms are set up as a result of China’s collaboration with different countries. That means not only China has devoted financial, human and material input, but our local partners have also contributed a lot of efforts.”

Finland as a Showcase for Nordic Countries

Existing data show that the distribution of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms is very wide in Europe. But relative to other so-called mainstream European countries such as France and Italy, the number of Confucius Institutes in northern Europe remains rather low.

Rather than dwelling on the current data, Mr. Hu looks to the future instead, “I believe as exchanges between Northern Europe and China tighten, the Nordic countries will have a growing demand for Chinese learning. We will provide much more support in local Chinese teaching, including the establishment of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms.”

Sensitive to Others When Going Out

Through Confucius Institutes, students get to know Chinese culture by learning Chinese language. Cultural exchange can in turn foster economic, trade and social exchange. 

A catchphrase that has reverberated in China-related discourse in recent years is the trend of China and Chinese organizations “going out” (Zǒu chūqù 走出去). Along with China’s growing prominence and influence in the world stage, Confucius Institutes are also wearied by some as a potential institution to infiltrate China’s soft power.

In May 2012, the U.S. claimed that teachers of local Confucius Institutes sent from China violate visa requirements and must apply for American accreditation instead. The issue sparked controversy that risked turning into political wrestling between the two countries.

In the process of spreading Chinese language and culture abroad, how can Chinese organizations address conservative and even negative response?

“It is natural that there are different voices and ideas toward the same thing. In my opinion, it depends on whether our Confucius Institutes are welcomed among local people. The fact that we have founded 420 Confucius Institutes and 550 Confucius Classrooms in 111 countries in the past 8 years demonstrates just that,” Mr. Hu pinpoints.

But once again, the head of the Chinese language organization reminds of the importance of cultural sensitivity, “the introduction of Chinese language and culture to the foreign audience must be based on local reception. We need to cater to the needs of people from different countries learning Chinese and understanding China.”

440 Confucius Institutes Mark Footprints in 120 countries

Confucius Institute Headquarters hailed the landmark establishment of 440 Confucius Institues in 120 countries as part of China's efforts to expand the promotion of the Chinese language and culture around the world.

Confucius institutes serve as non-profit public institutions to help foreigners break language barriers to better understand China through language teaching and culture introduction in universities overseas. There are also 646 Confucius Classrooms held in middle and primary schools, according to the headquarters.

About 850,000 students have registered in these institutions and more than 20,000 cultural activities have been organized since the first institute was established in 2004.

The surge of Confucius institutes seems to have reignited global passion for the Chinese language. 7 countries including Britain, Sweden and Ireland issued government orders to include Chinese teaching into the national education system in 2012, the figure of such countries reached 40.