left corner left corner
China Daily Website

Hanban offers a wider choice

Updated: 2013-09-13 13:14
By Sun Shangwu, Zhao Huanxin and Tang Yue ( China Daily)

Confucius Institutes are adding to their rich repertoire

Are you familiar with the name Confucius Institute? How about the idea of a convenience store for Chinese language and culture?

Hanban, the organization that promotes Chinese language and culture, is expanding its work to other fields, although not quite as far as convenience stores.

The leader of the organization hopes its overseas services will become more accessible, with a richer choice for clients, "like 7-Eleven".

"These stores are not very big, but you can see them everywhere and people can get virtually whatever they want whenever they go," says Xu Lin, director-general of Hanban, the nonprofit agency that administers Confucius Institutes worldwide.

"We are trying to do the same. Hopefully, we can also fill our shelves with diversified quality goods so that those who want to learn Chinese and Chinese culture can have enough choices," Xu told China Daily in an exclusive interview in late August.

There is no way there can be as many Confucius Institutes as outlets of the world's largest convenience store chain. But they have been developing at an impressive speed since the first one opened in South Korea in 2004.

According to the latest figures, 429 Confucius Institutes and another 629 Confucius Classrooms have opened in 115 countries and regions around the world. And about 500 other overseas institutions have applied or shown willingness to collaborate with Hanban.

Hanban offers a wider choice

Meanwhile, the number of foreigners taking the Chinese proficiency test, the HSK, rose from 117,660 in 2005 to 3.5 million in 2012.

With more than 1,000 sites, Confucius Institutes have a widespread presence all over the world that is unmatched by other Chinese agencies or companies. Now in its ninth year, the institute is widely considered the country's best name card with a huge potential for sustainable growth.

"There are more than 10,000 teachers and volunteers in overseas Confucius Institutes and they are the living embodiment of China and Chinese culture," Xu says.

"I know a teacher in Afghanistan who was once only tens of metres away from a bombing on her way to work. They are investing so much in this course."

Student demand the key

Before joining Hanban as its first director-general, Xu ran the New York Service Center for Chinese Study Fellows for two years and spent another four years in Vancouver as the Chinese counsellor of education.

"For many years, the outside world focused on our efforts to open up our markets and acknowledged our economic growth. But they didn't think much about our education and scientific research, which have also become open and transparent," says Xu, who started working in the Ministry of Education in 1981.

To build stronger mutual trust and seek localization, each Confucius Institute is established and managed by a local college and a Chinese counterpart.

And Hanban's philosophy is not "the faster, the better". Usually, it sends a teacher to the applicant college to see whether there really is a huge demand for learning Chinese and conducts a thorough survey before establishing an institute.

Currently, the United States is leading with 96 Confucius Institutes - four more than the total number of the second to sixth hosts - Britain (24), South Korea (19), Russia (18), France (17) and Germany (14).

"Another 70 colleges (in the US) are still waiting in line," Xu says.

The development, however, has not been without challenges. "At first, we were even suspected of being an intelligence agency," she says.

The tension was highlighted when the US government signed a controversial visa policy in May last year that would force 51 out of 600 Chinese teachers at 81 Confucius Institutes at the time to leave the US in six weeks.

The US Department of State, however, changed the policy after receiving letters from dozens of university presidents who were against the move.

"The driving force is the students and the communities that the colleges serve," Xu says. "They want to learn Chinese and Chinese culture, especially the businesspeople in small and medium-sized enterprises that trade with China.

"The colleges have to respond to the community and the government has to respect the colleges."

Charting a new course

Although China has a long and rich history, to indulge too much in that history doesn't do you any favours when it comes to cross-cultural communications.

"You have to tell the story with a modern flavour, otherwise the audience will lose interest," Xu says.

"Our teachers are good at telling the ancient story but that is not enough. Except for scholars and those who have a special interest in history, people can't swallow too much history and need something more practical and fun."

If You Are The One, one of the most popular Chinese TV dating shows, has been introduced to some Confucius classes for adult students.

In addition, several specialized institutes have been established and the online study system has been expanding during the past few years.

In 2007, the first two specialized institutes opened in the UK - one for business at the London School of Economics and Political Science and another for traditional Chinese medicine at London South Bank University.

Now, you can also go to Bingham University in New York to learn about Chinese opera or the rapidly developing Chinese tourism sector at Griffith University in Australia, among other choices.

In 2008, Hanban launched Confucius Institute Online to provide a multimedia platform for Mandarin learners. It now has 46 language versions.

However, face-to-face teaching is always the first choice when resources are available. For Hanban, it is increasingly a challenge to send enough bilingual teachers abroad to meet the rising demand. While the Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institute can hire many local teachers, that is hardly the case for Confucius Institutes because Chinese-speaking teachers are far less common.

"You can find more than 100 colleges in China that have German and French majors, but Chinese is relatively new in other countries despite the rapid development in the past few years. We still have a long way to go," Xu says.

"I have a dream. That one day every speaker at the National Chinese Language Conference can give a speech in Chinese," Xu says in English at the closing ceremony of the 6th National Chinese Language Conference in Boston in July.

"It will probably be realized years after my retirement. But I believe it will come true one day."

Contact the writer at tangyue@chinadaily.com.cn

Hanban offers a wider choice

(China Daily Africa Weekly 09/13/2013 page24)

  • Group a building block for Africa

    An unusually heavy downpour hit Durban for two days before the BRICS summit's debut on African soil, but interest for a better platform for emerging markets were still sparked at the summit.