Two thousand, five hundred and fifty-six years after his birth in China, Confucius is reliving his mission of "touring various kingdoms". This time, he has gone beyond China and settled in 36 countries, home to Confucius Institutes.
However, the task for his disciples is no longer to memorize doctrines left by the great philosopher and educator, but to learn Mandarin, "the must-have language", according to the British linguist David Gaddol.
"Mandarin is trendy around the globe, and the establishment of Confucius Institutes is a natural response to the world's thirst," says Xu Lin, Chief of the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (NOCFL).
Xu hit the point. Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that there are 30 million foreigners studying Chinese worldwide. More than 2,500 colleges and universities offer Chinese courses in 100-plus countries.
Meanwhile, the number of foreign students studying in China has increased from 8,000 in the mid-1980s to 110,800 in 2005. More than 500,000 examinees have sat the Chinese Language Proficiency Test (HSK) since it was introduced in 1990.
Many observers attribute the language fever to China's booming economy. Being the fourth-largest economy worldwide, China has maintained an annual growth rate on average of 10 percent in the past two decades.
Jump on board the locomotive of China
Nowadays, speaking Mandarin is a key to tapping the economic potential of the Dragon.
"I hope to land a finance-related job in China upon graduation next year," says Hans Rasmussen, a 28-year-old Dane pursuing a Master's of Business Administration (MBA) program at the National University of Singapore.
During the summer vacation, he flew to Beijing for a two-and-a-half-month intensive training course at the Bridge School, a Beijing-based Chinese language school. "I think my efforts will pay off in real terms," he says.
"The market is huge. Every month, we enroll more than 2,800 students," says Wang Renhua, a marketing specialist of the school. Three quarters of them register for a course because Mandarin is seen as an important tool in their business exchange, Wang explains.
Echoing the world tide, the Chinese government decided to promote Mandarin overseas in 2004. In November, the first Confucius Institute was founded in Seoul, the Republic of Korea.
In two years' time, the number has climbed to 81 scattered across Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America and Oceania. Adding to the expanding list are 99 foreign organizations and universities which have put forward their applications.
Following the initial success, the Office has mapped out an even more ambitious plan: to establish 100 Confucius Institutes by the end of 2006 and 1,000 by 2020.
Yao Ying, a professor of Chinese language with Fudan University in Shanghai, is confident that the Confucius Institute will transcend the sole role of language teaching.
"It is expected to upgrade Chinese learning, mainly driven by pragmatic interests, to a systematic package encompassing official cultural exchanges, civil interactions, training of teachers and dissemination of new breeds of Chinese culture," she says.
Xu Jialu, a Chinese linguist, goes even further. "As an ingredient of the diversified cultures belonging to mankind, the Chinese culture should make more contributions to world peace and harmony by adding new colors to human life," he said.
The Confucius Institute has gradually given play to these functions.
"I appreciate the Confucius ideology on peacefulness and respecting humans, which is adopted in our teaching," says Koh Hock Kiat, director of the Confucius Institute under Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Teaching an ancient Chinese poem titled "Respecting Farming," Koh recalls, he asked each student to bring a pack of rice from home. When the class was over, the pupils were brought to the canteen, where they had a meal made from the rice. "This is an effective way to implant the idea of frugality and promote Chinese culture," he says.
The Confucius Institute is increasingly reaching out to a wider population: the Confucius Institute at Maryland University will hold the largest-ever exhibition on Confucius next year; Peking Opera performance organized by the Confucius Institute at Stockholm University is an eye-opening event for the Swedish; the upcoming Confucius Institute sponsored by the Wenzhou Medical College and Burapha University will cater to the Thais' fondness for traditional Chinese medicine.
The Confucius Institute also acts as a friendly envoy overseas. The Confucius Institute of Hokuriku University, for instance, will play its due role in "facilitating the Japanese proper understanding of China and Chinese people," said university president Yoshiro Kitamoto in April.
However, one obstacle in promoting Mandarin overseas is the shortage of professional teachers. The National Office of Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language estimates that five million teachers are required by 2020 to teach 100 million Chinese learners worldwide.
The United States alone needs 5,000 Chinese-language teachers in 2,400 high schools. For the moment, there are less than 5,000 teachers in China who hold a certificate of Teaching Chinese to Foreigners.
"Efforts should be made to fill in the deficient resources, involving the introduction of the market," says Xu Lin.
Starting from this consideration, China kicked off a program in 2004 to send volunteers overseas to teach Chinese. Most of them have an educational background in Chinese or hold a qualification certificate.
Ai Dandan is one of the Chinese "peace corps". A graduate of Beijing University of Language and Culture, she was dispatched to Indonesia in 2005 as a Chinese teacher in Pontianak.
"I was impressed by their earnest quest for Chinese," says Ai. Some of the students were full-time professionals, who came up in the evening for a four-hour program, Monday to Friday.
Apart from language teaching, Ai tried her best to impart Chinese culture to the students. Collaborating with her colleagues, Ai formulated many courses of special interest: calligraphy, Chinese songs, shadow boxing and Chinese culture seminars.
More significant for Ai is the friendship forged with the students. "I will never forget the farewell party, when they joined in a chorus of a Chinese song named 'Thank You, Teacher'. All of us were moved to tears," she says.
The Confucius Institute is an important symbol of China's "soft power", believes Zhou Qing'an, a researcher at the Center for International Communications Studies of Tsinghua University. However, China has a long way to go to effectively deliver "soft power".
"China is facing a cultural deficit," warned Zhao Qizheng, former minister in charge of the Information Office of the State Council, when addressing a plenary session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top advisory body, in March.
To name one: China imported 4,322 foreign films from 2000 to 2004, most from the US, but exported few over the same period. The revenue from book trading for China is only one percent that of the US and Europe.
"China still lags behind in terms of cultural competitiveness, and the Confucius Institute should add more profound and dynamic elements to attract attention overseas, rather than hanging on to superficial or stereotyped cultural icons," says Zhou Qing'an.
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