Michael Churchman: Confucius Institutes and Controlling Chinese Languages

Michael Churchman of Australia National University writes in China Heritage Quarterly about the Confucius Institutes and their policy of only teaching standard, simplified Mandarin Chinese to students around the world:

It is naïve to believe that Confucius Institutes are politically disinterested teachers imparting Chinese culture and language. They exist for the express purpose of letting foreigners understand China on terms acceptable to official China. The regulations by which the Confucius Institutes must abide already make it clear that teaching of knowledge about China will be subject to control, although it is noteworthy that whoever composed those regulations seems to have tried to make them appear as apolitical as possible.[2] There is no explicit rule banning the teaching of well-known sensitive political topics, for instance, but there is the phrase in the Sixth Principle of Section One of the Constitution and Bylaws of the Confucius Institutes (Kongzi Xueyuan Zhangcheng 孔子學院章程 /孔子学院章程) ‘they shall not contravene concerning the laws and regulations of China [sic]’,[3] which offers endless possibilities for prohibiting the discussion or teaching of any topic that is deemed objectionable. Where the guiding hand of Chinese officialdom is most evident, however, is in the Tenth Principle of the Confucius Institutes Constitution which stipulates: ‘The Confucius Institutes conduct Chinese language instructions in Mandarin [Standard Chinese/Putonghua], using Standard Chinese Characters.’ This is an extension to teaching institutes overseas of Article Twenty of the Language Law of the People’s Republic of China promulgated in 2000 which states: ‘Putonghua and the standardized Chinese characters shall be taught in classes for foreigners who are learning Chinese [sic]’.[4]

This Tenth Principle is the only explicit evidence for the exclusion of certain subjects from the teaching syllabus of Confucius Institutes, but few commentators seem to have paid it much attention. The significance of the regulation, however, is clear: not only is it against the rules to teach any Chinese language other than Putonghua within a Confucius Institute, it is also forbidden to teach students the non-simplified characters still widely used in Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and many other Chinese communities beyond the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party. The reason why the most obvious interdiction covering subject matter in the Confucius Institutes has been so little discussed probably stems from the fact that although outsiders are always on the lookout for evidence that the Chinese party-state is trying to exercise control over prominent political issues, linguistic matters are generally regarded as being relatively insignificant.

It is undeniable that learning Standard Chinese, or Mandarin, along with simplified characters is of great benefit for beginning students of Chinese, but the exclusion of other ways of speaking and writing Chinese should immediately raise suspicions. Perhaps the compilers of the regulations assumed that people would not question the status of Standard Chinese and simplified characters as the undisputed legitimate forms of Chinese speech and writing, and that such regulation would not be taken as a political move? If it really were the case that literacy in traditional characters and proficiency in Chinese languages other than Standard Chinese were completely irrelevant to the study of Chinese, there would be no demand for them, and indeed no need to legislate specifically against teaching them to non-Chinese or foreign-born ‘heritage students’.

Read more about Confucius Institutes via CDT.

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