07/07/2006, 00.00
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Chinese language and culture renaissance in the name of Confucius

The government plans to spend billions of dollars to teach the Chinese language overseas and spread Confucian culture at home to save China from the crisis of Communist ideology.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – The first Confucius Institute Conference was held in Beijing yesterday as part of the mainland's promotion of Chinese language and culture overseas.

Speaking to some 400 delegates from 38 countries and regions, State Councillor Chen Zhili said that Confucius Institutes not only help others to learn the Chinese language and culture, but "also get a much clearer picture of a modern China".

At the same venue, it was also announced that China had signed deals with six more foreign institutes to set up Confucius colleges in Britain, Germany, Serbia, Portugal, Belarus and Spain.

The first Confucius Institute was set up in 2004 in South Korea; now there are branches in 36 countries.

The plan to open Confucius Institutes around the world goes back to 2002 when the government decided to widen its cultural influence overseas by establishing organisations that offer "authoritative textbooks and quality teachers".

Given China's growing importance worldwide, the number of foreign students studying Chinese is up sharply. In the United States and South Korea, Chinese courses are in the primary school curriculum.

The rising popularity of Chinese is reflected in the increasing numbers of non-native speakers taking China's language-proficiency test. In 1991, only about 2,000 non-native speakers took the test; last year, they were 90,000. And Xinhua reports that an estimated 30 million non-native speakers worldwide took Chinese-language classes.

In addition to promoting Chinese language and culture abroad, China's government is encouraging greater knowledge of Confucius at home.

In investing a sizeable US billion, the government wants to bank on the world-renowned philosopher to compensate for the country's growing moral and spiritual crisis. Its attempt to find a new identity has led back to the 5th century BC thinker whose philosophy stresses among other things filial piety, obedience to authorities and self-sacrifice for one's community.

The govenrment is trying to revive the fortunes of the same sage by overlooking the fact that Mao attacked him during the Cultural Revolution as a symbol of "feudal backwardness".

However, not all of China's intellectuals view a revival of Confucian values in the same positive light.

Whilst a scholar like Prof Kang Xiaoguang has great plans for the philosopher, convinced that both the Communist Party and the United Nations should adopt Confucianism, echoing Chinese leaders like President Hu Jintao who have in recent years talked about building a "harmonious society" and asked officials to "dedicate themselves to the interests of the public"—both ideals borrowed from Confucius—; others think that a Confucian revival is not enough. For instance, Hu Xingdou from the Beijing Institute of Technology believes "in absorbing traditional values with aspects of other civilisations . . . such as the rule of law and western-style democratic elections".

Whatever the differences though, both Kang and Hu agree that China is going through a moral and spiritual crisis.

In the meantime, Confucius's native province of Shandong is banking on the publicity generated to launch a campaign to draw tourists to Qufu, the great philosopher's home town.

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