Chinese Language Education in Europe: the Confucius Institutes



This article explores the background to the Chinese government's decision to embark on a programme of promoting the study of Chinese language and culture overseas. This includes the impact of Joseph Nye's concept of ‘soft power’ in China, ownership of the national language, the Confucius connection, and how these factors interact with political legitimacy. It also considers the development of the Confucius Institute programme in Europe. Europe has the greatest number of Confucius Institutes of any region: what should be read into this? What impact are these institutes having on the development of Chinese language education in Europe at different levels of the educational system? The paper provides some data on recent developments, outlines some of the obstacles to further progress and assesses the chances of Chinese becoming a global language.


The announcement of the establishment of the first Confucius Institute (CI) in Seoul in 2004 marked a new phase in China's political self-confidence: it was joining a first-world club after a century of semi-colonial status and 50 years of third world membership. In fact, Seoul was not the first Confucius Institute; there had been a pilot project in Tashkent in the spring of 2004, but Korea was officially announced in China as the location of the first Confucius Institute. Korea, this most Confucian of states, was not a random choice, but reflected the Chinese government's keen sense of history. Korea was the last part of China's traditional cultural empire to be forcibly removed from her grasp by Japan following the 1894–5 Sino-Japanese war. South Korea, the Republic of Korea with its capital in Seoul, had been under US military occupation in the 1950s and was still host to a large US military force, one assumed to be armed with nuclear weapons. However, two Korean factors, the replacement of military rule by democracy in the 1980s and South Korea's rapid industrialisation, especially into export-oriented consumer goods, revived Korean interest in China. For its part, China pragmatically welcomed this partial defection from the US camp and warmly embraced South Korean students and business people. In the 1980s, the Korean students in China were fraternal comrades from China's Cold War ally North Korea; by 2004 South Korean students had displaced the Japanese as the largest group of foreign students in China. The choice of Seoul as the location of the first Confucius Institute sent messages to many people: the South Koreans (back in the Chinese fold), the North Koreans (do not count on fraternal Communist ties), the Japanese (China and Korea stand united against Japanese aggression) and the US (Korea is our sphere of influence). This CI programme is part of the message China is sending to the world that, in Hong Kong parlance, China has had several bad centuries but is now back as the ‘central state’ Zhongguo.

Chinese Political Imperatives

Why has the Chinese government gone down this Confucius Institute route? In a country where the government and the Communist Party are inseparable, there is ultimately an issue of legitimacy. With no democratic mandate, the Chinese government has had to seek legitimacy elsewhere. In 1949 this was a ‘scientific’ Marxist, anti-imperialist mission to free China of capitalism and imperialist aggression. Following victory in the civil war against the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan, the next 25 years were marked by isolation and paranoia, economic sclerosis and dysfunction. The remedy to this economic underachievement was the reintroduction of capitalism and China's reintegration into the world economic system, symbolised by her entry into the WTO in 2002. Although year on year GDP growth of 10% has resulted in an economic transformation, managerial competence alone is not enough for a Marxist government: it needs ideological justification. The other prop, nationalism, has been working overtime since then.

The international promotion of Chinese culture is one of the more benign manifestations of this nationalism. Its theoretical justification is widely argued in articles on ‘soft power’ for both the Chinese domestic and international markets. The soft power concept has been heavily promoted in China in the last few years following its articulation in a series of books and articles by Joseph Nye Jr. from the early 1990s onwards. In the latest of these, soft power is defined as: ‘the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments’ (Nye, 2004). In a typical Chinese example, Du Ruiqing, Former President of Xi'an International Studies University, was quoted by China Daily as saying: ‘culture is a soft power that effectively penetrates to quench misunderstanding and hostility between people of different races’ (China Daily, 2006). He went on: ‘Once [the world's people] come to know the Chinese people better, they will find out that harmony is an essential part of Chinese tradition and a country that values harmony poses absolutely no threat to the rest of the world’. It is sold as a way of protecting China's interests through persuasion rather than force, based on teaching foreigners to understand the Chinese perspective. Of course, the Chinese government needs to be able to justify to its own population why it gives such priority to subsidising Western educational institutions, when, as Göran Lindblad said to the Swedish Parliament: ‘i Kina är tio miljoner barn utan en ordentlig skola’ (China has 10 million children without a proper school) (Riksdagens protokoll, 2007).

It would be wrong to see Nye's works as a revelation to the Chinese: he was preaching to the converted. Propaganda has been a key part of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) modus operandi since the 1930s. Brady (2008) has shown how the Chinese government's reaction to the Tian'anmen events of 1989 was to reinforce massively the role of the Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee. The soft power concept has been enthusiastically taken up by Chinese government training schools for diplomats and military personnel (Chey, 2007a). Although this can be interpreted in sinister ways, few can object to the peaceful resolution of international disputes.

From 2000 onwards, the policy of heping jueqi (peaceful rise), later modified to heping fazhan (peaceful development) in case ‘rise’ sounded too aggressive, was articulated by the Chinese government (Kurlantzick, 2007). To underline this new commitment a series of border disputes with neighbouring states, dating back to wars with India [1962] and Vietnam [1979], and armed conflict with the Soviet Union [1969], was settled by China, essentially on generous terms (Bell, 2008). Kurlantzick (2007) details the success of Chinese policies in projecting a more positive image, as reflected in public opinion polls in, for example, Australia, compared with the decline in the public perception of the US. However, the fickleness of such ‘power’ was illustrated as China was wrong-footed during a publicity campaign by opponents of its Sudan and Tibet policies during the Olympics build-up in the spring of 2008. The 2008 Olympic Games, the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and the Confucius Institute programme are all public manifestations of China's claims to a new status. This involves both foreign and domestic recognition of the legitimacy of the Chinese government and the Communist Party. Although the Confucius Institutes may lack the kudos and visual impact of the Olympics, their long-term influence in achieving this may turn out to be much greater.

Ownership of the National Language

In 2007 a Taiwanese girl band called S.H.E had a hit with a song called Zhongguohua ‘Chinese Language’. In the song, this very Westernised group was seen embracing their Chineseness, gloating over the fact while the Chinese had had to struggle with learning English for years, the boot was now on the other foot and Westerners were wrestling with the four tones of Chinese as they became part of the worldwide Chinese language learning craze. Harmless stuff one might think, but they were soon engulfed in a Taiwanese storm, accused of toadying to the mainland for commercial reasons (Liberty Times, 2007)1. Taiwan and mainland China use the same spoken language, but different terms to refer to it, different romanisation systems and different scripts. Classical Chinese, used in China as the main medium of formal written discourse for over three millennia until the early 20th century, was a lingua franca for much of East Asia, especially Korea and Japan. At that point a vernacular language movement, part of the New Culture Movement, led to classical Chinese being replaced by a written version of the spoken language. This was based on the dialect of Beijing used by China's official class in imperial China, hence its English name of Mandarin. The intention in bringing the writing system into line with the spoken language was primarily to aid literacy — classical Chinese was notoriously difficult. However, the new written language was soon being criticised as equally impenetrable for the vast majority of illiterate Chinese. The republican government established in 1912 adopted the modern Japanese term guoyu‘national language’, the term still used on Taiwan (Chen, 1993).

The issue of language standardisation became a priority for the Communist government soon after it assumed power in 1949. It moved to standardise grammar and vocabulary, and officially adopted the term putonghua‘common speech’ for the national language in 1955. This 19th century term, used to avoid the ethnocentricity of Hanyu, had arguably class connotations in contrast to the nationalist connotations of guoyu. Putonghua is still the official term in mainland China, but the language that is taught to foreign students is normally called Hanyu (language of the Han people) in mainland-speak. This term has ethnic implications: the Han, named after the defining dynasty of the Chinese empire (206 BCE–220 CE), refers to the ethnic group that forms 91% of China's population, with 55 officially recognised ethnic minority peoples making up the other 9%.

Large swathes of the Han do not speak Hanyu as their home language, but official policy is to classify as dialects Cantonese, Shanghainese and the many other tongues spoken by the Han, as variants of a single language. This is in spite of the fact that they are mutually unintelligible and much further apart than languages such as Norwegian and Swedish, for example. This point was also taken up by critics of S.H.E., whose song referred to foreigners learning the ‘language of Confucius’. This not-too-coded praise for the Confucius Institute programme had critics pointing out that Confucius would have spoken the Shandong dialect, not the Hanyu that is now being taught to foreigners.

The Chinese government has been assiduous in promoting a single national spoken language for all Han people. The revised 1982 version of the national constitution specified for the first time national promotion of putonghua (Chen, 1993). Putonghua was made the compulsory medium of instruction in universities, and the government has attempted to extend this through the school system, although it has proved difficult, especially in primary schools in more remote areas. The 9% of national minorities, whose languages are officially recognised as having equal status to putonghua in certain areas, are also coming under pressure to adopt putonghua for tertiary education. This is an attempt to make rebellious areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet unequivocally Chinese, and to cater for the large numbers of Han immigrants, encouraged to go there in order to change the demographic balance in these sensitive regions. Language policy, essentially standardisation, is seen as playing a vital part in maintaining the integrity of the Chinese State.

Until the middle of the 20th century Chinese script existed in a standard form throughout East Asia. This was first breached by the Japanese, whose post-war reforms included the definition of a limited standard set of Chinese characters to be used in Japanese, the jōyō kanji, and the introduction of simplified forms, with fewer brush strokes than standard characters. This process was taken much further by the mainland Chinese government in the 1950s with the publication of a series of radical simplifications of characters and elements of characters. This has had the effect of creating three different Chinese scripts: the original version which continues to be used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and most of the Chinese diaspora, the mainland Chinese simplified version and the Japanese simplified version.

A third area where the mainland government has introduced its own standard is the phonetic transcription of Chinese characters, commonly referred to as romanisation. Westerners in 19th century China devised their own national systems based on the Latin alphabet. Hence, the French system of writing down the sounds of Chinese characters was, for example, very different from the British system. The Chinese developed in the early 20th century their own set of phonetic symbols, called zhuyin fuhao. These have been standard in Taiwan for textbooks teaching Chinese to foreigners. The mainland Chinese government in 1958 published its own phonetic symbols, called pinyin, for transcribing Latin alphabet based, Cyrillic and other scripts. Pinyin has prevailed internationally and become the world standard for phonetically transcribing Chinese characters, now even recognised by Taiwan.

In all these language aspects, spoken language, script and romanisation Beijing has set the standard for Chinese. It has extended this internationally with the establishment of the HSK international language examinations, promoted by the Hanban and now the new world standard in Chinese language proficiency.

The Confucius Brand

To foreign scholars accustomed to seeing Confucius vilified by all shades of political opinion in 20th century China, from liberal intellectuals to hard-left radicals, it was a surprise to see the sage adopted as the patron saint of China's international cultural promotion programme. So why have the current leadership chosen to turn their backs on a century of anti-Confucianism from the 1916 New Culture Movement to the 1972 ‘Criticise Lin Biao, Criticise Confucius’ campaign? Initially it was claimed that Confucius Institutes had nothing to do with Confucianism.2 They were primarily language teaching centres that also provided some classes on general culture, for example calligraphy and tai chi, but not Confucianism. The assumption was that Confucius was chosen in spite of his philosophy, not because of it. It was, in Western terms, a branding issue: Confucius had positive associations with teaching in particular, and culture more generally, and the name offered global brand recognition. The Chinese character versioninline image (Kongzi) is universally and uncontentiously recognised and respected throughout the traditional Chinese cultural influence zone of Korea, Japan and South East Asia. The Western Latinised Confucius is the figure nearest to a global brand from traditional Chinese history. Some foreign commentators have seen this as a deliberate ploy: choosing an avuncular old man figure to disguise the hard-nosed propaganda reality of the Confucius Institute programme (Robertson & Liu, 2006). However, it has become clear that there is a wholesale rehabilitation of Confucius taking place in China (Bell, 2008). This is exemplified by the rapturous welcome for the interpretation of Confucius' Analects offered by Beijing lecturer Yu Dan in a TV series in 2006, followed by a book in 2007.3 The reasons for this are not hard to understand. The emphasis on some people ‘getting rich first’ has created enormous tensions in Chinese society, as income differentials have widened from being the lowest in the world to some of the highest.4 In this situation, Confucian associations with equality of opportunity for rich and poor through education within a stable social hierarchy are very attractive to China's leaders.

One striking feature of the report on the December 2007 CI Conference is its section entitled ‘Efforts to Build the Confucius Institute Brand’ (Chen, 2008), presented by the Vice-Chair of the CIHQ, Chen Jinyu. Here, Mr Chen argues, in terms redolent of Confucius' own zheng ming‘rectification of names’ concept, that the form and content of Confucius Institutes must coincide. He then parts company with Confucius, arguing that (in the parallel text English version): ‘With regards to the operation of Confucian Institutes, brand name means quality; brand name means returns. Those who enjoy more brand names will enjoy higher popularity, reputation, more social influence, and will therefore be able to generate more support from local communities’. Whilst the Chinese version sounds slightly less like the language of franchising, even that is far from traditional academic discourse. It is clear from further context that what Mr Chen refers to as ‘brands’ would, to retain the analogy, be more appropriately called different business lines; he is exhorting the directors of CIs to develop a range of activities but ensure they all meet the quality standards laid down by CIHQ. Mr Chen proposes to Chinese partner universities that participation in the CI programme is a way of improving their academic performance and level of internationalisation. To foreign partners he suggests they: ‘include the Confucian Institutes into the regular administration of your institutions to provide key support and safeguard in funding, instructors and daily operation mechanism’.

The Confucius Institute System

The Confucius Institute programme was initiated by the Zhongguo Guojia Hanyu Guoji Tuiguang Lingdao Xiaozu Bangongshi (official English title: Office of Chinese Language Council International), usually known both in China and abroad by its abbreviation ‘Hanban’. The full Chinese title makes more explicit reference to its aim of the ‘international promotion of the Chinese language’ than the official English version. The ‘leading group’ referred to in the Chinese title consisted of a group of officials seconded from various ministries chaired by a State Councillor, Chen Zhili. The State Council is the highest governmental organ in the Chinese State, and Chen Zhili was one of just five state councillors; this is some indication of the significance of the enterprise.5 The day to day running of the CI programme is under an executive director. In the early days, foreign partner universities complained of a lack of direction: that the Hanban did not have a clear and detailed vision of what it was aiming to achieve. Recently the programme has become more systematic and formalised. This is reflected in the greater structural and physical autonomy of the Confucius Institute headquarters, which is now more like a European cultural body (though this is not to imply less control by the Hanban). As from 2007, the Confucius Institute organisation has had its own Council of the Confucius Institute Headquarters (Kongzi Xueyuan Zongbu Lishihui), of which Chen Zhili is chair and Zhou Ji is one of five vice-chairs. Three of the other four are, or were, connected with the State Council, including one from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, and the fifth is from the Ministry of Finance. There are a dozen Executive Council members, all from relevant government departments (education, commerce, foreign affairs, media) including the Director General Xu Lin.6 In addition, there is now a group of 15 non-executive council members drawn from the participating universities: five from Chinese universities and the Beijing City Education Commission, and ten from foreign partner universities, including four from Europe (France, Germany, Hungary and the UK). The CIHQ moved into its own dedicated building at Deshengmen in Beijing in 2007. Since 2006, there has been an annual conference to which representatives of the various institutes are invited. The conference in Beijing in December 2007 attracted 1,100 delegates, including representatives of more than 200 Confucius Institutes. It reported major achievements: 226 institutes established in 66 countries, 1,000 institute staff, including 300 sent from China, 1,200 Chinese language classes with 46,000 students, 500 lectures plus 400 exhibitions and festivals attracting over a million participants. In addition the Hanban's Chinese Bridge project invited 1,200 school principals from the US (800), UK (200) and Korea (200) to China, and 950 students from the same three countries plus Canada and Japan. In 2007, 1,532 language teachers (a 53% increase on 2006) were sent from China to 104 counties, and 16,782 foreign teachers received training, 4,852 in China, 11,042 abroad and 888 by distance learning. The publications programme published various new textbooks and multimedia materials, donated 813,000 books to 1,616 organisations in 95 countries, and held Chinese teaching resource exhibitions in conjunction with the Chinese Bridge events for British, American and Korean Schools, and took part in the 25th Paris Language Exhibition. The Hanban is also promoting hard the Chinese equivalent of TOEFL, the HSK language proficiency test. Overseas examinee numbers have doubled in two years to 138,000 from 38 counties.

The system provides for three modes of operation for Confucius Institutes: they may be wholly operated by Beijing headquarters (like British Council branches), be joint ventures with local partners (like some Instituto Cervantes branches) or wholly locally run offices licensed by the Beijing headquarters (like many Alliance Française branches). The directly-controlled model is the one used for the CI established in Paris at the Chinese Cultural Centre, the only Hanban office in Western Europe. However, most European Confucius Institutes fall into the second category: they are a partnership between a foreign university, the Confucius Institute HQ and one or more Chinese university partners. It is not difficult to see the reasons for this. The wholly owned network as operated by the British Council, Goethe Institute or Japan Foundation is very expensive to set up and maintain. The Confucius Institute joint venture model places the onus for providing accommodation on the local partner: in just four years of existence it has already gained more branches than the British Council has acquired in over 60 years. Yet, the British Council network is double the size of the Goethe Institute's, and 12 times larger than that of the Japan Foundation. The Alliance Française local ownership model is even cheaper, but the disadvantages are little central control over the pace and nature of development. The Alliance Française is the biggest network, with 1,081 branches, but has been in existence for over 120 years.

A secondary Chinese model that has developed over the last few years is the Confucius Classroom. This is a junior version of the Institute aimed at secondary education rather than the university sector. This operates on a hub system, grouping schools around a key point that is directly connected to the Confucius Institute network. Some university-based CIs are acting as mentors to schools wanting to develop Chinese language courses, which are then applying for Confucius Classroom status. For example, Eltham College Junior School, which has connections with the London CI, claimed in 2008 to be the first UK primary school to introduce Mandarin as the core foreign language studied by all pupils.7

The standard CI agreement is made for a five-year initial period between the foreign partner and the Hanban, which then appoints a Chinese partner institution. The basis is equally shared funding. The Hanban undertakes to provide start-up funding of US$50–100,000 p.a. for this period, 3,000 books and items of teaching material, and despatch and pay the salaries of one or two instructors. The foreign institution undertakes to provide the accommodation, infrastructure and administrative support. The Institute is specified as a non-profit making organisation, but with the expectation that it will become self-financing by charging course fees. The mission statement is to strengthen educational cooperation, promote the development of Chinese language education and increase mutual understanding. The scope of activities is specified as: teaching Chinese, training teachers of Chinese, administering the HSK international Chinese language qualification and other examinations, teaching Chinese culture courses, holding film shows and similar activities, acting as consultants for individuals interested in China, such as business people, and maintaining a reference library.

Many Confucius Institutes have been set up at universities with existing Chinese studies departments or programmes. Indeed, there has been a preference to support institutions that already have links with a Chinese university as being the most likely to cooperate successfully in establishing a Confucius Institute. However, this results in demarcation issues between the activities of the existing Chinese department and the new Confucius Institute. In broad terms, the Confucius Institute is to concentrate on a wider, society-facing remit, while the department continues to teach for-credit courses to undergraduate and postgraduate students. The general principle is one of additionality; this is to ensure that the CI develops genuinely new activities and does not use Hanban funds to subsidise existing unprofitable activities. However, there has inevitably been some consolidation of existing supplementary and unprofitable activities, such as providing premises and support for Chinese weekend schools, arranging public lecture series on Chinese culture, putting on film festivals and so on, in the Confucius Institutes. These were happening anyway, but perhaps on a smaller scale or a temporary basis. The departments have retained ownership of the primary teaching activities both because they are profitable and because of Quality Assurance issues. Where the CI is teaching interest classes with no end qualification, or to an externally-assessed qualification such as the HSK, there are no serious QA issues, but once the Institute is teaching for-credit undergraduate or postgraduate courses, QA becomes a problem for the university.

A smaller number of CIs have been established at universities with no previous Chinese language teaching unit. These have been able to use the CI to provide undergraduate and postgraduate for-credit courses in the Chinese language. This solves the problem of long-term finance insofar as these courses are potentially profitable. However, this situation raises serious QA problems. Firstly, it is not uncommon for teachers from the Chinese partner university to arrive late; universities with existing Chinese language capacity can cope with this but those without cannot. Secondly, successful teaching requires much more than just a knowledge of the subject: institutional and cultural knowledge are also very important. Effective mentoring of incoming staff is much more difficult in a university without a Chinese department. Finally, the constant turnover of staff, where incoming teachers stay only one or two years, is very disruptive.

Many institutes are still at a very preliminary stage of development: of the 226 claimed in December 2007 only 125 were said to be operational (Hanban, 2008) but those that are functioning have concentrated on language courses, other culture courses (calligraphy and taichi), public lectures and film festivals. The key to the Hanban's long term aim of making Chinese a global language is teacher training for primary and secondary school teachers. The CIs necessarily can have only a limited role in this provision; many are offering short courses of a day or a few days but they do not have the infrastructure to provide courses offering qualified teacher status. However, the existence of the CIs is encouraging universities to make provision through their specialist departments. Hence, Sheffield University's School of Education offers a Chinese-strand Postgraduate Certificate in Education, Edinburgh is promising the same, and the SOAS Language Centre, home of the London Confucius Institute, is offering a one-year part-time diploma course (although this cannot currently offer qualified teacher status). Everyone involved, from the Hanban to the schools, recognises the need for the indigenisation of the teaching at school level. The despatch of teachers from China is a stop-gap solution, since they seldom have the necessary accreditation to function as full teachers and often lack the cultural background necessary to control the classroom environment effectively and enable their pupils to maximise their grade potential.

Confucius Institutes were sold as membership of an elite club, particularly in the initial stages. What is noticeable is that among the foreign partner universities few of the top international universities have so far been tempted. On the Chinese side, of course, there is a full range from the very top, Beijing (Beida), Tsinghua, Nanjing, Fudan and Nankai universities, down to more modest institutions. Nevertheless, some of the top Chinese universities have been rather selective; hence, Tsinghua, equal top in China with Beida, has only one CI partner university (London's LSE). Some of the most prolific in partner terms are, for obvious reasons, ‘language’ universities such as Beijing Foreign Studies University and Beijing Language and Culture University. These are ideal partners from the Chinese language teaching perspective, but are less attractive as long-term collaborative partners in higher-value activities. This latter possibility has been one of the main attractions for overseas universities: the opportunity to develop close links at an institutional level leading to research collaboration. When we look at the overseas universities we see a reluctance on the part of the highest level institutions to become involved. In the US for example, there is no Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford or Columbia, and not even many at slightly below this august level. In Japan there is no Tokyo or Kyoto. In South Korea, no Seoul National or Yonsei. In Europe the quality of the partner institutions appears to be higher than in some other regions, but in the UK there is no Oxford or Cambridge, although there are some very good universities such as Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield and LSE. There are no grandes écoles in France and no Trinity College in Ireland. This absence of national champions is not a universal rule: Stockholm, Lisbon, Madrid, Helsinki and Vienna universities are all in, and the German universities include Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Hamburg and Berlin Free University. However, the highest-ranked university in The Times Higher Education Supplement World University Rankings 2008 is the University of Edinburgh at 23rd. The reasons for this are clear: the very top foreign universities do not need to encumber themselves with the negative aspects of a CI in the hope of gaining official favour and collaborative access to China's top universities; they can have these for the asking.

The Spread of Confucius Institutes and Europe

Of the reported number of Confucius Institutes in December 2007, 81 of the 226 total were in Europe, the largest number of any region (Hanban, 2008). This figure is slightly flattered by the fact that the Hanban counts all of Russia as Europe. These 81 were distributed amongst 26 countries. 38 of the total (47%) were opened in the past year. The main European countries currently without a Confucius Institute are Switzerland, Luxembourg, Greece, Albania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, plus the former states of Yugoslavia, with the exception of Serbia. Ironically, Albania was, of course, the only country in Europe with which China maintained relations in the darkest days of Maoism. The countries with the greatest numbers are the UK (17), Russia (14), Germany (9) and France (7), followed by Belgium, Poland, Italy and Spain all on three. These figures include Confucius Classrooms, which boost the UK figures considerably: the UK has ten actual Confucius Institutes and seven Confucius Classrooms. Seven Confucius Classrooms is the highest total in the world — the next is Japan with four.

The breakdown of these European figures reflects the general distribution of Confucius Institutes, which mirrors China's trading partnerships, rather than her historical ideological alliances. Hence, the Confucius Institute Headquarters 2007 Yearbook credits Hanguo (South Korea), translated as ‘Korea’, with twelve Confucius Institutes, but omits entirely China's long-standing ally Chaoxian (North Korea). The other leading partners are the US with 39, by far the largest number of any country, Japan with 14, Thailand with 13, and the European States listed above. Other regions such as Africa and South America, important sources of raw materials and loci of Chinese investment, are gradually coming into the picture, but Africa from Cairo to the Cape has just 18 CIs listed, two thirds of which were new in 2007, and southern America from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego has 12, of which only the five in Mexico existed before 2007. It is not only Chinese political and economic factors at play in this distribution; there is also the pull factor from potential partner universities, and this is strongest in universities in the developed world that have the resources and internationalist ambitions to fund the CIs. There is also an aspirational aspect to this distribution of CIs from the Chinese perspective: China is aligning itself to the club it most wants to be part of.

Throughout the 20th century Chinese leaders, Nationalist and Communist alike, most consistently admired the US above all other countries. Bell (2008, p. 19) discusses a TV series broadcast by Central Chinese Television in late 2006 called The Rise of the Great Powers. The message conveyed by this broadcaster, which is in practice an official mouthpiece for the Chinese government and Communist Party, was that:

Britain and the United States were the only enduring great powers among the nine nations surveyed. Aggression through force, as demonstrated by the examples of Germany and Japan in World War II, is to be avoided at all costs. In the modern world, competition is led by business and innovation, not military force, and cultural success is measured by contributions to humanity and science.

The message of the programmes was essentially the same as that put forward by Yan Fu at the end of the 19th century (Schwartz, 1964) that a nation's strength lay in its legal system and political institutions. This attitude seems in part to underlie the distribution of Confucius Institutes. From a strategic perspective, Asia should be the central focus of the CI network, and indeed South Korea, Thailand and Japan do feature prominently, but other Asian countries are less well represented than European states. This tendency is even more evident in the case of two areas of vital economic interest to China: Africa and South America. These are the target of massive Chinese investment, and supposedly key strategic areas for China, yet the CI investment there is much smaller and later than in Europe. A similar situation can be seen in the Chinese Bridge scheme to send school principals and schoolchildren from the US, Korea and the UK on visits to China. This is now being extended to other countries, such as Germany, but the programme's focus seems to be a clear indicator of Chinese priorities and preferences.

The UK currently has the most extensive network of Confucian Classrooms. At its hub is the national Specialist Schools and Academies Trust Confucius Institute. This has five Confucius Classrooms as its regional spokes; their remit is to act as regional centres of expertise, providing guidance to other schools in the region that wish to teach Chinese.

Chinese Language Teaching in Europe

Of all the European countries, France can claim a number of firsts in Chinese studies. France was the location of the world's first university chair in Chinese studies with the appointment of Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat at the Collège de France in 1813 (Barrett, 1989). France was also the location of one of the earliest university courses in Chinese at the Ecole Nationale des Langues Orientales in 1840, and one of the first Western secondary school courses at the Lycée de Montgeron in 1958 (Bel Lassen, 2007, p. 4).

Serious study of Chinese by Europeans began with the Jesuits in the late Ming period, in the 16th century. However, the Jesuits were not as dedicated to translating Christian canonical texts into Chinese as the 19th century missionaries, and it was the latter that provided the impetus and the expertise for much of the expansion of Chinese into European universities. Yet, students were very few, as the first professor of Chinese at Oxford complained in the 1880s (Girardot, 2002). Western scholars' primary interest was in Chinese canonical texts, the bedrock of Chinese civilisation, so they taught classical Chinese rather than the modern language, which was in any case plagued by the dialect issue. This set the tone for European courses in Chinese until the mid-20th century. Up to at least the 1960s students could graduate with degrees in Chinese from leading European universities with virtually no oral communicative ability in Modern Chinese. The impetus for change came from the US which, for strategic reasons, produced a series of Modern Chinese textbooks. These had their origins in World War II and the need to train interpreters. Aiming for maximum speed in this training, the military divided learners into speakers and readers, teaching recruits to do one or the other. This spilled over into the civil academic sector after the war, with separate textbooks for the two skills. These were not just romanised and character versions of the same texts: they had completely different contents with little vocabulary overlap. It was extraordinarily frustrating for learners who wanted all four language skills. Initially these textbooks, such as the Yale Mirror Series (Tewkesbury, 1948, Wang, 1953) introduced their own romanisation systems, closer to the Chinese sound and more intuitive than Wade-Giles. Later, they went over to pinyin.

For decades after WWII the US was the world leader in Chinese language teaching, pedagogy and textbook provision. Most of this relied on instructors with links to Taiwan and sympathetic to the nationalist government of Taiwan. This was reflected to a greater or lesser extent in the content of the textbooks. This gradually changed in the UK in the 1970s and 80s when pedagogical objections to US textbooks resulted in locally produced products, the most successful of which was T'ung and Pollard'sColloquial Chinese (1982). Other universities began to adopt mainland Chinese textbooks. Their advantages were price and authenticity. As from 1979, most UK Chinese departments made a year of study at a Chinese university a compulsory part of their courses. Most universities chose mainland Chinese partners, hence it made sense to use simplified-character China-located textbooks as preparation for this. Although continental European universities did not go down the compulsory China study route, many of their students took advantage of student exchange agreements with China to intermit and spend a year on a scholarship in China. Although the opening of China had some impact on applications for university courses in Chinese, student numbers remained low (most UK universities had intakes of fewer than 20 for specialist courses in Chinese until very recently). A notable feature of the last few years has been the diffusion of Chinese language learning from a very small specialist market offered by a handful of elite universities in each country to a mass market with virtually all university language centres offering elementary level Chinese, and the spread into the school sector.

France has been the location of one of the most spectacular increases in the teaching of Chinese in recent years, especially in the secondary sector. The number of schools and colleges teaching Chinese has increased from 111 in 1998, to 205 in 2005 and 352 in 2008. As Bel Lassen (2007) notes, there has been an exponential rise since 2004 in the number of secondary pupils taking Chinese. It went from 2,663 in 1995 to over 5,000 five years later in 2000. It further increased by around 1000 a year over the next three years to produce a figure of 9,327 in 2004, then in 2005 it went up to 12,654, in 2006 to 15,991 and in 2007 to 20,628. This is the strongest performance in terms of percentage increase of any language in France, and has taken Chinese from ninth to fifth place in languages taught in French schools, overtaking Russian, Portuguese, Arabic and Hebrew to lie just behind Italian.

Chinese in Germany has performed less strongly at secondary level than in France. The German system is complicated by the fact that the 16 Länder all have their own systems, and each has to produce a curriculum before Chinese can be taught there.8 The first to do so was North Rhine Westphalia in 1993, followed by Bavaria, Bremen and Berlin. Chinese is currently notionally offered at Abitür level in six Länder. The number of pupils taking Chinese at any level in secondary schools is currently around 5,000, which is double the 2000 figure but only a quarter of the French figure, and with a much larger population. English is compulsory from year three in German schools, but pupils have the opportunity to take a second or third foreign language at upper secondary level. Those who take Chinese typically do so for three to four years at the rate of three to four sessions per week, adding up to a total of 300–400 hours. Apart from the curriculum issue, problems include finding competent qualified teachers and the provision of textbooks in German.

The UK schools situation illustrates the need to interpret the statistics with care. A survey carried out by CILT for the UK government in 2007 (CILT, 2007) showed that the number of pupils taking GCSE in Chinese fell from 2,124 to 1,827 between 2001 and 2006, i.e. a 14% drop. This is at a time when numbers were increasing rapidly in France and Germany. Over the same time-span A2 candidates rose from 1,102 to 1,996, an 81% increase. The results of the survey of 130 secondary schools teaching Chinese indicated a total of 8,587 pupils taking the subject. The British statistics are affected by the fact that the public examinations are dominated by native speaker candidates, many not being actively taught. This is partly a result of the large number of Chinese and Hong Kong children in the independent school sector. Most non-native speakers are taking Chinese for interest, not for examination purposes. Among private sector secondary schools in the UK around 24% are offering some Chinese teaching, compared to 6.5% in the maintained sector (CILT 2007). In the maintained sector, it is the specialist language colleges that are, unsurprisingly, most keen to introduce Chinese, with 45% of the maintained schools falling into this category.

An advantage of Chinese is its ab initio status. This creates a relatively level playing field for most pupils that take it. In France, the proportion of native French speakers taking the subject is over 90%. This is the case throughout most of Europe where the number of resident Chinese speakers is low. Any heritage pupils tend to be other dialect speakers, often with no knowledge of the script. The image of Chinese is a classless one, and the script has a fashionable street credibility through its use on T shirts and tattoos that makes it attractive even to the segment of society least interested in language learning. Added to this, the logographic nature of the script utilises brain functions in the right hemisphere that are not used for alphabetic scripts (Tan, 2001), which may help groups that traditionally underperform in the oral aspect of language learning.

At university level, there has been a significant increase in students of Chinese throughout Europe, albeit with retrenchment and reformulation of the subject in many countries. Much of the growth has come in non-specialist provision. University language centres in the vast majority of universities now offer Chinese, either on a non-credit basis or as a credit-bearing option. Such students are typically taking Chinese because they believe in its vocational value. A colleague at Lund University reported in 2006 that Chinese, with over 600 learners, had overtaken all languages apart from English. As of 2008, there are 16 university departments in France offering specialist Chinese courses with a total of 4,000 students. In addition 140 tertiary level institutions offer non-specialist courses in Chinese to a further 12,000 students. These are now developing more intensive programmes to produce results that are more comparable with the specialist courses. In the UK, HESA figures, which combine specialist and non-specialist courses, show a similar profile to other European countries, although at a much lower level. Hence, for the three years from 1999–2000 to 2001–02, total numbers were in the 600+ range. They increased in 2002–03 to 915 and saw double-digit increases over the next three years to 1,585 in 2005–06, then a smaller increase in 2006–07 to 1665. Over the same period (1999–2006), applications to specialist Chinese courses at UK universities increased by over 150%, from 317 to 810, but the number of acceptances increased only from 71 to 121, a much lower figure than in France or Germany.9 The number of universities teaching Chinese at a specialist level in the UK increased from 9 to 13, with one university closing down its Chinese programme, and five others opening it up. In Germany, as in the UK, there has been retrenchment with the closure of Chinese at some universities and the rejection of the traditional academic model based on classical Chinese and cultural studies in favour of a more vocational model of modern Chinese language plus social science disciplines. There are currently 25 universities in Germany teaching specialist courses, mostly to MA level. Most other universities offer basic Chinese.

Spain has had no significant tradition of Chinese teaching: Valencia, the location of Spain's second Confucius Institute, started teaching Chinese only in 2005. However, the subject has developed rapidly: according to Chinese sources (Xinhuanet, 2007), in 2007 there were 30 universities offering Chinese language courses to 5,000 students, with ten universities keen to have Confucius Institutes.

Inevitably, progress in Chinese for European learners is, measured in functional competence terms, slower than for a new European language. However, European authorities have sought to establish universal standards of achievement through the use of normative descriptors. This applies both to the EU's Common European Framework and to national standards such as the UK's Language Ladder. These tend to assume that a certain period of study, 300 hours for example, leads to a certain level of proficiency, measurable by task fulfilment or communicative ability descriptors. Such attempts to impose universal standards always undervalue the learning effort students put in to ‘distant’ languages such as Chinese. Chinese is not especially difficult as a spoken language, but while European languages may have a 50–70%, or even higher, vocabulary overlap, there is almost no vocabulary common to Chinese and European languages. The impact of this on the learning process is greatly underestimated and is one of the reasons why, although their languages are linguistically totally different, Koreans and Japanese, with big vocabulary overlaps with Chinese (70% in the case of Korean), find learning the language so much easier.

Apart from vocabulary, a further issue is the script, which, being non-alphabetic, is a major learning burden for all but Japanese learners (now that Koreans have largely abandoned the use of Chinese characters). Estimates of the impact of this on a European learner's progress are that Chinese takes two to four times as long to reach a comparable standard compared to learning another European language. Thus, for example, British diplomats are allowed three to six months of full-time study to achieve a working knowledge of a European language, but two years for Chinese. This disparity in learning effort required becomes a problem when universal criteria such as the Common European Framework or the UK Language Ladder are applied to Chinese. They fail to value appropriately the achievements of learners of Chinese.

The Critics

Criticism of the Confucius Institute programme tends to fall into two categories: ‘insiders’ with practical concerns, and ‘outsiders’ with ideological concerns. The practical concerns focus on finance, academic viability, legal issues, relations with the Chinese partner university and long-term support from their own institutions. The staff are concerned at what happens when the five years of initial funding from the Hanban ceases. The activities of most Confucius Institutes do not produce an income stream sufficient to cover costs. University managements have been persuaded that the benefits, prestige and new opportunities, fee-paying Chinese students and research collaboration will outweigh the costs, but if these are not realised there will be pressure to withdraw at the end of the five years. Chinese partner institutions are paying the salaries of staff sent abroad, and see little benefit from this. The staff themselves miss out on the very substantial bonus payments they would receive in China. It is becoming increasingly difficult to persuade experienced teachers of Chinese to leave their families for one or two years to go abroad on a low salary. This leaves the younger, less experienced teachers as the prime candidates. The legal status of the CI in relation to the university (universities are understandably wary of responsibility without control) and the visa status of incoming teachers are also issues. A Chinese newspaper carried the following report from a German newspaper:

After Confucian Institutes were established in Germany the number of universities offering Chinese as a major more than doubled but after less than a year student numbers dropped drastically, and some universities now have only a dozen students. The teachers supposed to be coming from China are late and haven't arrived. And even when they are there, they don't understand Western culture and different places, with the result that they can't teach in a way that meets the students' needs . . . The Confucius Institutes need a long period of reflection before continuing their development (Huanqiu shibao, 2006).

This is overstating the problems most face, but is an illustration of what can go wrong, especially when the university concerned does not have its own teaching capacity.

Political concerns have been raised, primarily by those not involved in the CIs, over the presence of a Chinese government-backed institution on Western university campuses (Brady, 2008; Chey, 2007a, 2007b; Larsson, 2008). These criticisms centre round improper influence over teaching and research, industrial and military espionage,10 surveillance of Chinese abroad and undermining Taiwanese influence as part of the reunification plan. The issue of academic interference was raised in Sweden in March 2008 when some staff at Stockholm University, host to the Nordic Confucius Institute, demanded an end to the current arrangement and the separation of the CI from the university (Larsson, 2008). The argument was framed in terms of academic freedom: that the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm was using the Confucius Institute to carry out political surveillance, covert propaganda and inhibit research on sensitive areas such as the Falungong. The CI project coordinator refuted absolutely these suggestions. The Rector of Stockholm University, Kåre Bremer, on the basis of an independent assessment, rejected claims that the Institute had been used for Chinese political purposes but accepted a suggestion from the independent assessor that a different format for the Institute should be explored. The issue was taken up in the Swedish Parliament where Göran Lindblad compared the CIs to Mussolini's Italian institutes of the 1930s and expressed extreme concern about the links between the Nordic Institute and Stockholm University.

During June 2008 there was an on-line debate on H-Asia about the threat to academic freedom posed by Confucius Institutes. Those actually involved with CIs in their own institutions generally took a relaxed view. They argued that Chinese ‘background’ books provided by the Hanban were so transparent in their propaganda that they were no threat to student minds. Nor were they aware of any attempts to censor lectures or courses, which they felt would be completely counter-productive for the Chinese.


Soon after taking power in 1949 the Chinese Communist government in Beijing set about promoting a reformed and standardised national language. This process is well advanced, accelerated by modern communications, especially television. After the ‘reform and opening’ of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, these language promotion activities were extended to the international stage, epitomised the establishment of the Hanban in 1987. With a series of initiatives, including textbook production, the establishment of overseas publishing and distribution channels, encouraging Chinese universities to recruit overseas students for Chinese language training, providing language teacher training for foreigners, establishing the HSK as the standard international Chinese language proficiency test and so on, the Hanban has assumed leadership of the international provision of Chinese language training. Taiwan, which had been the focus of this from the 50s to the 80s, saw itself sidelined as US universities pulled out their language operations to set up on the mainland. With the establishment of the Confucius Institute programme in 2004, the Hanban shifted to a much more high profile phase. Some critics see this as a sinister attempt to extend Chinese political control activities to Western universities. Most foreigners actually involved in the CI programme reject these fears; their concerns are more practical ones about the long term viability of the Institutes.

Why has China, a relatively poor country, embarked on this? National pride is a big factor. Many Chinese are still smarting from past humiliations and want to see China's contribution to world culture better recognised. The ‘soft power’ concept is a useful way of selling this to the Chinese people: if foreigners understand China better, they will be more accommodating to China's interests.

What are the chances of Chinese becoming a global language? We take for granted the global status of English, but as Crystal (1997) points out, no one would have foreseen this 50 years ago. The current position of English is due to the economic power of America; in future it may also rely on India. Graddol (2000) offers three possible scenarios when looking at rival languages in Asia: that English will remain the preferred language of international communication there, or that Chinese will become regionally more important, or that there will be no dominant lingua franca. The aim of the Confucius Institute programme is, if not to achieve Chinese domination of Asia, at least to see Chinese recognised as a global language.

Modern communications have arguably changed the ground rules on this. The Internet progress of Chinese has been meteoric, with a 2000–08 growth rate of Internet users by language of over 750%, compared to 200% for English. In absolute terms, the top three by language are: English 29.4%, Chinese 18.9% and Spanish 8.5% (Internet World Stats 2008). The absolute number of Chinese Internet users is the highest in the world with 253 million against 220 million for the US. The Hanban predicts 100 million foreign learners of Chinese by 2010 (China Daily, 2006). Although Chinese is currently at best fifth or sixth in the language rankings of most European countries, and there are many technical and institutional obstacles to its progress, it would be foolish to underestimate its potential.