- China in the World: An Anthropology of Confucius Institutes, Soft Power and Globalization by Jennifer Hubbert
There has been much hyperbole surrounding Confucius Institutes (CIs) in recent years, especially in the United States, where panic about the rise of China is currently at fever pitch. In our view, there are two serious shortcomings in most of the critiques of CIs. First, most commentators pay too much attention to the Chinese government's stated objectives in extending its educational arms abroad (or, worse, the writer's fears about what the real but unstated objectives may be) and pay too little attention to what the CIs actually do in practice. Second, many critics, especially those on the Right, espouse a form of zero-sum thinking in relation to educational exchanges, much as Donald Trump sees international trade—"if it is good for China then it must be bad for USA."
Therefore, it is a relief to read a far more sophisticated and altogether more human account of what the CIs actually do. Using primarily ethnographic research techniques, Hubbert examines the lived experiences of teachers, students, administrators, and parents involved with CIs. This is a study, therefore, of the practice rather than the theory of soft power projection through education, an anthropology of international relations, if you like.
Her focus is the establishment of CIs (in universities) and Confucius Classrooms (in primary and secondary schools) throughout the United States, where they exist in all but three states. The expansion of the CI program has been embraced by many host institutions around the world, welcomed for the additional learning resources provided at a time when domestic budgetary constraints have created vulnerability in the range of learning activities that can be provided by schools and universities. The officially stated role of the Confucius program is teaching of the Chinese language and dissemination of Chinese culture, but the reality is far more interesting.
Hubbert's richly descriptive prose takes us far beyond the "good versus bad" binaries, which remain the dominant framework for understanding CI programs at the macrolevel. We are taken into the CI classrooms and tour buses, and we see carefully constructed places of intercultural engagement and exchange. A description of a secondary school classroom dedicated to the CI provides a good illustration of the author's ability to identify various techniques employed in the construction of a state-sanctioned image of China for foreigners.
Inside the classroom, a large PRC flag above the whiteboard drew attention to the calligraphy that framed its two sides, which read "Study diligently and [End Page 273] make daily progress" (haohao xuexi tiantian xiangshang). This popular Chinese admonition to students was not attributed to its actual source, which is Mao Zedong, and US students and visitors to the Confucius Classroom might well assume that it originated with Confucius himself, a historical figure frequently lauded for his focus on educational attainment. A large map of the provinces of the PRC, which included Taiwan, hung to the left of the calligraphy and next to that such globally recognized symbols of Chinese culture as red lanterns, calligraphic scrolls, Chinese knots, and Beijing opera masks, prime examples of the traditional patriotic state culture discussed in chapter 2. The physical space thus faithfully reflected the intended public persona of Confucius Institutes through a combination of state-sanctioned geography and popular visual symbols of Chinese culture while making very little connection with Confucius himself, save in the CI name and a paint-by-number image of the sage on a classroom wall.(pp. 49–50)
A similar level of descriptive detail is brought to bear on information sessions for parents, study tour itineraries, textbooks, and in-class activities and discussions, and through these we see the Chinese government's efforts to create a set of messages about China that will appeal to foreigners. These are sometimes effective, but often, as is the case with many educational endeavors, the received curriculum...