The Anthropology of Confucius Institutes

By Jennifer Hubbert ( Lewis & Clark College)

In a 2010 episode entitled “Socialism Studies,” Jon Stewart of The Daily Show humorously skewered the American controversy over China’s Confucius Institutes (CIs). This episode highlighted a California resident–speaking against these Chinese government funded language and culture programs–who declares: “If it comes from communist China, it is tainted with communism…We should not be teaching our children about Mandarin language and Chinese culture…That’s brainwashing.” To confirm, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi then visits a middle school Confucius Institute, where he discovers an “army of tiny Maoists who had to be stopped.”

CI Opera Masks

CI Opera Masks

While The Daily Show clearly intends the viewer to express skepticism over the California resident’s lingering Cold War fervor and to understand that Mandvi winks at us with his suggestion that 12-years olds are primed to abolish western democracy, the program’s mockery mirrors controversies over the CIs’ perceived threats to western academic freedom that in turn reflect wide-ranging perceptions of China as a general threat to global well-being.

The debates over CIs are encapsulated in a cautionary article by University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in a November issue of The Nation and a rebuttal by George Washington University historian Edward McCord.1 Both scholars work on campuses with CIs. McCord welcomed George Washington’s, Sahlins wishes to have Chicago’s disbanded. Although methodologically similar, drawing upon policy documents, interviews with institute directors and concerned American faculty, and media reports, their perspectives represent opposing ends of the spectrum. For example, Sahlins (who has long championed ethical engagement in anthropology) envisions the specter of Chinese state censorship when he invokes the CI’s sole use of simplified characters, suggesting that readers will be denied access to dissident writing that uses traditional characters. In contrast, McCord contends that American Chinese language departments teach simplified characters “of their own volition.” Similarly, while Sahlins finds suspicious a perceived lack of American control over CI teaching staff assignments, McCord argues “the low rate of [teacher] rejection may suggest that the process is working effectively to provide top-quality instructors for CIs.”

What can an ethnographically-grounded anthropological perspective offer to this debate? I’ve been doing research on CIs for three years, sitting in on classrooms, travelling with CI groups to China and interviewing administrators, teachers, parents and students. This research provides a glimpse into the complex workings of a disaggregated Chinese state and its CI policies that privilege actual policy practices and the people who implement them and are targeted by them. What this research suggests is not that we stop interrogating CIs’ soft power intentions or wholeheartedly embrace the programs, but that perhaps we are asking some of the wrong questions. Rather than assume congruence with policy intention and effect, what do we learn by considering what actually happens in the classroom? I offer here a few examples of how we might proceed.

Marshall Sahlins is not the only scholar to be concerned about the singular use of P.R.C.-based simplified characters in the CI classroom. Yet, this perspective overlooks the fact that most of us trained in Chinese read in both character sets; as such training in one does not preclude access to the other. At the same time, McCord’s characterizing the dominance of simplified characters in U.S. texts as pure volition ignores how the Chinese state has marginalized Taiwanese language publications, censored Hong Kong writings and pressured the global publishing industry in other more pernicious ways. Of more concern than the visual medium of instruction I would argue, is the content of the CI language courses and materials. And from this angle, like foreign language classes and texts in other languages, CI texts provide a vocabulary for shopping and assessing the weather, not an recitation of unsavory national history. As my own high school French texts failed to include a detailed discussion of guillotine use during the French Revolution, neither do CI curricular materials chronicle Tiananmen Square in 1989. In the classrooms I’ve visited, when conversations veered toward the politically controversial, teachers answered questions briefly and returned to language study. We might call this censorship, or we might understand it as common pedagogical strategy. We also might look at the effect rather than the intention. Students and their parents sometimes perceived this disinclination to discuss politics in the classroom as a form of “totalitarian” control. Teachers disputed this perception and I witnessed teachers who both engaged in political discussions outside the classroom and used alternative materials in the classroom. Regardless, if this perception of censorship is the resultant image of “China,” it is arguably the opposite of what the Chinese state desires for its CI soft power policy. This suggests that the programs as a form of power for China are ineffective at best.

We might consider the rapid and expansive growth of the CIs as a second example of how asking different questions offers conflicting understandings of policy effect. McCord argues that the growth of the programs is a result of “China’s rising global profile,” something that Sahlins compares to China’s “technological and military accomplishments, and its newfound status as the second-largest economy in the world.” Neither of these claims are factually incorrect. While McCord portrays the increase in Chinese language studies as a function of this growing profile, my own research implies that more important questions to ask are what are students getting out of studying Chinese and how does that outcome relate to Chinese state power? Are students truly succumbing to a new global order targeted by China’s soft power policy or abiding by an American-based “social contract” in which students strive for academic success in a competitive educational environment? My research suggests that it is the latter that more effectively drives student choices. In many ways the “Chineseness” of the Chinese language matters because of its perceived ability to protect students from the rapid shifts of late capitalism not because of student affinity for “China.” Thus students often study Chinese as a “magic bullet” to enhance chances for admissions to Stanford or a job a Nike, not because of soft power effectiveness. Within this context, Chinese emerges as the latest do-it-yourself project to manage the future.

The CI controversy, despite its extremes, is therefore instructive on multiple levels. I laud Marshall Sahlins’ commitment to guarding against the corporatization of the university and appreciate Edward McCord’s tempering of the ubiquitous “China threat” trope that pervades western media. Grounded anthropological research does not ignore these perspectives but pushes us to detach policy intentions from assumptions about policy effect, to understand the disarticulated nature of state power, to move beyond policy documents as our dominant sources of knowledge, and to examine the effects of implementation on the people who are the objects of policy itself.

1 Marshall Sahlins, “China U.” The Nation, November 18, 2013. The McCord references are to a draft version of “Confucius Institutes in the U.S.: Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom; Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend,” originally published on: An abbreviated version can be found under the title “Confucius Institutes: Hardly a Threat to Academic Freedoms,” The Diplomat, March 27, 2014.

Jennifer Hubbert is associate professor of anthropology and director, East Asian Studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. Her recent work has examined the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo, published in Modern China, City & Society, and positions: east asia cultures critique. Jennifer’s current book project examines Confucius Institutes.