Confucian in the modern world
In 2013, Professor Stanley Jiadong Zheng delivered a lecture on the relationship between Confucianism and Christianity. Exploring what difficulties followers of both traditions might encounter, Zheng discusses new ways of understanding the encounter between the two traditions and how this might impact on academic, theologian, and practitioner perspectives.
Co-sponsored by the Centre for Asian Theology, Interchurch-Interfaith Program Team, Toronto Southeast Presbytery & Emmanuel College.
Image: China Daily (2011). Confucius’ birthday celebrated in Taiwan. Retrieved June 12, 2017 from http://english.sina.com/life/p/2011/0927/400733.html
Over the past decade, academic circles have been increasingly interested in exploring the relationship between Confucianism and modernization in East Asia. The term “East Asian Confucianism” means Confucian traditions in East Asian countries that have had cultural and economic links with China, including Korea, Japan, Vietnam as well as other political units that developed later, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong (Little & Reed, 1989).
Although Confucian traditions have varied across the region according to the ideological positions of different governments, most East Asian countries have faced common problems in the pursuit of modernization where traditional systems have either collapsed or weakened. The most significant example of this was the decline of Confucian ideology where East Asian scholars condemned Confucianism to the “dustbin” of history as it was thought to oppose progress and modernity in both Capitalist and Communist economies.
But with the restoration of Confucian traditions in the 1980s, Confucianism again reappeared as an influential philosophy. As David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames note in Thinking Through Confucius (1987), the renewed interest in Confucianism has been so profound that many scholars identified the revival as a ‘Confucian renaissance’ in mainland China, Japan, and South Korea. However, what was commonly ignored in most of these studies was the various versions of Confucianism across East Asia, with “relatively little written about Confucianism in Taiwan” (Huang, 2009, p. 71).
Before explaining why this gap in the literature exists, some context should be given. Taiwan has had an independent identity apart from mainland China for more than a century. To quote Professor June Teufel Dreyer (2003) from the University of Miami, “the Polynesian cultures of the aboriginal tribes, occupations of varying lengths and degrees of intensity by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, 50 years of colonization by an assimilationist Japan, and a period of strong American influence after World War II” (p. 1) have all shaped the development of a distinct Taiwanese culture.
Despite this, Taiwan became increasingly sinicized under Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party during the founding years of the People’s Republic. For example, streets were re-named with place-names from the Mainland, while Mandarin was learnt as the official language in Taiwan. Those who disobeyed and spoke Taiwanese, Hakka or aboriginal dialects were “fined, slapped, or subjected to other disciplinary actions” (Dreyer, 2003, p. 2). As history textbooks were rewritten and memorials re-created to fit into a national Chinese past, popular culture was also influenced by China. As well as restricting non-Mandarin shows and films, performers who spoke non-Mandarin parts tended to be portrayed as criminals or those with low-status jobs, giving the impression that not speaking Mandarin was associated with being from the lower class (Schmitt, 2011).
Because of this process, Confucianism in Taiwan was commonly understood in one of two ways. The first was where Confucianism as a tradition originating in China was merely planted in Taiwan with its universal elements not being localised. In that sense, “Taiwanese Confucianism” could be understood as just another representation of ‘cultural China’, relating to Tu’s (1991) idea of China as existing in three symbolic universes. The first consists of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, whose members are predominantly ethnic Chinese; the second of Chinese communities in predominantly non-Chinese societies; and the third of non-Chinese individuals who study and bring Chinese culture into their own communities. Confucianism in Taiwan belongs to the first universe of cultural China.
The other characterisation of Confucianism in Taiwan is that of a localised version of Confucianism without universal significance. As Chen (2009) notes, “historically speaking, ‘Taiwanese Confucianism’ during the Ming and Qing dynasties was nothing more than the ‘Taiwan branch’ of the Fujian School” (p. 11). What this means is that as the first Confucius Temple was built in Taiwan in 1665, and Confucianism became a key part of Taiwanese architecture, education, and national rites, this localised branch of Confucianism has only ever been significant in Taiwan.
However, the reality of how Confucianism developed in Taiwan is much more complex. On the one hand, Confucianism was applied to serve political ends as certain ideological values of Confucian thought, such as loyalty, patriotism, and filial piety, were promoted by the government in standardized textbooks (Huang, 2009). Specifically in the postwar period, certain facets were also selected by political elites to create an “official Confucianism”, whose goal was to support the state ideology by creating a highly selective interpretation of Confucian ideology. This sort of misinterpretation and misapplication of Taiwanese Confucianism was not an exceptional occurrence in history. Even in China, at the start of Emperor Wu’s reign during the Han dynasty (140–86 BCE), all non-Confucian schools were banned as Confucianism was utilized and distorted by the officialdom (Huang, 2009).
At the same time, in contrast to official Taiwanese Confucianism, Confucianism was also interpreted by intellectuals such as Xu Fuguan (1902–1982), as it became a key school of thought to resisting foreign influence. In Development of Confucianism in Taiwan, Chen Chao-ying (2014) pointed out that Confucianism in Taiwan led the territory to oppose the Qing and support reinstatement of the Ming, criticize Japanese occupation, and resist wholesale Westernization during the period after Second World War. In that case, clashes between the Taiwanese and Japanese and the incoming Mainlanders after 1945 shows that the cultural and intellectual tradition in Taiwan was diverse, complex, and multifaceted.
As the revival of Confucianism continues throughout East Asia, the history of Confucian development is not as clear-cut as is usually imagined. Rather than simply being part of China’s cultural sphere of influence or as an indigenised ideology in Taiwan, Confucianism has been influenced by a number of cultural, political, and economic factors that were both local and global, allowing the tradition to develop “in the unique context of the interaction between Taiwan and China, tradition and modernity, and indigenous and foreign culture” (Huang, 2009, p. 8). For future research, the question remains as to what are the prospects for Confucian tradition in Taiwan with the challenges of air, water, and industrial pollution that accompany industrialisation in addition to the other challenges of modernisation. More work needs to be done to investigate these processes.
How can Confucianism modernize and shape future cultural discourse? Can it help solve global problems in the twenty-first century? China Daily host talks to Stephen C. Angle, a philosopher and professor specializing in Chinese Philosophy at Wesleyan University.
In the past decade, Chinese tourists have made international headlines for all the wrong reasons. From setting fire to curtains inside aeroplane cabins to hurdling noodles over flight attendants, news publications have repeatedly asked ‘Why are Chinese tourists so badly behaved?’. Following a quick online search, it is not uncommon to come across articles that list the top 10 most embarrassing Chinese tourists moments or personal recounts of bad Chinese tourist experiences. As one restaurant owner stated in an Aljazeera news report: “They don’t say hello, they don’t speak French, they don’t speak English…One woman came in here and spat on the floor.”
Image: Maxxelli Consulting (2014). Understanding China’s Outbound Tourism. Retrieved June 4th, 2017 from here.
With one in ten travellers worldwide coming from China, however, these reports ignore the significant impact that Chinese tourists have on businesses worldwide. As the World Tourism Organisation reported in 2013, with an increase of 70 million tourists travelling beyond China since 2000, Chinese tourists spent US$102 billion overseas in 2012 alone, making China the world’s biggest spender on foreign travel. Despite these figures, opinion articles that make general assumptions about Chinese tourists as rude, uncultured and ill-mannered reveal that the majority of Chinese tourists are misrepresented and unknown to foreign publics. As academics in hospitality and tourism management Fu, Cai and Lehto (2017) note, there is even a lack of understanding in the literature on what drives the Chinese to travel, and how culture can influence the behaviour of tourists abroad.
The main problem is that while Chinese tourist motivations have been frequently explored, most research has relied on Western paradigms and frameworks that use existing dimensions and terms, such as prestige, romance, and autonomy (Fu et al., 2017), to frame what Chinese tourists desired most or expected to gain from their travel experience. Without completely contrasting Chinese tourist behaviour with their Western equivalents, Fu et al. (2012) state that it needs to be recognised that many Chinese travellers display characteristics driven by their cultural roots. As theorists such as Max Webber (1951) and Geert Hofstede (1980) argued decades before, this means that Chinese people are strongly influenced by the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC).
Whether this refers to valuing concepts such as ren 仁, which can be understood as “tolerance, forgiveness, deference, filial obedience (to parents), faithfulness (to master), wisdom…” (Lu, 1983, p. 29); the moral force of li 礼, which governs correct and appropriate behaviours in relationships; or xin 信 as representative of sincerity and trustworthiness, the individual in Chinese culture is never an individual in the Western sense. Each self in Confucianism is part of a human relationship where individuals are obligated to act and treat others according to Confucian virtues. Fulfilling these obligations adds to the growth and structure of the self, which ultimately builds a stable social and political structure of the state (Kwek & Lee, 2010).
As “one of the most prominent and enduring cultural influences within the East Asian region” (Ng & Lee, 2014, p. 150), Confucianism may provide a cultural backdrop to explain motivational drivers for tourists. In recent years, two main studies were conducted to test whether Confucianism did play a role in influencing the behaviour and motivation of Chinese tourists. The first was a qualitative report where Kwek and Lee (2010) from Griffith University interviewed and observed Mainland Chinese nationals visiting Australia on a corporate/leisure trip. The total participants in the study consisted of 10 guided tours of 64 people, of whom 55 were male and nine were females. For Fu, Cai and Lehto’s (2017) quantitative report, a scale was developed that applied Confucian life domains of self, family, social life, society, and nature to a survey questionnaire that was tested on 507 Chinese residents in Hangzhou who had taken leisure trips prior to the sampling period.
Both studies had similar results: the primary motivation for tourists was to achieve harmony, whether with nature or in existing relationships. While harmony is identified in other motivational frameworks (Pearce & Lee, 2005), maintaining harmony for these tourists has to be understood within a Chinese context. For example, ancient Chinese philosophies like Daoism and Confucianism have long held the view that humans and nature are a unified entity, which diverges from the subject-object relationship between culture and nature in the West (Tang, 2015). As a result, seeking harmony with nature is not a surprising theme in China’s tourism tradition and goes beyond aesthetic appreciation to a means of pursuing wisdom by enjoying simplicity. On harmony within relationships, the majority of Kwek and Lee’s participants noted the importance of avoiding conflict and seeking harmony within group settings (p. 137). As one Chinese tourist from Beijing commented:
“The Chinese people have, for centuries, cultivated the habit to strive for harmony in every situation and as long as everyone is happy, we are also happy to oblige” (Male, early-50s, businessman).
Harmony here refers to peace, acting in an appropriate manner, and having good relationships with others. Given the hierarchical and collectivist aspect of Chinese social settings, harmonious relationships function as a way of promoting personal connections and social norms, such as loyalty and obligation (Chen & Chen, 2004).
Other themes that emerged when observing how Chinese tourists behaved included respect for authority and conformity. In every corporate/leisure tour group for instance, a leader who held the highest social status would take charge in making decisions for the group. To show respect, Kwek and Lee write that members would always look towards the leader for directions and decisions as a way of protecting his or her social face. Whether this involved choosing a restaurant or what activities to do next, members would suppress their personal preferences to conform to the interests of the leader so as not to appear ‘deviant’ (p. 134). Although there are some setbacks to Chinese vertical relationships, including overconcentrating power at the top and leaving little or no room for group initiatives, the underlying idea of respecting authority is to maintain harmony and avoid conflict at all costs.
Finally, in terms of motivations or what Chinese tourists sought to get out of their trip, family togetherness was rated as the second-highest motivation factor (Fu et al., 2017). In that sense, whether touring as a group or in a family setting, maintaining integrity in relationships and developing bonds with others is what influenced why Chinese tourists travelled and how they were expected to behave abroad.
While limited to only two studies, these findings show more to the behaviour and action of Chinese tourists than what reaches the headlines, and provide valuable information for industry practitioners interested in developing desirable vacation experiences to Chinese tourists, particularly when translated into marketing and promotional guidelines. Promoting the potential of a destination should emphasise personal and relationship goals of Chinese tourists and how places can fulfil motivational needs. In the regional context as well, Confucianism as a cultural tradition goes beyond mainland China and includes locations such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. Developing a deeper understanding of what drives Confucian-heritage societies could become a lucrative market base as most of these growing middle-class markets have a propensity to spend on travel (Fu et al., 2017).
For academia, these studies also show the importance of trying to understand phenomena from a non-Western perspective, especially when Western theories and frameworks are not suitable to discuss non-Western settings. As one of the major philosophies of Chinese culture that influences the social and political dynamics of Chinese society as well as the personal and social dynamics of everyday life, understanding Chinese tourist behaviour and motivations from a Confucian background provides a greater understanding of the relationship between culture and tourism.
The following text is an extract from the book The New Legalist Vol. 1 (2010) compiled by independent scholars and chief editor of the New Legalist website Sherwin Lu, and contract research fellow of the Centre for Chinese and Global Affairs, Peking University Yuzhong Zhai.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin. The extract is from the chapter Eastern Wisdom Can Help Solve Today’s Global Problems: A study of the “dynamically-balanced multi-dimensional whole” worldview (p. 262), raising interesting points about the relationship between Legalism and Confucianism, and the relevance of China’s philosophies to today’s world problems.
“The Chin dynasty ended with a conspiracy at the top on the death of the First Emperor, whose successor, one of his sons, betrayed his father’s Legalist policy by distorting the rule of law and triggered rebellion by the people. But Chin’s Legalist policy was largely revived and continued during the next dynasty of Han. In the later years of the Han dynasty, Confucianist ideology gradually got the upper hand and was finally authorized as the sole guiding system of thought for running the country. Confucianist doctrine had ever since remained the orthodox ideology in China till the 1911 Revolution, though some Legalist practices had been carried on and other Legalist ideas were adopted sometimes by reformist statesman and sometimes at the beginning of a new dynasty on replacing an old, corrupted one.
Why was Legalism defeated by Confucianism in Chinese history? The answer is in the inconsistency in Legalist practice due to the limit of historical conditions. The major inconsistencies are: The social merit system failed to cover the selection of the top ruler (king/emperor)- the throne was still inherited by royals on, and the all-society mutual supervision system failed to reach the one or two most powerful men under the king/emperor on the topmost level of the hierarchical ladder. Therefore, when a Legalist emperor died, the state power could easily be shifted, either through conspiracy or through the work of time, into the hands of weak or morally depraved succeeding emperors and/or power-hungry top-ranking officials, who placed their own interests above those of the people and would not bother to take the pains, as required by Legalist principles, to do the regulating of social life against the strong oppositions from some special interest groups, especially when there were no more threats of rivalry from outside. This inconsistency can only be corrected by a democratic system based on the modern principle of people’s sovereignty, corrected in a way in which the institutional power of the state exercised from the top down and people’s power exercised from the bottom up remain in a constant dynamic balance.
However, except from that loophole, the legalist theories and practices in ancient China were quite successful. The most important lesson from these theories and practices is that, especially at a time of “warring states”, the only way for a people to survive and prosper is to have a strong state under the constant watch of the people and with the institutional power to implement a comprehensive series of social, economic, political and other policies which aim at regulating all different kinds of social relationships towards a dynamic balance between all different interest groups and different aspects of social life, including a constant dynamic balance between the institutional power of the state and people’s sovereignty. And to do this, the atomistic world view, both in its ancient Chinese version, i.e., the Confucianist orthodoxy (except for some of its teachings on the cultivation of personal and socio-political virtue), and in its modern vision, i.e., the Liberalist laissez faire ideology, must be repudiated.
The atomistic pattern of thought looks at society as a mechanical aggregation of millions or hundreds of millions of individual human beings each pursuing his/her own interests. According to this view, the will and interests of a state equal the sum total of all its individual members’ wills and interests. It disregards the fact that the state, as a special kind of social group of human beings, can also have its relatively independent will and interests which can in turn affect the will and interests of each individual member and all other social groups, large or small, within and outside of it. The historical argument between the Legalists and the Confucianists regarding the management of state affairs is a typical case.
The Legalists emphasize the importance of the rule of Law, insisting that, so long as the social law originates in and in line with Tao, i.e., the law of Nature, it will cultivate and fortify virtue in all people and thus ensure a good order for the society, while Confucianists preach that personal cultivation of family virtue based on kinship principles will guarantee social justice, because, according to them, if all people behave virtuously towards others in the “extended family” of the big society. The Confucianists failed to see the family virtue cannot be naturally extended beyond the scope of the family and readily applied to all social relationships because the cultivation of family virtues is based partially on natural kinship feelings and partially on a kind of intuitive perception of people being mutually interdependent, a direct perception by all five senses which is possible only within such a limited circle of “face-to-face” relationships as a family. Beyond this limit, people need extra impetus and motivation, i.e., the rule of law, or the reward and punishment system on the social scale, for the nurturing of social values.
Confucianists also opposed the state’s owning some economic enterprises which were critical to national economy and people’s livelihoods and setting by a large enough quantity of commodity wealth as a necessary financial leverage for regulating the market and other aspects of social life to defend people’s peaceful life from external and internal dangers.
As social atomists deny the necessity of a dynamic balance between the collective entity and the individuals, they inevitably advocate a policy that indulges the advantaged, permitting them to get the upper hand over the disadvantaged. And this policy inevitably results in the split of a society into “two nations”: the privileged versus the underprivileged, and this is the root cause of all social upheavals, mass violence and war. It is the case with the old China under the ideological domination of Confucianism, as well as with today’s world divided into the super rich handful and the poor majority all over the world. In Chinese history, whenever advocates of Confucianist ideas of “virtue” were loudest, it must be a time when social conflicts were approaching a crisis, as was pointed out by Lao Tzu in his Tao Te Ching. Can’t we draw a lesson from history and apply it to a truthful understanding of the world situation today?”
To read more about the Legalist perspective, see the New Legalist website here.
Shortly after coming to power, Chinese president Xi Jinping promised to rejuvenate his nation through the ‘Chinese Dream’. This would see China become a strong, civilised and harmonious socialist modern country by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic (Ljunggren, 2015). Although previous national concepts such as ‘peaceful development’ and ‘harmonious world’ have been deployed, one of China’s greatest hurdles to realising its national dream has been identified by critics to be its lack of “soft power” (the ability to shape others’ preferences and interests through attraction).
In recent years, the Chinese government has aimed to spread its influence by creating Confucius Institutes around the world. These interactive spaces, however, have not significantly raised a favourable political image of China abroad (Xie & Page, 2013). Additionally, a gap in spreading cultural values to the younger generation, both domestically and internationally, has continued to widen for China making it difficult to promote a strong national image.
In many cases, when culture is not communicated from generation-to-generation, intergenerational tensions arise “from competing understandings of the rights and responsibilities of young people and the autonomy and freedom they should be entitled to” (Mansouri et al., 2015, p. 6). Further, generational gaps also make it difficult to promote and protect ‘intangible cultural heritage’, which UNESCO (2017) defines as the skills, knowledge and customs that are passed on to the rest of the community. When present in communities, passing on traditional skills and customs can encourage a sense of belonging which helps individuals feel part of society at large (Sandis, 2014).
Since the social and economic value of cultural transmission is important for developing states, whose cultural heritage comes under increasing pressure from the processes of modernisation and globalisation (Techera, 2011), a few academics have begun to examine virtual reality as a way of communicating Chinese cultural values to younger generations, while also promoting China’s influence abroad.
Confucianism, in particular, is a relevant system of thought that has been integrated into everyday practices of several Asian cultures. For the younger generations, Confucianism has been gaining popularity in books and cinema. For instance, the book written by Yu Dan about Confucius sold more than 10 million copies, indicating a high demand for Confucian knowledge in modern Chinese societies (Sun, 2009). While less successful, the 2010 biographical drama Confucius (孔子), directed by Hu Mei and starring Chow Yun-fat, also had blockbuster sales for China’s domestic audience despite missing the mark for many international film critics (Groves, 2009; Marsh, 2010).
Building on these attempts of using modern communication technology and popular culture to communicate cultural heritage, a recent study from the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia has designed a new form of cultural play, where users explore cultural values and teachings through a digital media platform called Confucius Chat – “a philosophical conversational agent which models Confucius knowledge and teachings” (Cheok et al., 2017, p. 328).
Providing interactive and personalised advice from virtual Confucius, which is not possible in passive media such as printed books or film and television, Confucius Chat provides on-the-screen responses generated from classical texts, Confucius’s disciples, and general facts about the names of ancient countries and dynasties. In that sense, as well as providing relevant Confucian knowledge content to audiences who use social networks as key sources of information and advice, interactive technology such as Confucius Chat has the potential to promote Chinese values and culture beyond formal institutions and government-led projects.
The way the technology works is by identifying sets of topics and user inputs to create appropriate responses. For example, the user input “What is your name please” maps to two templates in the system’s database, identifying both the template “PLEASE” and “WHAT IS YOUR NAME”. Since this sentence includes the word ‘please’, the response automates to “Thank you for being polite”, with the second reply “My name is Confucius”. For this example, both templates match all the worlds in the input sentence, resulting in a score of 1.0 (Cheok et al., 2017).
Image: Cheok, A.D., Edirisinghe, C. & Karunanayaka, K. (2017). iSage mobile app: an extension of Confucius Chat system [Screen Shot].
The score divides by half for more general templates on topics such a ‘love’, ‘family’, and ‘money’, which offers random output relating to passages that may discuss these topics. Importantly, if the output sentence contains any words from the forbidden word list, “which is a list of words Confucius will not discuss, for example God and Jesus, the score will be 0.0.” (p. 337), meaning that the system will not respond.
Key benefits to this type of technology include active experience as an important condition for enjoyment. As Wang et al. (2012) state in their article on using artificial intelligence to create a virtual interactive philosopher, “more freedom should be given to users to freely explore things in which they are interested” (p. 3). Using short and fast interaction to generate Confucius’s responses as well as an easy-to-use interface where no prior knowledge is required to interact with the system provides outreach to audiences who describe interactive cultural play as “just like talking with [a] read friend” (Cheok et al., 2017, p. 342).
Image: Cheok, A.D., Edirisinghe, C. & Karunanayaka, K. (2017). iSage mobile app: an extension of Confucius Chat system [Screen Shot].
Currently, the Confucius Chat system has been extended into an Android mobile application, iSage Confucius, which allows people to talk to virtual Confucius on their smart phones by typing or selecting questions. The server processes the incoming request, and returns the answer given by the system’s algorithms and recorded templates (Wang et al., 2012).
While current algorithms sometimes gives unrelated answers and lack the ability to comprehend words without semantic meaning, such as people’s names, interactive technology could become another avenue for spreading China’s cultural heritage. Targeting the younger generation in the developing world and the West plays into China’s “charm offensive”, which is slowly increasing in the global networked information space.
Image: CRIENGLISH.com (2013). Second Confucius Institute in Tanzania Opens. Retrieved April 20, 2017 from here.
‘In the colonial society, education is such that it serves the colonialist…In a regime of slavery, education was but one institution for forming slaves.’ (Mozambique Liberation Front, 1968).
For many scholars, increasing Chinese engagement in Africa has signalled a new stage of neo-colonialism. As the Tanzanian political commentator Kitila Mkumbo pointed out, “Africa is now becoming a new battlefield for the scramble for China and the United States access to Africa’s richness in natural resources and markets [sic]”. News organisation Al Jazeera and all Africa have also noted that China’s engagement with Africa symbolises a “struggle for influence among emerging and economically advanced powers jostling for a strategic opportunity to exploit resources”.
Amid the growing anxiety around China’s increasing economic and military power, the Chinese government has attempted to project a more favourable image of itself through Confucius Institutes. Naming the institutes after the sage-philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) was meant to symbolise the essence of Chinese culture through the teaching of Confucian values, including benevolence (ren, 仁), righteousness (yi, 义), and civility (li, 礼). At the core of Confucian teachings is the importance of practising proper human relations, which Chinese political figures have used when describing host countries as “brotherly bilateral friendly”.
Since its inception in 2004, the mission of promoting Chinese language and culture has spread rapidly around the world. In 2014, 440 institutes and 646 classrooms were teaching Chinese language and culture in 120 countries, where at least 30 of those countries were in Africa (Wekesa, 2013; Zaharna et al., 2014). However, despite the extent of China’s influence, the Confucius Institutes have received criticism in host countries and abroad. For example, some have stated that the institutes reflect the Chinese government’s political agenda and interfere with academic freedom, and that they are simply used by “African countries to leverage clout in international organisations” (Stambach & Kwayu, 2017, p. 419).
Whatever the case, operating as an ‘ideological battleground’, these institutes have also called into question Africa’s position in international relations and whether African countries would look East or West in their engagements with foreign countries (Olin-Ammentorp & Sun, 2014; Abdulai, 2016).
However, the problem with this view is that it fails to take into account what actually happens when these institutes are implemented into practice. As researchers Amy Stambach and Aikande Kwayu state in their latest article on Confucius Institutes in Tanzania, despite the many different narratives about China’s influence in Africa that appear as master plans on brochures and ceremonies, there are a variety of ways in which people interact with Chinese language learning and China-Tanzania relations.
Through ethnographic fieldwork in Tanzania’s classrooms and Chinese-owned shops, the scholars found that what is taught in the institutes is not exactly what is learnt. Instead of having much to do with official views or ideologies, “the biggest effects of [Confucius Institutes] seems to be bringing Chinese teachers and Tanzanian students into conversation, not necessarily delivering any master plan” (p. 418).
Moreover, by sitting in on these sessions, the researchers found that while most of the courses aim to teach Chinese language by students repeating and memorising sounds and tones, few pass the standardised language exam or travel to China; and even fewer seem interested in the videos that show aspects of nature depicted in ancient and modern Chinese characters (p. 419). More than proficiency or scholarship, most students use class time to multi-task, where many carry on with their day jobs by running errands throughout the day, while others sit in to broaden their skills and build up their resumes.
Like many students, Confucius Institute teachers are also building their work portfolios while juggling social life, making most interactions between student-teacher as an exchange within a generation, with many friendships being formed. This shows the reality of people-to-people interactions that Confucius Institute brochures do not anticipate.
In the market place, Stambach and Kwayu also note that a similar story unfolds. Away from the university, on the crowded streets of Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam, interest in the Chinese language is mixed. While business people at the high end of the economic scale seem to have practical reasons for learning Chinese, they are exceptions among the internationally connected as most international business is still conducted in English.
At the other end of the spectrum, rather than studying Chinese, Tanzanian day labourers employed by Chinese pick up expressions in Mandarin. From the authors’ field notes, one woman conveys that her Chinese employer treats her like a slave and that her employer comes and goes without any notification. She does not see the need to learn Chinese. In another shop, the Tanzanian workers state that they learned a few words by listening to their employer.
These ad hoc snapshot interviews reveal that rather than understanding this exchange as one where many Chinese teach their staff informally, some Tanzanians pick up a few words if they think they are useful from their employers (p. 422).
In that case, rather than representing a political project that symbolises Tanzania’s shift to China, beyond East and West, Chinese language and cultural exchange does not draw African students into close engagement with China, but neither does it detract from China. To say that Tanzania or other African countries are moving towards or away from anything plays into highly abstract expressions of diplomacy that overlook the fact that people “use education to define and remake power through everyday activities” (p. 423).
Without considering African agency or the agency of people who use these institutes and exchanges for a variety of purposes, scholars, researchers and journalists play into the myth that the world is divided by an East-West dichotomy with fixed constructions of power and identity.