Confucius Institutes

Virtual Confucius 虚拟孔子

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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).

Virtual Confucius 1

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).

Virtual Confucius 2

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.

Beyond East and West: Confucius Institutes in Tanzania 超越东西方: 孔子学院在坦桑尼亚

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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.