Southeast Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - Representing China in Confucius Institutes: Notes from the Field

Saturday, July 7
12:10 PM - 1:40 PM
Location: Marigold, New Building

In 2004, the first Confucius Institute (CI) started its operation in Korea; and a decade later, with more than 500 Confucius Institutes and 1000 Confucius Classrooms worldwide, they now form one of the most extensive cultural networks on the international stage, and also a very controversial one. Whereas traditionally the credibility of cultural institutes is upheld by maintaining a formal independence from their respective governments, CIs are established through a partnership between the Chinese government and foreign hosts – mostly universities. With the joint venture structure and multi-stakeholder engagement unprecedented among its counterparts and predecessors, CIs have raised new questions to the old practice of cultural diplomacy through language education. How China is represented in CIs is one of those contested questions. The still-on-going debates in media and academia on academic freedom, propaganda and censorship need to be qualified with evidence from the field. Based on multi-sited ethnographical observations in China, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, this paper explains the processes behind not only the representation of China’s national and cultural image in CIs but also its specified and unstated interests. Without being subjected to a higher authority, or having the political power of control over each other, the collaborating parties in CIs are kept engaged by a continuous search for equilibrium in exerting professional, administrative and discursive authority, demonstrating a “dynamic equilibrium”. The representation of China and Chinese interests in CIs as a multi-stakeholder engagement is therefore also a product of creating common grounds, pushing boundaries, and testing limits. 

Sirui Ma

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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