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« Daoism is not a Strategy | Main | The Dao of Inter-Cultural Commensurability »

May 25, 2012


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I dunno... the CI at the University of Pittsburgh managed to net us an incredibly enviable collection of East Asian resource materials, including Taiwan-published difangzhi from all around China, philosophical texts (including Confucian ones), histories and literature, so the CIs certainly aren't all bad. I'm not really too clear on the recent visa controversy; hasn't hit Pitt yet, as far as I'm aware - we get bomb threats instead...

But yes, the Confucius Institutes' mission is more than a bit iffy - Confucius-as-CCP-mascot is problematic, as you point out, in more ways than one. The thing is, there are (at least) three ideologies currently in tension playing out in Chinese politics, as Yang Fenggang points out. It is possible that the MLM establishment in the CCP will attempt to ally themselves with the growing 'Confucianity' movement, though this would likely result in something similar to rubiao fali (rubiao maoli 儒表毛裡?). It is also a (highly remote) possibility that the Confucianists will ally with the liberals against the CCP on the basis of something similar to the Boston Confucians. Most likely (in my view, given the CCP's authoritarian-capitalist leanings and their recent stirrings against anything smacking of leftism, whether of the Chen Guangcheng or the Bo Xilai variety), but least desirable, is that the liberals will ally with the CCP to isolate and marginalise the Confucians.

One last thing, though - I am not in favour of wholesale academic freedom. I think there are certain boundaries of human dignity which research should not cross. We do have IRBs, for example, and outside that I think the academy is well within its rights to put the kibosh on something like eugenics or scientific racism. Such research would not be grounds for civil intellectual discourse anyway.

I regularly cooperate with a Confucius Institute in Northern Germany and had contacts with other CIs in different parts of this country, so I can say that what is said in this article about the American CIs is also true for the German ones: they are not about Confucius or propaganda for the Chinese government, but about language learning and cultural activities.
I recently read "Political Confucianism" (Zhengzhi ruxue) by Jiang Qing and I was baffled by its strong claim to define Confucianism as the essence of Chinese culture and identity - so I also totally agree with what you wrote in this and other posts about the necessity to open up to a dynamic and postmodern global world. Interestingly, Jiang Qing did not condemn Western ideas in general, he even took great care to bolster up his arguments by referring to Western thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Rousseau or (tellingly) Edmund Burke. Maybe his point was more about conserving the "classical Chinese perspective" on its own tradition instead of looking at it using Western concepts and theories (if there is such thing). I wonder if you have read any of his works?

I agree, calling them Confucius Institutes is purely a marketing gambit. I mean, what says uniquely Chinese, but doesn't have any baggage? I wonder if "Mao Institutes" made the shortlist.

The Global TImes, as usual, is mis-/under-/un-informed. A J-1 work visa is not a carte blanche work visa, but is specifically tied to one employer and one job. So if these CI's are mostly attached to universities, and those host universities are the visa-sponsors, then the visa holders have no legal grounds for going to teach in public schools.

I wouldn't think these CI's would be overtly subversive. They're teaching Chinese, and some cultural aspects. I doubt they're teaching the singing of red songs, Bo-style. On the other hand, these CI's are financially enriching their host universities, so if some tenured professor gets a bit academically lippy about the CCP, i wonder if that might trigger a fire-side chat with the chancellor...

I have lots of disagreements here with your interpretation of Chinese philosophy. I do not see Confucianism as fundamentally “conservative”. Far from it. It is actually quite radical and progressive for the time. Certainly far more so, politically, culturally, morally, than Plato's Republic and compared to many other of the most influential western political philosophical tracts. Of course, you can find elements that can be construed as conservative in almost any major political work but I do not see major essential elements that can be construed as conservative in much of the Analects and in Mencius.

I agree that the Confucius Institute has little to nothing to do with the sage and that his name is likely being exploited by the PRC.

But I'm not sure what academic freedom has to do with this. CIs are not US government funded general educational institutions, as far as I know, designed to teach political controversies. They are funded by the PRC and privately and they have a narrow goal: to teach Chinese language and basic Chinese customs. They can teach whatever they want and not teach whatever they want just like privately funded religious schools in the US can teach anything they want and not teach anything they want and it has no relevance to academic freedom. CIs are not meant to teach Chinese political affairs. That is not their job, it's not their expertise, it's not what they are paid to do. A Chinese person would not go to Disney English classes and expect to learn about the injustices of extra legal drone strikes, Iraqi invasion and occupation, government sanctioned torture (if they did they would be sadly disappointed and it would have nothing to do with “academic freedom”).

Also, many Americans, I would argue, are irrationally fearful of these CIs. Many Americans seem to think that these CIs are a furtive attempt to sneak in communist propaganda or godless, contemptible Chinese culture but there is no evidence that they have taught anything other than Chinese language and basic cultural norms so the fear seems to be paranoid if not outright sinophobic. Just look at this rather amusing video which seems to support this claim.

Yes, much of the American public does not know anything about Confucius but where there is ignorance, often irrational fear follows.

Your suggestion that these institutes are somehow sneaking in CCP propaganda seems, I don't know, in serious need of "chilling out."

"Michael Nylan, professor of Chinese history at the University of California at Berkeley, says CIs have become less heavy-handed in their demands, and have learned from "early missteps," such as insisting that universities adopt a policy that Taiwan is part of China. Nylan took an informal survey of faculty and administrators at fifteen universities with Confucius Institutes; "two respondents reported that institutes had exerted pressure to block guest speakers," but both events went ahead anyway.[29]


In response to claims that the curriculum at CIs is determined by political consideration, the CI director for the Chicago Public Schools said that "Confucius Institutes have total autonomy in their course materials and teachers."[44]"

As for the self-righteous, insolent (over)reactions directed at Yang Rui's blog post from some American pundits, I leave this bit of Confucian wisdom:

Analects 15:15: To demand much personally and not overmuch from others will keep ill will at a distance.

Analects 15:21: Exemplary persons make demands on themselves. Petty persons make demands on others. [both Ames translations]

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