Confucius Institutes: Contested by North American Academics but Expanding Fast Worldwide

The numbers are impressive: China’s government-sponsored Confucius Institutes (CIs)— first opened abroad a decade ago — are now located in 126 countries. They comprise 475 institutes and 851 smaller “Confucius Classrooms” (CCs), and in 2014 alone, 35 CIs and 205 CCs opened their doors across the globe (list).

Confucius Institutes are founded primarily to promote Chinese language and culture, and in many ways are similar to Britain’s British Council, France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut. According to Wikipedia (Confucius Institute), however, unlike these organizations:

. . . Confucius Institutes operate within established universities, colleges, and secondary schools around the world, providing funding, teachers and educational materials. This has raised concerns over their influence on academic freedom, the possibility of industrial espionage, and concerns that the institutes present a selective and politicized view of China as a means of advancing the country’s soft power internationally.

At a time when universities in the West are slashing budgets for humanities and foreign language teaching, such China-sponsored largesse has obvious appeal.

Seen as a “Trojan Horse” by some, the Confucius Institute practice of “embedding” itself in universities has alarmed some academics in the US and Canada in particular.  According to the BBC:

Last December the Canadian Association of University Teachers called on all universities currently hosting Confucius Institutes to cease doing so.

And in June this year the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) made the same call to US universities.

Whatever strengths the Confucius Institutes bring to the table, on-camera PR is apparently not one. You might want to check out Hard Side of China’s Soft Power, which includes a filmed interview by the BBC with the head of Hanban (汉办), the government agency that runs the international network of Confucius Institutes. Some of the questions seem a bit obnoxious, admittedly; but someone needs to send China’s spokespeople back to school to learn about how to deal with ornery Western reporters. Insisting the BBC delete portions of its live interviews, for one, is not a strategy likely to win friends and influence people.

Ah, yes. And the official site: Confucius Institute Online

Pix and English-language Bios of 40 Chinese Poets

Interested in modern Chinese poetry and the people who write it? You might want to visit Poetry International Rotterdam’s web page that features pix of the poets plus lengthy introductions in English:

China & “King Gesar”: Challenges of Putting an Oral Epic to Paper

Gesar Storyteller (格萨尔王说唱艺人)In a Q & A (艺人及其抢救) with Dr. Yang Enhong, Yao Hui of the Institute of Ethnic Literature (China Academy of Social Sciences) succeeds in extracting fascinating details about how Drakpa (གྲགས་པ།,扎巴), a master storyteller (说唱艺人) of the Tibetan oral epic King Gesar was discovered, and his performances preserved in audio recordings and in written form — the first such documentation project in China. Eventually, during 1978-86  he was persuaded to record some 26 parts of the monumental epic, and 17 volumes of his lyrics were subsequently published.

Dr. Yang Enhong (杨恩洪) took part in the project, and is former Director of the National “Gesar” Leading Workgroup (全国《格萨尔》工作领导小组办公室主任).

Here is a brief excerpt from the Q & A that I’ve translated because it highlights a sensitive issue: How to maintain faithfulness to the original narration as dynamic voiced content is “textualized”?

The following is part of  Dr. Yang Enhong’s answer regarding the sort of difficulties that arise when carrying out such a conversion:

The Finnish epics expert [Lauri] Honko once said this, which left me with a deep impression: “The greatest benefit to putting an orally transmitted epic down on paper is that it endows it with a second life — people can access it by reading the written word.”  This is truly important.

During the process of progressing from oral to written transmission, however, I believe there are many issues that we need to consider carefully. How should we undertake textualization?

. . . Some of our scholars, including Tibetan ones, hold the opinion that folk storytellers and renditions by the common people employ a vulgar, unrefined language. So during compilation, all wording deemed rambling, repetitious, inconcise or redundant is changed or deleted, and then adapted according to one’s personal literary standards. They think that by means of such ameliorations a fine work will emerge. To the contrary, this serves to distort the features of genuine folk literature. Such a work may have a certain value when read, but academically, it possesses no research value.

Within China’s academia and among Gesar scholars the phenomena of willful adaptation still exists. Perhaps a certain scholar speaks the Amdo dialect and does not understand the Naqchu or Chamdo dialects, so he changes the text to Amdo. After adaptation, such a version’s academic value will be greatly reduced. And there are even those who merge many elements, massaging them into a pastiche comprising the best parts of each storyteller’s rendition, handwritten libretto, block book or actual lyrics, and edit them into a finished tome. In his estimation, this is a highly refined work. But in fact, I think not. This is equivalent to maltreating the original nature of the epic, which is now neither fish nor fowl.

Once I went abroad to ask the opinion of several respected scholars regarding this phenomenon. France’s [Anne-] Marie Blondeau, for instance, who is a famous Tibetologist. “That’s unacceptable,” she said. “I would definitely not consult such a version. And for research purposes, I absolutely would not use it.”

I personally sought advice from the German Professor Walther Heissig, an expert in Mongolian epics, explaining that there were differences in opinion regarding the version [of King Gesar] we were compiling. Could we proceed with a hybrid version? “No,” he replied. “That’s known as ‘cooking together’.”

Shangrila: The Appeal of Tibetan Buddhism to China’s Spiritually Ailing Nouveaux Riches

In China’s Wealthy Turning to Spiritualism, John Osburg, University of Rochester assistant professor of anthropology, talks about how many of China’s new rich — tired of “courting government officials at night clubs,” a scenario often involving over-drinking and paid sex  — are turning toward Tibetan Buddhism and other forms of spiritual fulfillment:

Q. Why Tibetan Buddhism and not Chinese Buddhism?

A. There’s a sense among Han Chinese that it’s been less corrupted by the cultural and political upheavals of the past 60 years. Their ideas about Tibetan Buddhism also mirror many of their images of Tibet itself as being pre-modern, spiritualistic, happy. I get told that a lot. There’s a perception among Han that Tibetans are “happy” people and that belief in Buddhism is a key enabler of their happiness.

Also, Tibetan Buddhism is seen as more mysterious, powerful and efficacious than Chinese Buddhism. I’m just beginning to research this, but I think the practice draws them in as well. I don’t think Chinese Buddhism puts as much emphasis on practices like repetition of sutras and ritual prostrations for lay followers. Han Chinese often call it their gongke — their homework — this set of rituals and practices to follow in their daily lives.

Yunnan Training Session for Tibetan Writers and Translators

As I’ve reported before (Sessions), the editors at China’s very official Nationalities Literature Magazine (民族文学), which appears in 6 editions — Kazakh, Uyghur, Mongolian, Korean, Tibetan and plus Mandarin — are heading up a nationwide series of “rewriting/editing training courses” (改稿班). The latest took place in Yunnan’s Deqing in late November (藏文改稿班), and brought together more than 30 (mainly) Tibetan writers and their translators, along with editors of the Tibetan edition of the magazine and, inevitably, several highly placed, omnipresent literary apparatchiks.

Why Deqing rather than Tibet proper? According to Hu Xingneng, Deputy Secretary of the Yunnan Branch of the China Writers Association, one reason is the fact that Deqing is home to several “Tibetan-themed” authors, including 查拉独基, 阿布司南, 央金拉姆 and 永吉卓玛 .

A list of trainees at these sessions — curiously, not limited to ethnic Tibetans — tends to read like a Who’s Who in the “ethnic” writing scene, so I note here that among the participating writers and translators were:

任芙康, 黄佩华 (Zhuang), 陈德宏, 吴基伟, Salhinhee (哈森, translator of Ayunga’s 满巴扎仓 from the Mongolian), 鲁若迪基 (Pumi), 扎巴, 阿布斯南, 张国华, 普日科, Tashi Dhondup (扎西东主), Ngawang Tsering (达哇才让), 敖见, 才忠吉, 董圆,  Tsering Tashi (才让扎西,大普琼, 希多才让, Yangchen Lhamo (央今拉姆), 桑巴, Lhagya Tashi (拉加扎西), and Tashi Nyima (扎西尼玛).

An interesting factoid that emerged in the report: the Tibetan edition of Nationalities Literature Magazine (藏文版) is distributed to 3,750+ Buddhist temples and monasteries nationwide.

Launched: Collection of Contemporary Kazakh Poetry & Fiction in Chinese Translation

哈萨克族卷Readers can now purchase the 374-page volume featuring 41 pieces of fiction, most translated from the original Kazakh into Chinese (中国当代少数民族文学翻译作品选萃 - 哈萨克族卷).

This is part of the Chinese government’s official translation project (“民译汉”), initiated in 2013, which aims to make writing by ethnic minority writers available to Chinese readers nationwide. This represents a change in orientation from earlier times when most translation was unidirectional, i.e., from Mandarin into a given minority language.

According to a brief review of the collection (民译汉工程) by 艾克拜尔·米吉提, it includes poetry, short stories and excerpts from novels from the 50s right up to today.

Featured Kazakh poets include:

  • 库尔班阿里, 尼合迈德·蒙加尼, 夏侃·沃阿勒拜, 玛哈孜·热孜旦

Featured Kazakh writers, some writing directly in Chinese, include:

  • Yerkex Hurmanbek (叶尔克西·胡尔曼别克), 哈依夏·塔巴热克, 丽娜·夏侃, 阿依努尔·毛吾力提

Featured Kazakh-to-Chinese translators, mainly female, include:

  • 常世杰, 姚成勋, 张森棠, 焦沙耶, 张孝华, 哈依霞·塔巴热克, 阿里, 韩玉文, 金炳喆, 丽娜·夏侃, 哈那提古丽·木哈什, 库拉西汉·木哈买提汉, 波拉提·巴德力汗, 星星, 吉恩斯古丽

For readers fluent in Chinese, these other volumes—Uyghur, Tibetan and Mongolian— in the same collection may be of interest:

Definitions of “Chinese” Literary Works in Expansion Mode?

An intriguing picture of what constitutes Chinese literature (中国文学) emerges via an interview with Bai Gengsheng (访中国作协书记处书记白庚胜), a Naxi who has held several senior positions in the state literary ethnic minority research apparatus, including his current role as Secretary of the China Writers Association.

In the interview with Chinese Reading Weekly (中华读书报), Bai says:

In ancient times, the myths, epics and narrative poems of minority ethnicities blossomed with éclat in the garden of Chinese — even global—literature . . .Guan Hanqing (关汉卿), Pu Songling (蒲松龄), Nalan Xingde (纳兰性德), Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹), Abay (Ibrahim) Qunanbayuli (阿拜), Tsangyang Gyatso (仓央嘉措), Maḥmūd al-Kāšġarī (喀什噶理), Ali-Shir Nava’i (纳瓦依), Kutadgu Bilig (福乐智慧), The Gate of Wisdom (真理的入门), Compendium of the languages of the Turks (突厥语大辞典), Secret History of the Mongols (蒙古秘史), Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), Storied Building with a Single Floor (一层楼), Weeping for the Red Pavilion (泣红亭), and The Story of Qing Dynasty History (青史演义) are all world-renowned authors and works.

It is interesting to note that Bai does not mention Life of Jangar (Mongol, 江格尔), King Gesar (Tibetan, 格萨尔王), and Manas (Kyrgyz, 玛纳斯), which are now officially recognized by Beijing as the three great non-Han epics of ancient Chinese literature. Over the last year or so, however, several experts in ethnic literature have pointed out that these works are still not widely introduced in standard textbooks on Chinese literature used in the PRC today.

I recently published a post about how writing in languages native to China — other than Mandarin — has long been relegated to the periphery by Han literary historians. Here’s a passage from that post (Mother-tongue Literature) (the words are mine, my summary of ideas presented in Chinese by Liu Daxian, who is a member of the editorial staff at the quarterly Studies of Ethnic Literature 民族文学研究):

Liu emphasizes that “mother-tongue literature” includes both written and oral forms. He points out that “literature” as defined and promoted via China’s modern education, media and scholarship, tends to focus on written forms such as the novel, poetry, essays and drama, and since much mother-tongue literature — by which he basically means “literature in indigenous languages except for Mandarin” throughout the essay — doesn’t easily fit in those categories, it is viewed as a non-mainstream, even subtly inferior class of literature (亚文学).

If anything, Bai’s list of Chinese literary classics by a range of multi-ethnic authors moves in the opposite direction. He concentrates on “written” (as opposed to “oral”) literature, and considers the texts he cites as mainstream. But does his list represent the result of a positive and inclusive view of Chinese literature, or an expansive, even imperialist one in which the Chinese literary establishment is attempting to appropriate classics that rightfully belong to other peoples of Northeast and Central Asia? [Read more…]

“Life of a Mimic”: Xinjiang Writer Addresses Sensitive Question of Self-identity

The latest session of the Lu Xun Literary Institute’s training in creative writing for minority writers recently convened (第15 期少数民族创作培训), and I found myself sifting through the names of the trainees. That’s because participation is a milestone of sorts that presages future stardom: You join the state-run China Writers Association, get published in a prestigious state-run Chinese-language literary magazine like People’s Literature (Renmin Wenxue), take part in the Lu Xun Institute’s training, and then if you’re lucky, get a shot at winning an overseas readership via publication in a state-run magazine like Pathlight, which specializes in Chinese literature in English translation.

One of the new batch of trainees, Patigul (帕蒂古丽), has jumped the gun by appearing first in the 2014 spring issue of Pathlight. Although the issue was dedicated to several pieces of fiction by non-Han authors, her piece Life of a Mimic (translated by Jim Weldon) is one of the few I found immediately rang true for me.

It appears to be partly or perhaps fully semi-autobiographical. Patigul is listed on Baidu as Uyghur, but the first-person narrator in Life of a Mimic is obviously from a mixed Han-Uyghur background, and like Patigul in real life grew up in Xinjiang, now works in “South China.” Patigul is a journalist in Zhejiang, which is of course traditionally referred to as “south of the Yangtse” (Jiāngnán).

The entire piece is devoted to the narator’s “precocious capacity for mimicry,” and how her early delight in it — specifically mimicry of “Han people” — becomes something more disturbing as she moves into adulthood and even motherhood.

Eventually, even something as basic as eating becomes a joyless performance for this Xinjiang native who has become a “replica” of herself:

The way I eat when in the south is entirely a matter of mimicking an essential procedure for sustenance, with no enjoyment of my food whatsoever. Perhaps the stomach is the most sensitive of all the organs of the body, and things that don’t taste right will never be any use in your mimicking of happiness. There was a time when I tried very hard to copy the trick by which people from the coast could peel a shrimp in their mouths, but in the end I had to fall back on the way you eat polo rice, grabbing them off the plate with my hands. You could say I was hanging on to one last bit of ethnic minority essence, but eating with my hands also brought along a kind of pleasure. Required to pick either the agonies of mimicry or becoming the subject of mockery, I chose to be laughed at. That at least meant even as they laughed, people admitted my ethnic otherness. There was a difference between me and anyone else eating in the room, and even if I was getting laughed at, at least I had the sense of security derived from an identity I felt comfortable with. When invited to important meals, my only recourse that preserved my sorry self-respect was to eschew any crab or shrimp or other odd-shaped shellfish that would require setting my Xinjiang hands to work.

I have cooked polo rice for my colleagues a number of times. I wanted these folk, well-used in the south to coping with crab and shrimp, to have at least one go at mimicking my eating habits. Maybe they’d get some glimpse of the lived experience of their Hemudu culture Neolithic ancestors. But even though I’d hidden all the chopsticks, no one wanted to eat rice with their hands.

Forced mimicry is a game of power and the rules oblige the minority to bow to the habits of the majority; the weaker party must give way to the customs of the strong.

Who’s Afraid of Malala: “I Am Malala” and China’s Nobel Prize Complex

Malala Yousafzai will be speaking today in Oslo at the official ceremony where she will be awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, together with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi.

Like people all over the world, people in Taiwan were eagerly reading her story, I am Malala, a year ago. In Chinese (我是马拉拉), if they wished. But the China version in simplified characters only became widely available this November.

How come?

Surely Malala's story would have sold well in China --- with or without the Nobel stamp of approval?

Surely Malala’s story would have sold well in China — with or without the Nobel stamp of approval?

As usual, you aren’t going to find out via the mainstream media in China. Ironically, several news items appeared lionizing the Sichuan People’s Press for its “timely” purchase of the rights to publish it in China, and its damn near herculean efforts to get it out to consumers by . . . end October 2014 (我是马拉拉 “四川造”).

Given that the China version is based on the Taiwanese one — same translator, 翁雅如 — translation time was not a major factor in the year-long discrepancy in publication times. The China edition was apparently polished by mainlander Zhu Hao (朱浩), but the article suggests that this was mainly to ensure place names, etc., were rendered according to PRC standards.

Was the delay due to joint venture publisher and rights holder Hachette Phoenix demanding a bigger price tag than China publishers were at first willing to pay? The timing of the announcement that the book would be published on the mainland in late 2014 — made just a few days after the Nobel Committee announced Malala Yousafzai as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate — suggests that the China publisher reckoned her autobiography would be a sure-fire best seller with the Nobel stamp of approval.

But there may be a darker angle to the delay. In an online discussion of the book’s delayed publication in China, at Paper Republic Beijing-based literary translator Eric Abrahamsen writes: [Read more…]

“Most Influential” Chinese Literature in Translation: 2014 Ranking by International Library Purchases

A list of this year’s 20 so-called “most influential” Chinese literary works in translation has been published by Xi’an Daily (西安日报), and widely republished on the Chinese Internet. What follows are a few factoids I’ve gleaned from this version (影响力最大) at The full top 20 for 2014 can be found in Chinese here.

The methodology: a thorough search of Online Computer Library Center Inc., which features data covering 470 languages 470 libraries from over 20,000 libraries located in 112 countries. In other words, the ranking is based on 2014 purchases of translated Chinese literature by libraries worldwide. From the list, however, it seems that only English-language editions have been included, so the “most influential” tag is a tad inflated!

By the Numbers: Purchasing Librairies

  • 686: Decoded (解密), Mai Jia (translated by Olivia Milburn)
  • 443: Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China (黄昏里的男孩), Yu Hua (translated by Alan Barr)
  • 350: The Man with the Compound Eyes (复眼人),Wu Ming-Yi (translated by Darryl Sterk)

[Read more…]