On June 15, 2004, Chinese President Hu Jintao officially opened the first Confucius Institute in Uzbekistan. Nearly three years later, on January 31, 2007, Premier Wen Jiabao and Portugal Premier Socrates signed the latest such agreement at the Great Hall of the People opening a Confucius Institute in University of Lisbon.
To date, 128 Confucius Institutes exist around the world, with 46 in Asia, 46 in Europe, 26 in North America, 6 in Africa and 4 in Oceania.
Global interest in China and the Chinese language has been growing along with China's economy.
In the US, over 20, 000 students were learning Chinese in 200 public primary and middle schools back in 2004, this number rising to 50,000 in 2006 with a further 2,400 middle schools wishing to offer Chinese classes.
Since 2001, the UK Department for Education and Skills, the British Council and HSBC have begun a scholarship program catering to hundreds of British middle school students to encourage them to learn Chinese. The program also aims to sponsor 200 Chinese teachers to come and teach in the UK. Germany has also felt this popularity with 150 schools and 50 famous universities now offering Chinese electives and majors. Meanwhile, France, exhorted by its China-loving President Jacques Chirac, has seen 110 of its top universities open Chinese departments.
In the Far East, Japan and Korea put at 2 million and 1 million respectively their quotas of Chinese students with all 142 universities in Korea now offering Chinese courses. The Korean Ministry of Education is now planning to capitalize on this success by introducing Chinese classes in all primary and middle schools.
Southeast Asia has also followed suit with 1,000 middle schools in Indonesia offering Chinese to their students and Thailand planning to do so at 30 percent of all high schools within five years.
South American countries like Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile are also seeing marked rises in the popularity in Chinese language learning there.
Chinese teaching is also a pillar of Sino-African cooperation. Ain Shams University, Al-Azhar University and Cairo University, Egypt's three main universities, have all set up Chinese majors. Students at the University of Liberia voluntarily set up Chinese Association and addressed a letter to the Chinese ambassador to Liberia wishing to soon be able to learn Chinese language and culture. They also petitioned on behalf of over 3,000 of their peers that a Confucius Institute be created in Monrovia as quickly as possible. In Algeria, many youngsters have reached out to Chinese employees in Algerian companies to teach them. Algeria has also recently sent up a clamor asking for a Confucius Institute.
Over 2,500 universities in over 100 countries have set up Chinese courses reaching out to over 40 million Chinese learners abroad.
Such a successful run has come from the observation of similar movements in the UK, France and Germany. The three Western powers have long implemented a worldwide network of institutes, promoting their culture. The paths trail-blazed by the UK with the British Council, France with the Alliance Francaise and Germany's Goethe Institutes have helped chart the Confucius Institutes' success. By the end of 2006, the International Office of Chinese Language Council (better known as Hanban) has received over 400 applications to set up Confucius Institutes in more than 60 countries.
In 2006, a new Confucius Institute sprung up every four days on average with extensive media coverage.
At the end of 2006, a sample survey of 40 Confucius Institutes saw over 10, 000 people trained and offered over 300 Chinese courses averaging six months in length. Meanwhile, a slew of other activities have been organized such as lectures, exhibitions or performances involving some 200,000 participants.
When the first Confucius Institute Conference was held in July 2006, it attracted approximately 400 delegates from 38 countries and regions.
Nancy Jervis, vice president of the China Institute in New York, who attended the conference, spoke of her disbelief that the "Chinese language could become so popular" when she first visited China in 1972. Her mind must have boggled at the total of 2,400 US universities that now run or plan to run Chinese language courses, the biggest foreign language rise among US colleges.
(China.org.cn by Li Xiaohua March 23, 2007)