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Confucius Can Survive in This Modern World
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By Qin Xiaoying

An Australian student last month told visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that a Confucius Institute had just opened in his city. A few years earlier, in fact, the Chinese Government had decided to go all out in establishing Confucius Institutes overseas.

It was a response to the "craving for Chinese " sweeping all over the world in recent years and an attempt to offer Chinese teaching projects in a stronger and better-planned fashion, and on a larger scale.

Of course, the strengthening of the Chinese language popularization drive will inevitably lead to the worldwide spread of Chinese culture, which is part of the intention to begin with. Once the goal is clear, so is the nature and position of the campaign to establish Confucius Institutes overseas, namely, to "popularize the Chinese language all over the world," but through institutes that are "non-profit and public interest-oriented."

In November 2004, a ceremony was held in Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea (ROK), for the opening of the very first overseas Confucius Institute set up by the Chinese Government. Last June, the University of Maryland in the United States agreed to host one on its campus.

In the same month, an agreement was reached to open a Confucius Institute in Stockholm, capital of Sweden. And only a day later, Kenya in East Africa gave the nod to the establishment of a Confucius Institute at Nairobi University. Soon afterwards, more countries followed suit by agreeing to open Confucius institutes, including Uzbekistan, the United Kingdom and Thailand, to name a few. If the campaign maintains this momentum, it shouldn't be too difficult for the Chinese Government to achieve the goal of opening more than 100 such schools in the world.

Even with such enthusiasm, it seems the drive to establish Confucius Institutes is still "struggling" to whet the "craving for Chinese" throughout the world. According to conservative estimates, the number of foreigners learning Chinese has topped 30 million.

In the United States, for instance, Chinese is now the second-most widely used foreign language after Spanish. In France, Chinese is taught at more than 100 universities. And the same is true in the ROK.

Needless to say, popularizing Chinese is not an easy job and cannot be accomplished in one breath. It seems a practical and effective way for a country to employ the fame of a "world-class celebrity" of its own to popularize its language, promote exchanges with other nations, expand its influence and spread its unique culture to the rest of the world.

Apparently there is more than one reason for the initial success of worldwide drive to set up Confucius Institutes. The first is without question the growing international clout China now enjoys. And there is also its rising place in global economy and trade, its increasingly prominent role as a major keeper of world economic order, and its mounting strength in safeguarding the just rights of developing countries, as well as in eliminating poverty and maintaining peace.

All of these qualities have contributed to fanning up the "heat" of learning Chinese and propelling forward the plan to establish Confucius Institutes smoothly.

Not to be overlooked is the enthusiastic assistance from governments of the institutes' host nations and many non-Chinese citizens. And, of course, there is the wisdom of Confucius behind all of this sincere help. Confucius' wisdom still appeals to people all over the world today.

That said, which jewels in the treasure trove of Confucianism, as the crystallization of ancient Chinese traditional culture, can benefit our troubled world? There are at least three invigorating mantras for humankind today.

The first one is "determination to achieve one's goals," which is best illustrated by this line from The Analects (Lunyu): "Like heavenly bodies faithfully following their own orbits endlessly, a superior man is always determined to strive for his goal in life."

This means everyone should do his best to pursue, surmount, strive for and discover, never giving up when faced with difficulties and obstacles, just like the stars tracing their heavenly paths.

The second one is keeping "an open heart and mind." According to Confucius: "Like the earth hosting everything under the sun, a gentleman achieves ultimate virtue by embracing everything indiscriminately." Only those with ultimate virtue can keep such a boundless openness and, in the same logic, one's virtue is only as great as the extent he keeps his heart and mind open.

The third one is the "harmony of man with heaven (nature)," which means human beings are integral parts of nature and must not do anything to jeopardize the integrity of nature, otherwise nature as a whole will be in trouble or even be completely destroyed.

Just think about it and ask yourself, who can argue that these three highlights are not still relevant today? And is there any better inspiration than the three gems of human wisdom for pursuing harmony between individuals, between an individual and society, between humankind and nature and between nations?

Some people might ask, isn't such essence of Confucianism already obsolete? Does it still make sense for the reality of today? Can such knowledge, based on moral principles and self-perfection, really help the world overcome the most urgent problems?

Indeed, the best of traditional Chinese culture, represented by Confucianism, combines philosophical thinking, ethical upbringing and humanitarian caring. It is the ultimate summary of all achievements in areas such as economy, politics, sciences and humanities made by Eastern societies through thousands of years of tireless practice, and of Eastern people's spiritual activities and their directions.

Naturally, it has to contain some traces of universal principles and human aspirations, especially its extraordinary emphasis on respect for humanity, the culmination of humanity and man's social responsibilities. These should not only work as a candid reminder and lesson for today's materialistic mindset, but also rhyme with what Western culture has to offer and head for the same end goal.

Didn't Humboldt and Schiller, seen as spiritual vanguards of Western universities, set unmistakable missions for such institutions of higher learning?

They believed education in the end can shape personality, forge ethics, train and teach those who can appreciate truth, virtue and beauty and who can realize human dignity. The end purpose is "to make all strengths of individuals into a loftiest and most harmonious whole."

In light of reverence for ethical principles, respect for humanity and the pursuit of truth, virtue, beauty and harmony, it is not hard to see at all how similar the thoughts of Confucius and those vanguards of Western education are.

This, I assume, is the reason why Confucius Institutes are so popular throughout the world.

The author is a researcher from the China Foundation for International & Strategic Studies.

(China Daily May 16, 2006)


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