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Confucius schools bridge cultural divides
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The head of Confucius Institute Headquarters paid US$90 for hairdos to learn a lesson on the communication gap between China and the West.

"I went to two hair dressers but both failed to do my hair the way I wanted it," Xu Lin told the audience at the opening ceremony of the National Chinese Language Conference last week.

"That's why I am here (promoting Chinese language and culture) because I strongly believe that in today's global village, we should learn more from each other and understand each other better."

The dynamic woman won 27 rounds of applause during her 25-minute speech that combined personal anecdotes with her passion for cultural exchanges.

Xu, 55, the key person behind the numerous success stories of the Confucius Institutes worldwide in the past five years, has also gained respect and recognition from her counterparts in the United States and the rest of the world for her diligence in promoting the Chinese language and culture.

The Confucius Institute Headquarters makes rules, regulates budgets, evaluates achievements and progress made by institutes around the world, approves new institutes and assigns managing and teaching staff. It is a non-governmental, non-profit organization affiliated with the Ministry of Education.

"I feel the global momentum (of learning Chinese language and culture) is much higher than what the media estimates here," she told China Daily on the sidelines of the conference over the weekend.

To cater to the growing enthusiasm, China set up the Confucius Institute program in 2006. The project is volunteer-based and run by foreign schools while the Chinese side provides teaching resources and financial support.

In the past five years, 282 Confucius Institutes and 272 Confucius Classrooms have been established in 90 countries and regions with about 230,000 registered students.

About 5,000 Chinese teachers and volunteers, 149 Chinese universities and 300 foreign universities are involved in the program.

The United States is the most active and successful partner of the program with 68 institutes, the largest number in a single country.

"American people have shown the most interest in Chinese language and culture," she said.

The New York Times in January cited rough calculations based on a US government survey that some 1,600 American public and private schools are teaching Chinese, up from 300 or so a decade ago. And the numbers are growing exponentially, it said.

Xu said the US Department of Education is expected to soon agree to a proposal to list Chinese separately in its annual survey of foreign language studies nationwide.

The US now counts students studying French, German, Spanish and Latin separately, with Chinese buried under "other languages".

"It will be a breakthrough in the American education system as they realize the importance of the Chinese language," she said.

But Xu faces many challenges from home and abroad, mostly to do with a misunderstanding of the program in China.

"Though many countries have shown great interest in our culture, some Chinese people wonder whether we should spend money promoting our culture to the rest of the world while China is short of money for its own schools," she said.

"But I believe the program is a very good way to enhance the understanding between China and the rest of the globe at the grassroots level."

(China Daily April 28, 2010)

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