File photo of Nora Yao, director of New Zealand's first Confucius Institute
For generations, Chinese culture was alien to most New Zealanders, despite a thriving ethnic Chinese community that has kept its language and traditions alive.
But a growing number of non-Chinese Kiwis are learning Chinese and studying the culture, at a very young age in school, with help from the Confucius Institutes in New Zealand, says Nora Yao, director of New Zealand's first Confucius Institute.
Based at the University of Auckland, the institute was founded in 2006 at a time when the study of Chinese at school was generally low, said Yao.
Rather than simply providing ethnic Chinese New Zealanders with a better language learning environment, Yao focuses on encouraging non-Chinese Kiwis to learn Chinese and become interested in Chinese culture.
"There was no magic touch -- the number of students learning Chinese has more than doubled in the last five years, but it's still not enough," says Yao.
"New Zealand still lags behind other countries in offering Chinese, but in some ways that's good because we can see how well other countries are doing and learn from them."
She chose to start with school principals, who were decisive in setting their school curricula.
The institute organizes annual visits to China by groups of principals in order to raise their awareness of the importance and benefits of learning Chinese through exchanges with Chinese counterparts, tours of Chinese schools and visits to New Zealand companies doing business in China.
Increasing numbers of New Zealand school principals were signing up for the tours, Yao told Xinhua.
In August, the most recent delegation visited Beijing, Shanghai, Jinan and the hometown of Confucius - Qufu.
On their return, the principals are expected to present a report to the institute on the tour.
Past reports had been extremely appreciative, resulting in a growing number of schools offering Chinese to their students.
"From my own experience, I can see the changes in the principals we select," says Yao. "It's not a tourist trip -- it's a development opportunity. We can see the principals feel the urge to be connected with China."
According to the Confucius Institute Headquarters, or Hanban, more than 2,500 school principals and educational officials from all over the world visited China last year.
The institute also provides teaching assistants to help schools run Chinese classes, said Yao.
Under the New Zealand-China free trade agreement signed in 2008, China can send up to 150 teachers to New Zealand every year to assist local teachers.
Most of the teachers sent from China were masters graduates majoring in international education. This year, Yao received 18 young teachers -- up from just eight last year -- who were sent to assist "Confucius classrooms" in 45 schools.
Last year the number of primary and intermediate school students studying Chinese exceeded the number of studying Latin for the first time. "It had a lot to do with the teaching assistants from China," says Yao.
While Chinese is still behind French, German, Japanese and Spanish as a language option for New Zealand students, it is catching up fast.
According to Hanban, China sent a total of 3,000 teachers to 114 countries last year, up 46 percent from 2009.
Textbooks, videos and other teaching materials are also provided to New Zealand schools. Most of the materials were from Hanban, which provided 400,000 textbooks to Confucius institutes and Confucius classrooms around the world last year.
While support from the principals and teaching capabilities are important, the main reason for the rapid expansion of Chinese classes in New Zealand schools is the interest from students, says Yao.
The institute collates and analyzes methods and teaching materials from schools that have proved effective in raising student interest, and introduces them to other schools.
Schools and teachers often organize recreational activities to help students learn. This year the delegation to China arrived in advance of the Mid-autumn Festival, so many principles brought back mooncakes and shared them with students.
"There are a lot of cultural components that help children to like studying Chinese rather than just seeing how many words they can learn."
More New Zealand parents were realizing that Chinese could be a great advantage in their children's future.
"A lot of parents have a different view of China than they did 10 years ago -- they travel more, they do business there and they are exposed more to Chinese and other different cultures."
According to New Zealand's Ministry of Education, the number of Year 1 to 8 students studying Chinese in public schools rose from 2,335 in 2000 to 8,111 last year.
New Zealand has two other Confucius institutes -- one in Wellington and one in the South Island city of Christchurch -- which were both established in 2010.
Yao said the three institutes had different working focuses, but coordinated to achieve the common goal of spreading Chinese culture in New Zealand.
"The world is getting smaller and smaller," says Yao. "We probably cannot make every Kiwi study Chinese, but we are confident we can teach them more about Chinese culture."
(Xinhua News Agency, China.org.cn October 10, 2011)