Confucius Institute brings China to Midwest

By Caroline Berg, The Daily Iowan

An invisible cape flaps behind visiting scholar Qian Sun wherever she goes. Not only does the native from Shanghai teach Chinese language classes for the UI Confucius Institute, she also serves as an ambassador of Chinese culture battling against misconceptions.

“When I first arrived [last August], someone here in Iowa asked me, ‘Is China very dangerous?’ ” Sun said. “I was so shocked. I feel like some people’s impressions of China are still stuck in the times of the Cultural Revolution [more than 30 years ago].”

In 2004, the Chinese government’s Office of Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban, initiated a global outreach project to promote multicultural relations and education.

Today, Hanban has established a network of 282 Confucius Institutes in 84 countries worldwide. In 2006, the UI was the third university-based institute in the United States to found its own Confucius Institute and form a partnership with Shanghai’s Eastern China Normal University.

Every year, the UI’s Confucius Institute hosts two guest scholars from its sister university in Shanghai to help conduct community and UI credit-based Chinese language classes, as well as to experience a different culture for themselves.

“I’m not only teaching, but I’m also learning from my students,” Sun said. “It’s a good experience for my own studies.”

She enjoys researching supplementary presentations on topics such as Chinese cuisine and festivals for her class discussions. She often discovers unexpected similarities between Chinese and U.S. cultures, she said, which produce novel ties between her and her students.

In addition to providing a language curriculum, the Confucius Institute organizes events to introduce Chinese art, dance, martial arts, music, and food and to discuss cultural geography, trade, politics, law, and urban life.

Today, the institute will greet the new semester with a calligraphy class taught by UI Professor Emeritus Ramon Lim. The instruction will be split into a presentation of the art and history of calligraphy followed by a hands-on trial for participants.

“You don’t have to be an expert on the Chinese language to appreciate the art of Chinese calligraphy,” said Lim, whose works are featured in Chait Galleries Downtown.

A person who can understand the modern art styles of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline can also understand Chinese calligraphy, he said.

The Confucius Institute also plans to attend next month’s annual Cultural Diversity Festival for its second-consecutive year.

“It was a good way to get the word out,” said Rebecca Kessler, the Confucius Institute assistant to the director. “[Our program has] a lot of potential.”

The institute is applying for a grant to initiate summer language camps for middle-school and high-school levels.

“We’re trying to get more involved in the community,” Kessler said. “I think we can reach a lot more people than we are [here] in Iowa, which is a goal for the coming year.”

The summer program, with a dormitory component, would allow students from farther reaches of Iowa to participate in Chinese studies and become acquainted with the culture.

Sun believes the Midwest is especially isolated from access to Chinese language and study.

“It is important for people to be updated on their knowledge of China,” she said.

Contributed with permission from The Daily Iowan.

Keywords: