The University of Iowa

UI Program Provides Primer on Chinese Culture

July 13th, 2011

By Brittany Caplin

From fyi, the UI’s faculty and staff newsletter

Instructor Jia Sun holds up a cartoon of a woman wearing a pink shirt and blue jeans. Underneath the picture, the caption reads “Māmā.” Sun says the word and two children, each with their parent, repeat the word with the exact pitch fluctuation as the teacher.

Sun continues to show other flashcards; within five minutes, the students have reviewed seven Chinese words. “Gǎo hǎo,” Sun says as she responds to each child, meaning good job in Chinese.

Sun adds variety to the lesson by having the children come up to the front of the room and pin the cartoon flashcards on the wall. The children must point to the correct card when Sun says the Chinese word.

The class is a hit with 7-year-old Justine Krasowki. “I love talking to my dad in Chinese,” she says.

This activity is part of a class coordinated by the Confucius Institute, a center in University of Iowa International Programs. The class is one of more than five offered throughout the summer and the academic year to inspire interest in Chinese language and culture.

“We need to know more about China because it’s the most important international relationship in the United States.”

Chuanren Ke, professor of Asian and Slavic languages and literatures in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, founded the Confucius Institute in 2006. The institute is a collaborative effort involving The University of Iowa; Hanban, an international council to promote and teach Chinese culture; and East China Normal University. Hanban gives the institute resources, and teachers come from East China Normal University.

The institute’s classes touch on numerous topics: language, martial arts, recreation, and meditation, to name a few. A family class allows kids and one or more parent to learn more about Chinese culture in an entertaining and relaxed manner. Students and parents learn greetings, colors, counting, animals, food, music, dance, and art.

“I’ve traveled to China numerous times and have some family members who live there,” says Matthew Krasowski, a parent enrolled in the family class. “I think it’s important for my daughter to learn Chinese culture.”

Ke serves as director of the Confucius Institute in Iowa City, overseeing both the research and the courses. Ke, a native from China, traveled to America in 1984 and received both his MA and PhD in linguistics from Indiana University. He came to The University of Iowa in 1993; since then, Ke devoted countless hours and much energy into developing Iowa City’s Confucius Institute—to “bring China to Iowa.”

“I wanted to create a program to help members of the community understand China,” he says. “It’s great to see more people taking the courses, to see more people in the community learning about China.”

Iowa was the perfect location for this Confucius Institute, according to Ke, because the agricultural state doesn’t have a lot of interaction with China.

“We need to know more about China because it’s the most important international relationship in the United States,” Ke states. “The United States and China are seen as the world’s two superpowers—learning each other’s cultures will only help our business and cultural relations.”

The Confucius Institute isn’t only a tool to nurture international relations; taking a class could help improve relations right here on campus. Administrative assistant Andrea Niehaus says more and more Chinese students are studying abroad, especially here at Iowa. Currently 1,300 students from Mainland China are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs at the University, according to statistics from the UI International Student & Scholar Services.

Niehaus encourages faculty, staff, and students to get involved as an effort to expand their own international knowledge. “It’s a great way to learn Chinese culture, relate to students, staff, and faculty from China—even simple things like learning how to pronounce Chinese names.”

Niehaus recognizes the perception that studying Chinese is difficult. “When people sign up for a class there is a gentle introduction on how to study Chinese,” she says. “Class sizes are intimate, and most importantly there is a fun environment.”