Secret Confucius Institute Curriculum

Thanks to Sinocism (go there to find the video), I see that the Daily Show has documented yet another case of amusing* reaction in the US to the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes (孔子学院). At the moment of the snapshot below,  one of the CI opponents is professing not to understand the message of this particular bit of teaching material propaganda because “I can’t read Chinese.”


Sinoglot readers, of course, will be quick to decode the message. Apparently, has been hard at work in the smoke-filled back rooms. In the midst of all those pretty pictures of Chinese characters and calligraphy in the CI classroom, behind every flashcard we find there’s actually — gasp! — Pinyin.

In all seriousness, as a Zhonglish speaker and advocate for Mandarin language acquisition, I’m quite interested in CI’s pedagogical approach. I would really like to see some success in teaching Mandarin to foreigners; it would help us all get along. The details of the CI curriculum are critical. What’s the timing of Pinyin vs Chinese characters? What kind of content do they endeavor to teach in, say, the middle of America?

Maybe someone out there with a strong interest in Mandarin as a Second Language has done some real analysis of the CI approach and could point us to it?


*The reaction is “amusing” because it seems to be based on blind ignorance, such as opposing the “secret curriculum” without even bothering to look at the curriculum. Don’t read into this statement that I think everyone in the whole anti-CI debate is ignorant. That would be another debate for another blog — this one’s just about language 😀

9 responses to “Secret Confucius Institute Curriculum”

  1. GAC says:

    I will file this under “misconceptions about ‘Communist China'”. Like the misperception I’ve heard from fellow Chinese culture students that the importance of the color red comes from Communism. (Seriously? Do you see that amount of red in Russia?)

  2. Sean says:

    I wanted to say something on this, but I will have to post a more lengthy comment later, when I have more time, it is 3am, but you touched a hotspot with me on ci, not so much the anti ci stuff, I don’t really care about the anti’s. BUT I want to say that when I looked up what I thought was the ci in sacramento awhile back, I found it in a small, small little locked up bottom of a building in a historic chinese part of town, like………ok……… american is going to stumble in there anyway, except a mandarin learning person like me who is getting the learning anywhere he can. So my brief point is: What the hell is the big push? There is no big push behind ci from what I see, if there was a big push, then the cg would invest some heavy$ into it, and really get it going. From the place I saw in sacramento, your welcome if your a overseas chinese parents children who don’t speak chinese, and its a place to send your american chinese kids to learn chinese…..That’s how I see it, maybe I stumbled into the wrong ci, but maybe not. I even thought, hey if this is the best they can do, then they should hire me to get a ci up and running in sacramento or sf, or anywhere, hell, I’ll get a whole chain of them going, and I am a born and raised american, I’m don’t believe the anti crap, I believe in broadening ones’ language skills for business and travel. wth, I think with 10 jillion english schools in china, we should at least have some good chinese schools in america. I think this topic could really go somewhere. Thanks, Sean

  3. Zev Handel says:

    Every Confucius Institute is different. There is no one template. Some are small and have very limited agendas. Some are attached to universities, some to public school systems, some to neither. Some have large staffs and budgets, some are run on a shoestring. Some focus on language education, some on cultural exchange, and some do it all. Hanban is extremely flexible about the size, structure, affiliations, and missions of the CIs.

    Completely separate from the Institutes are the Confucius Classrooms, one of which was the subject of the Daily Show bit.

    There are no fixed curricula associated with Confucius Institutes. I don’t know if there’s a fixed curriculum — or maybe just a set of materials or templates — for Confucius Classrooms.

  4. Syz says:

    Zev, thanks this is helpful. Clearly I had no idea. When you see “completely separate” do you mean that they are not even run or authorized by the same organization?

  5. Zev Handel says:

    @Syz, sorry, my statement wasn’t very clear. They are indeed both chartered by Hanban, which is (according to their web site ) a “public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education … committed to providing Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide.” Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms are complementary organizations designed to help foster Chinese learning. As I understand it, Confucius Institutes carry out a broad range of activities, while Confucius Classrooms are just that — classrooms — at the K-12 level. I was under the impression that Confucius Classrooms could be applied for and set up independently of Confucius Institutes, but it’s possible I’m wrong about that — it may be that a Confucius Institute needs to be a sponsor.

  6. Zev Handel says:

    @Syz: Here’s the web page on how to apply for a Confucius Classroom: . As far as I can tell, a Confucius Institute needn’t be involved. But you’ll note from the position of the page within the structure of the web site that Hanban considers these Classrooms to be an extension of their Confucius Institute program.

    @Sean: The Chinese government has put immense quantities of money into setting these things up, and continues to do so. But they do require matching funds from the non-Chinese partner, which is one reason that some Institutes start small. Sometimes the offices and staff are small even though the impact on the community may be large. (By the way, I don’t think there is a Confucius Institute in Sacramento. See for a current list of all CIs.)

  7. GAC says:

    I believe there are people trying to set up a Confucius Institute or Confucian classrooms here in West Virginia. If so, I know someone who is likely to be involved, maybe I can talk to that person about it.

  8. Sean says:

    Thanks for the replies regarding my commments. I am enlightened a little bit more. Everything having been said, I still have a position, even with the new info such as they are for spreading propoganda. Ok, whatever. Maybe China eventually intends to control the world. I believe that was Englands goal, and maybe still is, maybe through the use of the United States and the world bank. That stuff is for the experts, not me. Unless one hell of a lot of me-type people simple are tired of governments running the regular people instead of the regular people running the governments. I simply like the idea of our own american citizens having access to Chinese language learning, especially young people who can plot their lives out with more options if they are fluent in several languages. That is why I was happy to hear about these Confucious Institutes. But after reading some of the links like the wikipedia one that Zev put up, I am not sure that the CI’s are just for learning Mandarin and Chinese culture. Wiki provides some info that makes them sound sinister. I don’t like ‘sinister’, I like ‘honest’ and ‘up front’ but welcome to planet earth, self. I don’t know what the Chinese government is up too, and I don’t know what the American government is up to. I guess they are supposed to protect the interests of their citizens? With the world changing as it is, and 40 years ago, China was MIA, now they are the worlds assembler. I happen to know that they are also a country full of great people, wonderful places to visit and 50 million great places, restaurants, parks, lakes, mountains, temples to hang out in, and chat with the locals, who are friendly great regular old people. When I was growing up in a small town in Nor Cal, people were friendly and strangers talked to each other no problem. Not so is 2010 Sacramento. But it is that way everywhere I went in China last year. I believe that if more people worldwide learn other languages,and my favorite is Chinese, then somehow we will automatically be exposed to other cultures. Is that a bad thing? Hell no, it’s a good thing. The people in the USA who are worried about Chinese “propoganda” should pull their head out of their butt, and focus on the worse propopganda coming from their own american citizens who want to turn us into early 20th century Russia. What a joke. My own take on CI, based on the few facts that I have, would be: I believe China stepped out the MIA zone when Mao died in 1976, and for the last 30 years they have been becoming “part” of the “world”. They are a big country with a lot of people. They have their OWN LANGUAGE, they probably feel that their language is just as important as English in the world scheme, and everyone else has been setting up English schools everywhere in the world for a long time, so they probably in a nutshell figured, “what the hell? Why can’t we set up Chinese language schools all over the planet?” To them, that probably is NO DIFFERENT from what has been done with English. I happen to agree with their hypothetical thinking. In fact, I think the Indian, Japanese, UAE, Russian, German, and French governments could and should do the same thing. Why don’t they? Probably because the language of business and science is mostly English. Idk, I am no expert, just some guy. But I still like the idea that the Chinese government is trying to get the world to speak Chinese and learn about Chinese culture. And another thing, why not learn about Chinese culture? It is damn interesting, and we are all on this planet as neighbors, why not respect your neighbors and learn about them, enjoy them and go visit with them. Who cares if your local american chinese restuarant owner doesn’t have any interest in your life. Which brings me to another point, IF in fact the CI’s are trying to spread chinese culture, then I hope that they are not eliminating the full history of the last 100 years from all sides, but that is probably not realistic if it is coming from the current chinese government. But hey, its not a perfect world, we can study history on our own in the US thankfully, and form our own opinions and views of current situations and how they got that way. In the future, I would like to see some sort of independent CI type projects. Or maybe some independent language schools run by entrepreneurs in the US to teach many different languages, with Chinese being the first in line. I am biased for some reason because I like the characters, and speaking chinese, and that is my chosen 2nd language. It is just amazing to me how far the world has come in the last 200 years. Why not get interested in China? It is one amazing freakin place with great people, great food, and great places and a whole different interesting culture. Sorry if this was too long.

  9. BTB says:

    From knowing people who work in the CI/CC system, what’s actually done is extremely varaible. Confucious Institutes (at least the one in London) seem to act a repositories for Chinese teachers and volunteer teachers (volunteers hold undergraduate degrees, teachers hold graduate degrees, both more or less do the same things) who teach both within the partner university and with affiliated local Confucious Classrooms.

    Both teachers and volunteer teachers are on one to two year contracts that can be renewed if the teacher or volunteer performs well. Typically, volunteers who opt not to teach are not given new contracts (they work as clerical staff within the institute and can be easily replaced; competent teachers are not as easily replaced). Teachers and volunteers are the “public” face of the institutes; there is also a support staff, however I don’t know anyone involved on that side of things so I’m not sure on the details. At least at London’s CI, there are two main directors, one British national and one Chinese national that oversee the institute and assign teachers and volunteers tasks as needed.

    These tasks can be very, very wide ranging. Aside from the obvious teaching assignments, there are also a number of organizational activities (including the always necessary formal galas and banquets that go hand and hand with any large Chinese organization), and some tasks that I can only describe as weird: taking undergradute/high school students who visit from China around the region/country; midnight fix-it tasks if these students break something; teaching the children of Chinese embassy personnel Chinese; etc.

    There, are of course, issues with corruption (the children of the upper class can effectively get a paid year-long vacation out of the program, especially as candidate selection is conducted semi-independently by each Chinese university) and at times it seems like it’s an immense national level face project, but it certainly isn’t an organ of the communist party to corrupt Western youth and it does do a fairly good job of offering Chinese instruction to schools that wouldn’t have otherwise have access to it. The quality of that instruction depends on the drive and motivations of the local and Chinese directors as well as the goals of the host institutions.

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