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The Confucius Institute at Stanford University

January 10, 2013
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OIA had the opportunity to speak with Professor Ban Wang, Chair of the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department about the Confucius Institute at Stanford and its mission to promote the study of Chinese language and culture, enhance educational exchange between the US and China, and introduce Confucian learning into Western daily living.

Q. How long has the Confucius Institute been at Stanford University?

For more than a decade, Professor Chao Fen Sun has been very much engaged in building and developing our language instruction program and he was very passionate about Chinese language teaching. It so happens that the Confucius Institute (CI) started out in China as a language instruction program. Professor Sun connected with some people at the Hanban (the Chinese government agency for overseeing Confucius Institute programs), one of whom was a Stanford PhD. After a few years of negotiations, an agreement was signed in 2009 to open a Confucius Institute at Stanford and operations started here. The purpose was not only to promote language teaching, because we already had a very strong program in place, but also to be research oriented and to promote the study of Chinese language, literature and culture.

Q. The Confucius Institute is overseen by the Hanban, the Chinese Language Bureau under the State Council in China. Does the Chinese government fund the Confucius Institute?

An annual budget is the model that applies to every other CI in the world with the exception of Stanford. The CI at Stanford is based on an endowment from the Hanban that was matched by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. With the annual payout from the endowment we are able to support one endowed chair (CI Endowed Chair in Chinese Studies) and two PhD students throughout their approximately 5-year career, a program administrator, scholarly activities and sponsorship of various programs on campus.

Q. What is the mission of the Confucius Institute?

There has been some controversy over the grand mission here. Every CI in the west must have a counterpart at a Chinese university as a counselor and our counterpart is Peking University (PKU). PKU initially wanted us to have more of a social science orientation and to bring on a faculty member who was engaged in modern studies, however, we felt that Stanford’s CI should support the study of Chinese language and culture in general and that our departmental needed a specialist in Chinese classical poetry. We had this ongoing conversation with PKU for some time: modern social sciences vs. classical literature. You cannot have a respectable Chinese program without a specialist in classical Chinese poetry.

Fortunately, we are very lucky to have Dean Richard Saller as the Director of the CI whose strong leadership has been instrumental in helping us with our negotiations. For the past two years, whenever we had a difference of opinion with the Hanban or PKU counterparts, Professor Chao, Dean Saller and I would go to Beijing for face-to-face negotiations. Each time, we remind them that Stanford University has the control on how to manage the Institute.  The situation turned out in our favor and I am happy to report that Professor Ronald Egan came on board this fall quarter as our endowed chair. His research areas include Chinese poetry, Song dynasty poetry and literati culture and the social and historical context of Song dynasty aesthetics.

Q. What are some of the activities that you have been doing to promote the Confucius Institute?

Each year, we sponsor or co-sponsor a few major events.  In the coming year, our events will include

·      A panel “Perfecting the Arts, Serving the People” on the role of Chinese art in the world in conjunction with the Pan-Asian Music Festival organized by Jindong Cai at the new Bing Concert Hall
·      Professor Sun’s conference on “The Study of Cross-Cultural Appropriation and Translation of Linguistic Elements”
·      The Annual Meeting of the Western Branch of the American Oriental Society to be held in 2013 at Stanford

We publicize our events to a broad audience and the events are open to everybody on and off campus; usually attendees come from all over the Bay area.

Q. The latter conferences showcase research that is very deep and specific. Do you organize any events for undergraduates?

For the most part, undergraduate students are not ready for scholarly research because it takes years to master the language and therefore CI seems to be out of touch with them. But we do have funds for undergraduate students to go to China for language study. We also sponsor some events for undergraduate students.  Last year, the Hanban sent renowned Confucian scholar, Du Weiming to Stanford for a month and we organized four events for him, including one with undergraduate student group, Confucian Life and Study that was very successful.

Q. How would you like to see the Confucius Institute grow in the coming years?

I would really like to:

· Broaden and deepen the study of Chinese language and culture
· Train world-class scholars to promote and train more students in the future
· Publish high quality scholarship
· Emulate the success of other similar institutes such as Goethe-Institut and Alliance Français that have supported quality scholarship for decades
· Promote Chinese culture to be part of the world culture that can resonate deeply with the average person

For example, Chinese values, such as filial piety, need to be worked into a dialogue with other values to be incorporated into one’s daily life. If Confucian cultural values can be worked into our general education curriculum, such as Thinking Matters, that would really be great.  I previously taught a class called “Rebellious Daughters and Filial Sons of the Chinese Family in the Introduction to Humanities program and it was well received. I would like to see more and more of that groundwork of not only introducing Confucian learning but also incorporating it into Western general knowledge.  For Westerners to understand Confucianism the way they understand Walt Whitman would be a huge accomplishment.