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Confucius Institute - gathering momentum

Published:Wednesday | November 2, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Dr Courtney A. Hogarth, Contributor

THE CONFUCIUS Institute (International) was birthed out of China's continued quest to be open and accessible to peoples, globally. This openness and accessibility will happen only in such an environment as allows for understanding of an ancient, arcane and sometimes misunderstood civilisation.

As is now known, the Confucius Institute at the University of the West Indies (UWI) was handed over during the official visit of H.E. Xi Jinping, vice-president of the People's Republic of China, in February 2009.

My own view on the Confucius Institute's relevance is that it ought to function, not only in allowing Jamaicans to understand China, but vice versa. Admittedly, there is a more profound relevance than this. The Chinese have been in Jamaica since that first band of indentured workers set foot on this land in 1854. That they have blended and intermingled with the local population is evident in the many institutions they forged - the Chinese Benevolent Association, Chinese Cultural Association, Chinese Freemason Association, Chee Kung Tung, the Jamaica China Friendship Association and the Jamaica China Chamber of Commerce.

Cultural blend

Though imported, the Confucius Institute is the most recent institution with relevance to both Jamaica and China. This blending is further evidenced by the presence of various business enterprises, headed by Chinese entrepreneurs, many of whom have done exceptionally well, economically. Some of these individuals continue to make meaningful contributions to the Jamaican society. In truth, a great many can no longer lay claim to a linear ancestry rooted only in China, but have become descendants of those who traversed the Middle Passage, whether as cargo or crew, and so forth.

As an institution, primarily to educate, the Confucius Institute differs from some of the above-mentioned in that it was established for native-born and bred Jamaicans, devoid of Chinese ancestry, as well as those bearing Chinese lineage, to learn about China. In this sense it is all embracing. Native Jamaicans, unable to lay claim to Chinese roots, as well as those Jamaicans of Chinese ancestry, continue to find self in that predicament of inability to understand the Chinese. In other words, many Jamaicans of Chinese ancestry themselves know very little of Chinese Language/culture, geography or history.

In the 15 months that the Confucius Institute has been in operation, we have been able to avail Jamaicans of knowledge, generally, about China. We have celebrated all major traditional Chinese festivals, introduced these into primary and tertiary institutions, as well as to the wider community. Through these festivals and the stories of how they came into existence, Jamaicans have begun to understand their relevance as component parts in that overall Chinese cultural landscape.

There are Jamaicans, both from UWI and the community, who study Chinese (Mandarin) at the Confucius Institute. Many of these students are diligent, making the constant effort to master a language that demands attention to detail, time and patience. Out of these classes, we have been able to offer scholarships to students to get a firsthand experience of life in China. These have been for short periods of time.

Infusing cultural interaction

While in China they undergo an intensive Chinese Language course, interspersed with Chinese calligraphy, Tai Chi, Chi Gong and travel extensively within the cities to which they are sent. This 'travel' is usually aimed at introducing the history and local culture in those areas. This first-hand experience is valuable for the boldness it engenders in the individual. Usually students return to classes at the institute with a renewed interest to study and improve.

Many individuals continue to support our Film of the Month. These films serve as information, entertainment and art, as they uncover the film-maker's craft, offer a glimpse on life in China, as well as allow us a different viewpoint on global life - a global interconnectedness which belongs collectively to Jamaica and China, underpinned by similar emotions, dreams and aspirations.

Within the UWI itself, the Confucius Institute is working, cross-faculty, to promote relationships with institutions of higher learning in China. Valuable contacts are being forged that will not only benefit those in the realm of academia, but Jamaicans in general.

Change to learn

As we enter the second decade of this 21st century, and the beginning of the fourth decade of China's opening up and reform policy, it is quite evident that China can no longer be ignored, whether culturally, economically or politically. For us in Jamaica, whose culture has long been influenced by European and American values, and with whose dominance we always felt comfortable, especially since we understood the language of articulation, we will simply have to learn to change, and change to learn. The United States of America (USA) has the largest number of Confucius Institutes in the world. This, of course, is not by accident. They understand the value of this institution, and how a grasp of Chinese Language and culture will encourage an advantageous position in dealing with China - this dragon bent on moving the world. This, of course despite many individuals in the USA who continue to label the Confucius Institute 'an instrument for Chinese communist propaganda'.

While the Confucius Institute trudges with infant feet, garnering those resources that shall make her viable, I encourage Jamaicans to make full use of those services we have to offer. Our sure growth shall be, in part, the mandate of ordinary Jamaican citizens in their willingness to assist in our continued nourishing.

Dr Courtney A. Hogarth is Director of Confucius Institute at the University of the West Indies, Mona.