New Emissary

Confucius: What’s in a Name?

Confucius Institutes have little to do with the ancient philosopher after which they’re named. But does it matter?

Confucius: (551-479 BCE) A thinker, political figure, educator, and founder of the RuSchool of Chinese thought. (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)

Confucius Institutes: (2004 – ) Non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries. (Office of Chinese Language Council International )  

Almost 400,000 learners across 96 countries in 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius Classrooms are currently being taught the language and culture of China—the Asian nation all eyes are on as it continues its 21st century rise to great power status. China’s rising clout is certainly one of the major reasons why Confucius Institutes are becoming, for many, an intriguing soft power initiative. But there are other interesting points tied to these organizations that I’ll also be covering throughout this series.

For instance, one thing that’s both ironic and important to acknowledge is that there’s little (if any) connection between the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, after which the initiative is named, and the institutes themselves. It’s something Daniel Bell, author of China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society, reminded me of this when I spoke to him on the topic: ‘(Confucius Institutes) are more language training institutes than for promoting Confucian values.’

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So why the name, then? I asked one of my chief consultants for this series, Don Starr of Durham University, to try to shed some light on this.

The 'Mao Zedong Institute' That Couldn't Have Been

He told me that when it comes to national cultural organizations worldwide, they all tend to be identified by the name of the country (Japan Foundation, the British Council) or a famous literary figure (Germany's Goethe Institutes, Italy’s The Dante Alighieri Societies), which means that in this sense, China’s decision isn’t all that unusual.

However, he says that what was initially particularly surprising to many China watchers in the naming of the Confucius Institutes was ‘that Confucius had been for most of the 20th century attacked by Chinese intellectuals and by the Communist party.’

But he added that he now believes the name was a very good choice, almost more because of what it hasn’t brought with it than what it has.

For example, he suggests, if it had been called the China Foundation (or something similar), it could have brought up a plethora of sticky and sensitive issues surrounding national identity: ‘There’s the confusion of two Chinas with Taiwan. So, for example, China Airlines is Taiwan—the Republic of China. So if you use “China,” although mainland China would claim to be the only China, nevertheless, in the real world, there are other people who can claim to be China as well.’

He says that since people from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore are generally happy to look up to Confucius, the decision to use the philosopher’s name is almost ‘something that unites the Chinese Diasporas as well…it’s not divisive.’

So if it’s going to be named after a cultural figure, why Confucius? Again, for what it’s not more than what it is. Starr explained: ‘I think the name, the brand, has been successful insofar as none of the alternatives seem much better. You think, surely you can come up with something better than that. But when you start to think about it, it’s difficult.’

He suggests that, for example, while one immediate name that may spring to mind is ‘Mao Zedong Institute, or something like that,’ it would simply ‘not be appropriate.’

New Global Brand

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In addition, Starr says that the reality is that Confucius is one of the few global brands the Chinese have. He says that for many in the West, Confucius is usually associated in some way with learning and general wisdom, and so it works with the institutes and their purpose in terms of branding.

In China, meanwhile, despite the historical criticism of Confucianism, the concept has still always been acknowledged as placing a heavy emphasis on learning and equality through learning—principles that the current government says it would like to see widely enforced.

The alternative? According to Starr, other movements such as Marxism that have proved popular in China in the past are now, ‘as a social control model…really deficient. I think from the Chinese point of view (Confucianism) just makes a lot of sense and the Chinese leadership wants to emphasize (its) values.’

Whether it was just by default that the name Confucius was chosen to represent China to the world, or if it really was the best choice, there’s little doubt that the institutes are among the nation’s most successful modern soft power tactics. Although the original plan by the Office of Chinese Language Council International (or Hanban), which funds the institutes, was to have 100 set up worldwide by 2010, the goal was quickly modified to 500 as the institutes did better than expected.

I’ll look at some of the other reasons for their success later this week.