Confucius Institute brings China to Macon

Confucius Institute brings China to Macon

jmink@macon.comApril 11, 2013 

When visitors enter the lower level of Wesleyan College’s library, they step into another world. There, they are greeted by a small piece of China.

Chinese garments, quilts and artwork hang from the walls. Traditional Chinese lamps, dishes and vases sit throughout a beige-painted room. Glass cases hold Chinese memorabilia, and an aged Wesleyan registration book showcases signatures of three famous Chinese sisters.

But it’s more than just a section of the library. The area is home to the college’s Confucius Institute, which officially opened Thursday. With hundreds of establishments across the world, the institute bridges American and Chinese cultures, and Wesleyan has now joined the effort.

“We really think it’s going to be a positive development for the folks here at Wesleyan and in Macon,” Wesleyan President Ruth Knox said.

The institute works to educate people about Chinese culture and language, bringing teaching materials and Chinese educators to American institutions. At Wesleyan, college students already take Chinese courses, but beginning this fall, the institute will offer Chinese classes to the public. Some of those classes might have a small fee, and they will span from cultural to calligraphy courses, Wesleyan Provost Vivia Fowler said.

Additionally, the institute will hold public cultural events, such as Chinese holiday celebrations and Chinese theater performances. Several institutions place Chinese teachers in public schools, where they teach children Chinese language and culture, and Wesleyan will likely take that path. In fact, some private high schools already have expressed interest in working with Wesleyan’s institution, Fowler said.

For Wesleyan students, the partnership means more study abroad opportunities, Knox said. Wesleyan is teaming with Guangzhou University in China, where Wesleyan will open an American Cultural Center in May. Yu Jianshe, president of Guangzhou University, attended Thursday’s grand opening at Wesleyan.

“We’ll have Chinese culture here and American culture there,” Fowler said.

In the future, Wesleyan College also might add an Asian studies program with the help of the institution, Knox said.

The local program got its start more than a year ago when Wesleyan was hosting a delegation of Chinese travel writers who were visiting Macon. Wesleyan already had a small room that was dedicated to Chinese culture. The writers were impressed not only with the “China room” but also with Wesleyan’s historical connection to China.

The three Soong sisters, who once were China’s most powerful women, were all educated at Wesleyan, according to a college document. Soong Ai-ling, who graduated in 1909, was the first Chinese woman to be educated in the United States. The sisters made headlines as economic, political and social leaders, as well as human rights advocates.

The writers, who visited Macon, thought the Soong sister connection made Wesleyan an excellent candidate for a Confucius Institute, Knox said. And the Hanban, the Chinese organization that oversees the Confucius Institute, agreed. “This is my dream realized,” said Xu Lin, director general of Hanban. “Our (country) has a very, very different, very, very special relationship with this college.”

After research, planning and trips to China, Wesleyan officials reached an agreement with Hanban to bring the institute to Macon. Wesleyan is one of four colleges and universities in Georgia with a Confucius Institute. This year, Kennesaw State University’s Confucius Institute sent 25 teachers to Bibb County public schools, where they are teaching students Mandarin Chinese.

While the Wesleyan community embraced the program, the institutes have endured nationwide controversy. Opponents have argued that the programs are propaganda vehicles and have too much influence over American citizens.

But proponents say the institutes build relationships and create cultural understanding, which is vital in today’s society.

“We can’t live in isolation,” Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said. “We’re part of a global economy.”

For Zhen Ying, a China native and economics professor at Wesleyan, the institution means a better connection to her home country, something that seems to be lacking in this nation, she said.

“I don’t think Americans have a clear understanding of China,” she said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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