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With much gratitude, the China Beat editors say goodbye

What a difference four years can make—for a blog, a country, and a planet. (“Blog, country, planet” might have made a nice coat of arms if we’d thought of it…) When China Beat launched early in 2008, blogs seemed like relatively new kids on the block, at least to academics. Four years later, the genre is old hat, sharing a landscape with newcomers like Tumblr, Twitter, and other microblogging platforms, and we’re increasingly catching up on China news not on computers but on devices that fit in our palms.

It isn’t just the technology that’s changed, but also the way China is written and thought about in the West. In early 2008, China had never held an Olympics or World’s Fair and it wasn’t the world’s second economy. Not many people were talking yet about a day coming when it would “rule the world” (though Jon Stewart, always ahead of his time, had already parodied the notion), and Bo Xilai hadn’t made headlines—good, bad, or indifferent—outside of China. Few besides China buffs had heard of Ai Weiwei or Chen Guangcheng.

Many things related to China that we’ve dealt with on the blog could have been predicted, but there have been many surprises as well. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been how many of the stories that captured our attention four years ago have rolled forward to today. The riots in Tibet in March 2008 caught us off guard, but it has now become a—tragically, depressingly—persistent story with the continued self-immolations, in some cases of people who were arrested during spring 2008. The Sichuan earthquake that year is another story that has continued to resonate in multiple ways, particularly for how it has highlighted China’s inability to make space for public calls for local government accountability. In July 2008, riots roiled Weng’an, Guizhou in response to concerns over local corruption—again last year, riots (in response to a very different form of local corruption, it should be noted) in Wukan, Guangdong garnered headlines around the world. Finally, as it has turned out, the furthest-reaching (at least to today) of 2008’s stories has certainly been the economic downturn of that fall, a downturn China seemed to weather well. At the end of China in 2008 we predicted that that story would probably dominate at least the next couple of years, but also predicted, hesitatingly, that in China, its pain it would ultimately be filed under “the human cost of continued development” rather than “the beginning of a breakdown” in economics and/or politics. As it turns out, we’re all still holding our breath.

The blog itself developed in ways that we never could have foreseen back in January 2008. We began China Beat with a small core group of contributors, imagining that each would write for the site once or twice a month, with an occasional guest post thrown in every now and then if someone outside the group wanted to post. That setup changed quickly, as more people than we ever imagined expressed an interest in becoming China Beatniks, and the distinction between “regular contributors” and “guest contributors” became irrelevant.

Even we aren’t sure exactly how many China Beatniks are out there, but over the past 999 posts, we’ve featured the writing and photography of an incredibly wide range of people. They include undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, journalists, photographers, and freelance writers from around the world. A number of them have pieces in China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, the book that grew out of the blog’s first year—another development that we didn’t have in mind when we began the site. In the meantime, a group that started over lunch around a little table outside Murray L. Krieger Hall on the sunny, eucalyptus-laced campus of the University of California, Irvine, has now scattered far from California.

Along the way, though, the blog showed us what the brave new academic world looks like—not a lone professor writing quietly in a dim office, or even (if you were lucky, as we were at Irvine) a small cohort of China geeks in a single place—but a cacophonous, global network of like-interested scholars, journalists, and everybody else chiming in, debating, sharing, linking, recommending, analyzing. (And there’s yet another group of people who read without commenting, whose identities might surprise us even more: one of us discovered an airline seatmate with no China background of her own who was an avid reader, because her son was working in Shanghai.) It’s been a pleasure for China Beat to be part of that conversation. And while the site is closing down, the vibrant community that the blog contributed to will continue to do its good work of sharing and showcasing provocative and thoughtful writing about China. We’ll see you there.

Maura Cunningham
Kate Merkel-Hess
Ken Pomeranz
Jeff Wasserstrom

A few notes on the future

We will be maintaining the China Beat site for the time being, so our archives will not disappear immediately. And China Beat will live on through our Twitter feed, where we will continue to post links to great China stories and announcements about events around the world. You can also follow three of our four editors on Twitter—Maura Cunningham, Kate Merkel-Hess, and Jeff Wasserstrom. We’ve been very happy to feature book reviews from Twentieth-Century China at the site for the past eighteen months; stay tuned for information about where those reviews will appear in the future.

Thank you

By Mike Frick

“Since you have gone, the house is empty, it has been three seasons now
Extinguish the lamps, let the twilight come, we must endure the setting sun” —Chinese funeral couplet

In 2000-2001, Elisabeth Rosenthal published a series of reports in the New York Times that alerted the world to a startling AIDS epidemic among farmers in central China. Beginning in the early 1990s, thousands of farmers in the Yellow River provinces of Henan, Hebei, Hubei, and Shanxi had contracted HIV through commercial blood selling. Local government officials in Henan promoted blood and plasma selling as a rural development scheme that would lift farmers out of poverty. State-run collection centers and private collectors known as “blood heads” would pool blood, extract the desired plasma, and then inject the leftover blood back into donors, thereby enabling people to donate more frequently. Unsafe pooling and re-injection practices exposed thousands to HIV; secondary transmission then occurred on an even wider scale through the use of contaminated blood products in hospitals as well as transmission to sexual partners and children by those already infected. After the epidemic came to light, the Chinese government banned the sale of blood and worked to increase the safety of the blood supply. Yet local officials also denied the scale of the epidemic and harassed journalists, physicians, and other activists who sought to document the extent of the blood disaster.

Yan Lianke’s novel Dream of Ding Village, a nominee for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, opens in the waning years of the blood-selling frenzy, as a small farming community in Henan province watches “the fever” begin to claim the lives of working-age adults. By the mid-1990s, the Chinese government had acknowledged the spread of HIV/AIDS among drug users on China’s southwestern borders, but no one expected AIDS to appear among poor farmers in China’s heartland. The discovery of aizibing cun, or AIDS villages, in central China forced government leaders to confront a pattern of HIV transmission among Han Chinese unrelated to opium trafficking and injecting drug use among ethnic minority communities along the Chinese-Burmese border. At the outset of the novel, so many people have died in Ding Village that families have stopped observing mourning rituals such as pasting funeral couplets outside their homes, and grave markers have become “as dense as the sheaves of wheat” that those healthy enough to work struggle to harvest.

The narrator of Yan’s novel is Ding Qiang, the murdered twelve-year-old son of Ding Hui, the village’s most notorious blood head. The villagers poison Qiang in retaliation for his father’s actions; Ding Hui had established Ding Village’s largest blood bank and used the profits to modernize the family compound. Not content to wait for customers, Ding Hui put his plasma bank on wheels, pushing it out to the village’s fields to collect blood from working farmers, who then fell sick. After Qiang’s murder, the boy lingers over Ding Village as a clear-eyed observer. His omniscient narration serves mainly to illuminate the thoughts of his grandfather, who tries to care for sick villagers while shouldering the remorse his son Ding Hui never musters.

Yan’s writing is at once richly metaphoric and attuned to the rhythms of Chinese farming life. He describes needle marks on the underarms of blood sellers as “angry red sesame seeds” and pinched veins as “fat-streaked pork.” Mostly this language is effective, though at its weaker moments the metaphors can feel overwrought, particularly in the dream sequences that mark major turning points in the plot. Dreams haunt the sleep of Qiang’s grandfather and serve as convenient devices for moving the narrative forward, although this sometimes occurs at the expense of good story-telling. Major revelations about Ding Hui’s greed and artifice are revealed through lushly animated dreams that allow Yan to transcend the narrative strictures of time and place. Through these dreams we see Ding Hui ingratiate himself with government officials until they appoint him chairman of the county taskforce on HIV/AIDS. In his first move as chairman, Ding Hui intercepts the free government-issued coffins intended for AIDS patients in Ding Village and sells them to other AIDS-affected villages for a profit. For his efforts, he labels himself a “philanthropist.” Left without coffins, those dying in Ding Village ransack the school for blackboards and desks to build their own. The transformation of the school into a funereal supply yard carries particular poignancy given China’s storied reverence for learning and scholarship.

Yan sometimes paints the villagers as comical rubes, easily placated by even the smallest self-serving kindness from Ding Hui and other officials. The tone of this portrayal borders on patronizing and is surprising given Yan’s training as an anthropologist. Yan’s academic background comes across more clearly in his perceptive description of how the sick villagers reproduce Communist Party bureaucracy in the way they handle a stream of small dramas, including prosecuting petty thieves, supplanting Qiang’s grandfather as school overseer, and legislating morality among amorous (unwed) HIV-positive couples. AIDS quickly infiltrates every level of Party, village, and clan politics.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government levied a “three nos” ban—no sales, no distribution, and no promotion—against Dream of Ding Village after its publication in 2005. Though the storytelling relies heavily on dream sequences, Yan takes little poetic license when exposing the depth of the state’s culpability in spreading HIV among poor, medically-naïve farmers. He is just as uncompromising when detailing how officials denied responsibility for the ensuing AIDS epidemic, even as they profited from its human tragedy. No one in Ding Village receives medical care, mental health counseling, food assistance, or a chance to hold the blood heads legally accountable. Cast adrift by government administrators, the sick villagers quarantine themselves in the school and wait to die.

Yan’s novel dares to imagine the early years of China’s AIDS epidemic, when farmers in central China awoke from visions of wealth and prosperity to find instead incurable illness and death. Aside from a few stories in newspapers, academic articles, and the memoirs of activist-physicians like Dr. Gao Yaojie, we have few personal accounts from the earliest victims of the blood disaster. Many of these individuals passed away before the Chinese government began offering free anti-retroviral treatment for AIDS in 2003. While the language is sometimes sentimental, Yan’s novel offers powerful testimony of the suffering victims of the blood disaster, their families, and communities have endured in the wake of a wholly preventable tragedy.

Mike Frick is a China program officer at Asia Catalyst, a US-based nonprofit that does training, research and advocacy on health and human rights in Asia. Together with the Korekata AIDS Law Center in Beijing, Asia Catalyst recently released a report on the difficulties victims of the blood disaster have faced in getting compensation from the Chinese government.

By Charlotte Furth

At the March annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies, held in Toronto, the association recognized Charlotte Furth with the AAS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies. Furth is Professor Emerita of history at the University of Southern California and has written and edited five books, including A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History, 960-1665 (UC Press, 1999). Below is an expanded version of remarks that Furth gave at the AAS award ceremony, in which she reflects on the changes to Asian Studies that have taken place since she entered the field in 1959, particularly regarding the presence of women in the academy.

I feel like a poster child for what the second wave of feminism has done for Asian Studies. We just saw six woman scholars receive book prizes for their scholarship in the field; we are about to hear Gail Hershatter speak as retiring president of our association. This is a moment to celebrate, not only for me, but for a whole generation of women scholars. Thinking about the road we have travelled suggests a trip down memory lane to my own beginnings on our collective journey. What was it like in 1959, when I started graduate work in history at Stanford University?

The few women graduate students in the history department were welcome to fill out seminars, but we were not expected to get jobs. I fit a typical profile: a faculty wife presumably keeping herself occupied. To underscore this situation, Mary Wright, wife of my Chinese history professor Arthur Wright, worked as a librarian at the Hoover Institution. In spite of the fact that her brilliant monograph The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism was on my graduate seminar reading list, she was not invited to teach in the department. Jobs in all fields of history were not publicly advertised: they were filled via an old boy’s network of phone conversations pretty much controlled by a student’s dissertation advisor. I got a job at California State University Long Beach in 1966 mostly because there was a national candidate shortage. I was hired sight unseen: the history department was tired of the merry-go-round of young men who taught at Long Beach only until something better came along. They figured that as a faculty wife at a nearby institution (my husband had moved to UCLA), I would probably stay around for a while. They must have been satisfied; I was their first female tenure-track hire, but they added three more women between 1966 and 1970.

We women scholars who found a foothold because of the post-Sputnik higher education market were the ones available to respond to the affirmative action movement that gathered steam in the 1970s. Today, most women in the AAS have never even heard of a “Committee for the Status of Women in Asian Studies” Joyce Kallgren, Carolyn Elliott, Hanna Papanek, and Barbara Ramusack had a lot to do with getting this committee going in the early 1970s. For a number of years we would comb the AAS program for evidence of female participation on panels and membership on committees. I recall driving with fellow member and friend Karen Leonard from Los Angeles to Arizona to meet with Richard Park, AAS President at the time, to get him to commit to the national campaign for an Equal Rights amendment to the US constitution. The feminist goal was to get professional associations to boycott holding conventions in states that refused to ratify the amendment. This is America; we never did get an Equal Rights amendment, but the AAS board did withhold commitment to a convention venue in New Orleans for a time.

In fact, the movement of women into the academy was unstoppable, and by the early 1990s so few came to its meetings that the “committee on the status of women in Asian Studies” quietly went out of business. Barbara Ramusack was the last chair.

Along with women scholars came research on women and gender. Sometime in the early 1970s, John Fairbank called a meeting of the contributors who were writing for the late Qing and Republican volumes of the Cambridge History of China. There were two women in room, Susan Mann and me. Her topic was late Qing merchants and dynastic decline; mine was reform intellectuals. Toward the end of the meeting, I suggested that maybe the Cambridge History should add an essay on women. Fairbank was a classy guy: he said he would look into it. But the truth was that at that time there was no research. Susan and I did not begin to do feminist scholarship until the early 1980s. I recall Joyce Kallgren, then editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, telling me quietly that since I had tenure and a book out, going in this direction was now “safe.”

As the saying goes, “everything changed” in the following twenty years. It was fun to troll AAS meetings for papers on feminist and cultural studies topics that I could recruit for the new journal, Late Imperial China, that I edited with James Lee. And I particularly remember a series of wonderful conferences. There was the “Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State” conference held in Cambridge, Massachusetts in February 1992, organized by Merle Goldman, Gail Hershatter, Christine Gilmartin, Lisa Rofel, and Tyrene White. It became a volume of the same name in Harvard’s Contemporary China Series in 1994. In June 1993, Ellen Widmer and Kang-I Sun Chang organized “Women and Literature in Ming Qing China” held at Yale, which led to the book Writing Women in Late Imperial China (Stanford 1992). Dorothy Ko gathered a group of us who were working on pre-modern women in Japan and Korea as well as China in La Jolla, California in the summer of 1996, and this became the volume Women and Confucian Cultures in Pre-modern China, Japan, and Korea edited by Ko, JaHuyn Kim Haboosh, and Joan Piggott (UC Press 2003).

These group efforts bring me to the subject of collaboration in general. It is certainly not the case that conferences and edited volumes are exclusively “women’s work” in Asian Studies or other fields. People trained, like me, in the early 1960s recall the wonderful series Confucianism in Action, and The Confucian Persuasion, edited by David Nivison and Arthur Wright, that set the standard for intellectual history of East Asia for our generation. But I do think that collaboration is often given less respect than it deserves as scholarship, and not just “service.” It accelerated the development of feminist scholarship on China, and I believe that the intellectual contribution made by my collaborative work is an important reason why my achievements are being honored tonight. So please take away a commitment that we continue to support and encourage it.

Rian Dundon, whose photographs have previously appeared at China Beat, will soon be releasing a new book of photography on China, Changsha. Dundon’s book will feature a forward written by friend of the blog Gail Hershatter and includes his photos of and essays on the Hunan province city of Changsha. For more information, and to pre-order a copy of the book, see the book’s website (pre-sales of the book are part of a crowd-funding campaign raising funds for its first run with the publisher, Below is a special teaser of Changsha material that Dundon has prepared for China Beat readers.


Off Yingpan Lu in the old city center is a small neighborhood karaoke club. 100 meters down the alley opposite the south entrance of No. 1 Hospital, it sits next to a noodle shop and across from a massage parlor. The sidewalk outside is cracked and littered with cigarette butts and slick with grease from the restaurant next door. Its windowless, white cement façade is punctured by a wide door with an arc of faux stained glass through which you can glimpse the glow of a TV and colored stage lights. The club’s doorframe is draped in thick green sheets of plastic designed to keep the interior air-conditioning from escaping into the hot summer night. Through those heavy curtains is a long bar behind which sits an elderly woman smoking a soft pack of Baisha cigarettes. Bottles and glasses and piles of used ashtrays are stacked on the bar along with other objects: rags and poker cards and packs of cigs, half-chewed betel nut and keys and cell phones, packs of gum. Behind the bar is a refrigerator containing dozens of yellow 600 ML bottles of Harbin Beer. Their labels match those on the empty cardboard boxes strewn haphazardly to the side. In front of the bar is an arrangement of cushioned chairs and couches covered with cigarette-burned upholstery, all dark green like the plastic over the door. Spilled liquids slicken the tile floor and glass knee-high tables where swollen ashtrays slide back and forth, sometimes crashing onto the floor or clanging loudly against empty bottles and thick glass mugs of green tea. In the front of the room is a yellowed big screen TV where music videos play. Their faded images of 1980’s Hong Kong pop stars sporting fashions and hairstyles long forgotten. Alex To is there singing to a woman he’s met at a pool hall:

Baby don’t go ~don’t go~
Don’t go ~don’t go~
How can I wake up tomorrow?
I feel so sad
I can’t trust love anymore
Baby don’t go
Don’t go
Our love will be hard to follow
It breaks my heart
If you don’t love me no more

In the back of the room a woman is crumpled in a chair mouthing the Cantonese lyrics to a song she doesn’t know. Next to her a man is alternating between vomiting into a waste bin and taking shots of beer with his brothers. On the screen a woman runs along a beach, crying and tripping over herself as she chases a scornful lover. ZY, who is pacing at the center of the room and twirling a microphone cord as he easily croons the familiar love song, walks to the monitor and motions as if to dry the desperate woman’s tears before turning to face the packed room. With a wide smile and deep baritone chorus all the stresses of his week and year and life are extinguished into the crowd, absorbed by their loving faces and unconditional affirmation. Singing, more than any other vice, is his release. His comfort zone. Surrounded here by loved ones in a tiny bar on an old street where he grew up in a city he no longer recognizes, ZY is at the center of his world. King of the Old City, master of how things should have been.

Old friends at lunch, 2008

Backstage at the Night Cat gay bar and cabaret, 2007

Sleeping on the bus, 2011

Abandoned construction, 2010

KTV, 2006

Pool hall, 2011

The Confucius Institute, China Studies, and the University of Kentucky

Opening Ceremony of the Confucius Institute at the University of Kentucky, 2010

By Denise Ho

To conclude my Chinese history lecture course at the University of Kentucky, I introduce my undergraduates to the concept of “soft power” and suggest that Confucius Institutes are emblematic of China’s cultural diplomacy, which aims to project a peaceful image abroad. Confucius Institutes are centers for teaching Chinese language and culture overseas; they are organized by an office known as Hanban in the Ministry of Education, though their funding comes directly from the Chinese government’s treasury. There are now over 350 Confucius Institutes in the world, and two of these are in the state of Kentucky.

When my students and I first proposed capping off our “Year of China” guest column with a story on UK’s Confucius Institute, I thought the article would be an incisive look at American perceptions of China and the politics of teaching and learning about China here in the South. As readers of this blog may be well aware, Mandarin lessons funded by the Chinese state have created controversy. Some communities have protested the presence of Confucian Classrooms in American schools; the story of Alhambra, California’s experience was spoofed in the Daily Show’s feature, “Socialism Studies.” In March, the New York Times covered the controversy over Confucius Institutes, showing that the world of higher education—in both the United States and Europe—is split on whether to accept Hanban funding to establish centers, pay teachers and staff, and even to endow university professorships. Even academics are beginning to study the phenomenon of Confucius Institutes. As the anthropologist Jennifer Hubbert explained at the 2011 meeting of the American Anthropological Association, the reality of the Confucius Classroom is far more complex than the media would have it. Hubbert’s ethnographic study of a Confucius Classroom in Oregon suggests that though the Chinese teachers often contest their role as agents of the state, many students continued to essentialize “both teachers and nation as synonymous with the Chinese socialist state.”

My observation of UK’s Confucius Institute in the past month—interviews with Director Huajing Maske, observations of the Chinese 1 and Chinese 2 courses for adults, and attendance at their faculty meeting and campus events—revealed a situation at once more nuanced than the media representation and less political than Hubbert’s study of the Oregon high school. To provide a brief sketch of UK’s Confucius Institute: it was established in November 2010 with Shanghai University as its partner institution and with a particular focus on fine arts. UK’s Confucius Institute supports 10 teachers and staff, which includes four instructors for the community-oriented night courses and the rest devoted to teaching in K-12 programs in neighboring Woodford County. When asked about community impact, Maske estimated that UK’s Confucius Institute serves about 2,500 students (2,000+ from Woodford County public schools), and many more through public programming: over 2,000 in two separate Chinese New Year celebrations, several thousand students in the Children’s Museum and in other community centers, and others on campus through co-sponsorship of UK events such as the Year of China. Though my observations with the UK students have yielded enough for several articles, I’d like to make three observations here:

1. The Confucius Institute has to create its own market. Media coverage of learning Chinese in general and Confucius Institutes in particular has suggested a rush of American interest in studying Chinese. When I sat in on the Confucius Institute’s faculty meeting of April 18, I was struck by how hard the staff is working to generate interest. Much of the faculty meeting focused on publicity, on how to actually get students to come to summer camp or to night classes, on how to get university staff to come out for taiji or what sorts of games would engage small children at public events. I found myself empathizing with the staff as they strategized, realizing that it is not unlike my struggle to make China interesting to the UK community at large. The reality of interest in learning Chinese is reflected in the numbers of students in adult classes; Chinese 2 is significantly smaller than Chinese 1, and of the students we interviewed the most compelling reasons for studying Chinese were personal. Rather than be concerned about or interested in China as a rising power, they were there because they had Chinese students, Chinese friends, or Chinese spouses. The dignitaries at the ribbon-cutting in 2010 spoke as though establishing a Confucius Institute would result in an instant flowering of US-China relations; my primary takeaway from observing UK’s Confucius Institute is that interest is not given, and sustaining interest is hard work.

2. University faculty here and elsewhere must find ways to make the Confucius Institute our ally. One of my central concerns as the Year of China draws to a close is: what happens after the Year of China? For places like the University of Michigan, which had a Year of China in 2007-2008, or Brown University, which had one this academic year, their theme years drew attention to programs of study that were well-established and at least relatively well-funded. At the University of Kentucky there are four tenure-track faculty members in China studies: three in Chinese language and literature, and myself. The Year of China will be over and gone, but the Confucius Institute—with a half-million dollar operating budget—is here to stay. Though I share the concern about academic freedom, after this year we may have no other funds to bring speakers to campus; if the Confucius Institute can sponsor a speaker series (albeit one that avoids Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights), then this is better than none at all. Ideally a visionary university leadership might take this as an opportunity to provide content in exactly these taboo issues, but after my colleagues in Chinese language have been denied funding ($3600) to open a second section of Chinese 201 for two years running, I am not optimistic. For want of a nail…the kingdom was lost.

3. The importance of the individual, one-on-one contact of cultural diplomacy. In preparing to write this article I watched the videotape of the University of Kentucky Confucius Institute Inaugural Ceremony from November 6, 2010, an event I attended in my second year on the faculty. As I revisited the remarks made by representatives of UK, Shanghai University, the Chinese Embassy, Hanban, and former labor secretary Elaine Chao, I reflected on how far removed they were from the classes and meetings I had attended. There are two gaps: the first is between stereotype and reality, and the second between the bureaucrat and the teacher. For the two keynote addresses were chockablock with the very stereotypes that “cultural understanding” purports to confront; Hu Zhiping of Hanban gave a speech on the deliciousness of Kentucky Fried Chicken and how he hoped that Confucius Institutes would be just like KFC in providing a “cultural feast,” and Elaine Chao—despite saying that her talk was based on anecdotes and concluding that “China is not a monolithic country”—spoke entirely in clichés: “The family is the foundation,” “the Chinese respect education,” and “the Chinese value harmony and order.” If these are the caricatures expressed by our own cultural and political leaders, then it is all the more important that members of the community meet Confucius Institute teachers and see them as individuals. As for the second gap, that between politician/bureaucrat and teacher, it seems to me that the former makes the news while the latter—as Hubbert’s research and our observation suggest—is actually where cultural diplomacy happens.

A Chinese class at the UK Confucius Institute

By Jared Flanery

Throughout the course of the University of Kentucky’s “Year of China,” both Western scholars of China and Chinese nationals alike contended with the seemingly interminable question of China’s rise in specially designed courses, seminars, and lectures. Yet the themed year has now come to an end, and the recent conclusion of the spring semester immediately provokes another question: what is next for China Studies at the university? One method of contextualizing UK’s efforts is through comparison with a more permanent organization, the Confucius Institute.

As Denise Ho’s blog mentions above, the Confucius Institute at UK was inaugurated in November 2010. Since then, Director Huajing Maske identified a shift in focus from Hanban from Chinese traditions and cultural studies to K-12 classes. The next strategic phase for UK’s Confucius Institute is “internationalization.” This consists of partnering with Chinese universities like Shanghai and Jilin Universities and participating in academic exchanges (sending academics and students across borders). Yet this does not indicate a reluctance to engage in political controversy on campus. On the contrary, this reconsideration of priorities may reflect another persistent theme – the dearth of demand. While a 2008 article from Xinhua cited the “booming” Confucius Institutes as a result of increasing American demand for language studies, in Lexington reciprocal interest appears difficult to inspire. K-12 classes offer a captive market and audience and comprise the majority of students receiving soft power services. Moreover, most of the scholars and students selected or self-selected to travel to China likely already display interest in the region.

Much of the media discourse on Confucius Institutes surrounds the theme of soft power and the potential threat of an encroaching China. Politically divergent observers, including concerned parent Teresa Macias, who was interviewed by the Daily Show, and historian Bruce Cumings, allude to the purported increase in influence the Institute will afford the interests of the Chinese government. The site of soft power varies according to the critic. For Cumings, the danger lies in self-censorship as a result of a collision of funding interests. For Macias, the good will of the Confucius Institute could not conceal an insidious curriculum bent on indoctrination.

Although in the actual classes the question of nationality arose, it was purely in a linguistic context, while both students and teachers we interviewed said their relationship to Chinese was mainly didactic and apolitical. Furthermore, the majority of students in Chinese-language classes at UK were not even aware that the program was funded by Hanban. Matt Treblehorn, an attorney in Lexington, said he saw the teachers as representatives of the Chinese government, but other students tended to view their language instructor as just that: a teacher. As part of our ethnographic research, a few teachers responded to a questionnaire that asked how they viewed themselves in the classroom context. Bi Yifei, a ceramicist who teaches Chinese 1 at UK, avoided the issue of political representation, and responded that she was “just a teacher.” Simmons Elementary teacher Carol Chen, by way of contrast, claimed her role “as a gateway to Chinese language and culture.” Politics was notably absent from that formulation. K-5 teacher Zhang Huihui admitted that sometimes she is viewed as a stand-in for China, but not the Chinese state. Still, she sought to stake out a sense of personal identity as well: “sometimes, I am just myself.”

Zhang Huihui also informed us about the training process she underwent before arriving in the United States as a member of the Institute’s faculty. There is a two month “intensive training” at Beijing Language and Culture University, in which a variety of mostly linguistic subjects are covered. For Zhang, though, this training is “far from enough.” Though the teachers viewed themselves as apolitical classroom figures, students occasionally ask political questions that must be addressed. Instructors from K-5 and the instructor at UK described their students’ views of China in a similar fashion. Bi Yifei downplayed the potential for classroom discord arising from difficult political conversations, saying she would simply use “her way” to defuse them. Students in the university-level classes noted that while there was no concerted effort to avoid touchy subjects, the instructors exhibited national and cultural pride.

Carol Chen identified the primary political stereotype in the minds of Confucius Institute students as there being an excess of crime and war in China. Most of her students, however, were too young to pose such questions and instead were familiar only with “yummy Chinese food.” The comments of Zhang Huihui essentially accord with Chen’s. Some young students’ comments apparently viewed Chinese people as eating dogs and the Chinese government as killing children. Clearly these topics are sensitive and pose a real challenge to teachers, even those with more than two months of training. Zhang responded by inviting students to maintain an open mind and seek out facts rather than stereotypes. Zhang also emphasized that the vast majority of students here in the American South are focused on other received representations of Chinese culture: “Kung Fu Panda, Karate Kid, and Chinese food.” The faculty of the Confucius Institute, it should be noted, is not engaged in imposing standardized views of China on small children. Rather, the teachers are tasked with addressing the pre-conceptions of the students themselves. At the K-12 level, at least, image supersedes reality.

Perhaps the more practical question is whether pedagogical methods will ever overshadow political controversy in scholarly approaches to the Confucius Institutes. The general sense among students was that their respective instructor was comfortable with questions, as well as “animated” and “encouraging.” The classes also acted as a cost-effective alternative to accredited courses, and attracted students of China from both the university and the wider Lexington community. Yet according to the students, class attendance in Chinese 1 diminished substantially as the semester wore on, and Chinese 2 was even smaller in size. Despite the success of the “Year of China,” it is unlikely that through public outreach alone the Confucius Institute will attract significantly more people. As the cultural, political, and economic motivations to study China proliferate, interested community members are just as diffuse. A long-term strategy would acknowledge that, on the University of Kentucky’s campus, there are multiple actors working toward somewhat similar ends: the Asia Center, the Confucius Institute, and UK’s relatively new China Studies program. Hanban’s resources could be better used in conjunction with these institutions, while simultaneously moving beyond the depoliticized realms of K-12 education and international exchange. A joint center focused on contemporary Chinese history and issues could serve as a diplomatic combination of efforts, without eliding the perpetual need to engage in difficult political discourse.

Denise Ho is assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Jared Flanery is a rising senior from Louisville, KY. This article is the last of a four-part series on teaching and learning about China at the University of Kentucky, a public land-grant institution founded in 1865. For more information about the Year of China, please click here. To learn more about the University of Kentucky’s Confucius Institute, please visit their website. The authors of this blog would like to thank the Confucius Institute, in particular Huajing Maske, Bi Yifei, and Zhang Dandan, for their assistance.

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