Taiwanese: Taiwan better suited than the mainland to export Chinese culture

by Andy Kozlov

I have a hard time trying to calculate how many times watching a Hollywood production where a Caucasian speaks fluent Mandarin, I wished I could have more persistence and take my knowledge of the language further than beginner’s favorites 您好 (Nín hǎo) and 谢谢 (Xièxiè). Especially when I think that, in spite of my whereabouts, whether it’s in Kramatorsk, Rome or Harare, I will be guided by the inspiring staff at a Confucius Institute. As of July 2010, there were 316 of these in 94 countries and regions.

Today there are nearly 200 students studying at the Institute in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, which opened in 2005. This year the Chinese government has paid for 40 students from the institute to travel to the northern Chinese city of Tianjin to study Mandarin. Next year there are plans to send 100.

But soon brushing up on Mandarin and mastering Chinese culture will mean more complications for aspiring students. Memorizing the number of strokes in simplified version “thank you”: 谢谢 for some will mean adding a couple more: 謝謝.

Taiwan is ready to compete with its giant neighbour’s practice of spreading Chinese culture and philosophy to the world. This October, Taiwan will launch a homegrown adaptation of China’s Confucius Institutes in the United States to share its own vision of Chinese culture with the West. The first three, in Los Angeles, Houston and New York, will teach Chinese art, philosophy and Mandarin language. The nonprofit, Taiwanese government-funded programmes will be taught in community centres and will cater to everyone from senior citizens to elementary school children.

Who can explain Confucius better to the world?

Taiwanese argue Taiwan is actually better suited than the mainland to export Chinese culture.

“Taiwan is probably the most traditional Chinese-culture society in Asia,” says Chuan Sheng Liu, who teaches at China’s Confucius Institute in the University of Maryland. He was born in China but moved to Taiwan when his family fled alongside rebels fighting Communist China in 1949 at the end of China’s civil war.

Liu says the rebels saved more than their lives when they escaped to Taiwan – they also took a heap of ancient Chinese artifacts that survived China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Although Taiwan lived through one of the world’s longest periods of martial law, which began in 1949 and ended in the late 1980s, Taiwanese officials say the country’s cultural and social roots have largely remained intact. Today it’s the world’s only Mandarin-speaking democracy.

The academies’ goal is to raise Taiwan’s international profile in a China-focused world. Much of the globe doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation and chooses instead to honour ties with Beijing, which is set on annexing Taiwan – by force if necessary. Cross-strait analysts warn Taiwan’s academies should walk a fine line amid such delicate tensions.

“The approach must be carefully designed to avoid confrontation,” says Chong-Pin Lin, a professor of international affairs at Taipei’s Tamkang University and a former head of Taiwan’s national defense ministry.

While the island can’t out-muscle China’s propaganda machine, Lin says Taiwan can play up its strengths: a vibrant culture and deep talent pool. “Our hope is in society,” he says. “Culture can play a bigger role than people give it credit for.”

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

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