In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Confucius Institutes

  • Introduction

Chinese Studies Confucius Institutes
Yu Tao, Jiayi Wang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0149


Confucius Institutes are a cluster of non-profit educational organizations that promote the Chinese language and culture outside China. At the center of this cluster is the Confucius Institute Headquarters, a public-sector institution affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China that also operates under the name of Hanban. Hanban (汉办), in Chinese, is a colloquial abbreviation of the Guojia hanyu guoji tuiguan lingdao xiaozu bangongshi (国家汉语国际推广领导小组办公室), the official English title of which is the Office of Chinese Language Council International. Overseen by the Confucius Institute Headquarters/Hanban, the first Confucius Institute opened its door in Seoul in November 2004. As of December 2017, there were 525 Confucius Institutes and 1,113 Confucius Classrooms in 146 countries and territories around the world. Although the Confucius Institutes are sometimes viewed in parallel to other state-sponsored cultural institutions such as the British Council, Alliance Française, and Goethe-Institut, their structure and development strategies are significantly different from the foreign counterparts, which often operate as stand-alone corporations. Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, however, are normally affiliated to universities, schools, cultural organizations, and community centers outside China, and they are almost always jointly established and managed between the host institutions and their Chinese partner institutions, which are generally, though not without exception, universities in China. The Confucius Institute Headquarters/Hanban provides financial support and teaching resources to Confucius Institutes and Classrooms around the world. It also selects the Chinese director for and sends teaching staff and volunteers from China to Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. These directors, teaching staff, and volunteers are often selected from the Chinese partner institutions. For each Confucius Institute, the host institution appoints one of its staff members as the foreign director, who manages the Institute together with the Chinese director. On some occasions, the foreign director acts as the chief operation officer of their Confucius Institute and the Chinese director plays an assisting role. Due to these complicated arrangements, the actual levels of autonomy, styles of operation, and ranges of activities can be considerably diverse among different Confucius Institutes and Classrooms despite the standardized Constitution and By-Laws set up by the Confucius Institute Headquarters/Hanban. Although the Confucius Institute Headquarters/Hanban restricts its objectives to teach the Chinese language, promote the Chinese culture, and enhance the development of multiculturalism, Confucius Institutes and Classrooms are widely regarded by observers both within and outside China as important players in the making and shaping of China’s soft power. Confucius Institutes have received both criticisms and admiration for their activities as well as their rapid development and expansion. Assessments have also been made on the impact that Confucius Institutes have on international economic and people flows, as well as on China’s image and influence. The rest of this article starts by introducing sources that offer general overview on Confucius Institutes. It is then divided into several thematic sections that focus on the most discussed aspects of Confucius Institutes, including their operation and development, their involvement in shaping China’s soft power, perceptions of Confucius Institutes in academia and media, and the impact that Confucius Institutes have on various aspects of China’s relation with the rest of the world.

General Overview

Although a significant number of scholarly enquiries have been made into various social and political aspects of Confucius Institutes, much fewer academic publications can provide a one-stop comprehensive overview on the nature, history, and organizational structure of this rapidly growing network of institutes. This probably is due to a series of factors. Firstly, the Confucius Institute project is still relatively new, and it has constantly been in rapid development. Thus, any attempt to capture the latest status of Confucius Institutes is easily outdated by what has happened more recently. Moreover, although noticeable concerns have been made on the considerable influence that the Confucius Institute Headquarters/Hanban in Beijing has on an individual Confucius Institute or Classroom outside China (see Doubts and Criticisms), considerable diversities exist among different Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in terms of their specific activities and their actual working relations with various departments and individuals in host institutions. Furthermore, although Confucius Institutes are often used as one of the several cases or examples to illustrate some broader arguments, such as the rise of China’s cultural diplomacy, they are much less frequently to be chosen as the actual subject of academic discussions. That said, it is still possible to obtain some general overview on the essential information regarding Confucius Institutes through at least three bodies of materials, which are, namely, monographs and Internet portals specifically devoted to the study of Confucius Institutes, periodicals published by the Confucius Institute Headquarters/Hanban and academic institutes, and the diaries and memoirs written by former directors of Confucius Institutes. In addition, many academic works that focus on certain aspects of Confucius Institutes also include an overview on the history, activities, and organizational structure of the system (see, for example, Paradise 2009, cited under Roles and Mechanisms).

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