Further to the Confucius Institute matters: this organization is more deeply & intelligently involved in controlling and suppressing writing the Chinese government doesn’t want to see read than the CIA & co. ever was able to do.

(Though of course, those US authorities do do their bumbling best, and not just in Latin America or the Near & Far East. A little anecdote: in 1987 I organized an international poetry festival in Luxembourg, & went to the US Embassy to get travel money — which was refused in the case of Jerome Rothenberg on the grounds that this man had written somewhere that the US had committed genocide of Native Americans…words unacceptable to the US gov.)

Back to the Con of Fusion Institutes: by teaching foreign students Putonghua [Standard Mandarin Chinese] using Standard Chinese Characters, i.e. the limited Chinese characters officially also imposed in school & used for printed material inside China (and seem by the Chinese leadership as one of the great achievements of the revolution), they make it impossible for anybody to actually read texts from before the Maoist period or even from Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. Much more intelligent than burning books or outlawing them or their authors! Just impose & teach a simplified language in which you can read state-approved materials but are unable to read anything else in the language…

Below, an extract from an interesting 2011 article by Michael Churchman published by the China Heritage Quarterly, The Australian National University :


abrazos from Luxembourg,


It is naïve to believe that Confucius Institutes are politically disinterested teachers imparting Chinese culture and language. They exist for the express purpose of letting foreigners understand China on terms acceptable to official China. The regulations by which the Confucius Institutes must abide already make it clear that teaching of knowledge about China will be subject to control, although it is noteworthy that whoever composed those regulations seems to have tried to make them appear as apolitical as possible.[2] There is no explicit rule banning the teaching of well-known sensitive political topics, for instance, but there is the phrase in the Sixth Principle of Section One of the Constitution and Bylaws of the Confucius Institutes (Kongzi Xueyuan Zhangcheng 孔子學院章程 /孔子学院章程) ‘they shall not contravene concerning the laws and regulations of China [sic]’,[3] which offers endless possibilities for prohibiting the discussion or teaching of any topic that is deemed objectionable. Where the guiding hand of Chinese officialdom is most evident, however, is in the Tenth Principle of the Confucius Institutes Constitution which stipulates: ‘The Confucius Institutes conduct Chinese language instructions in Mandarin [Standard Chinese/Putonghua], using Standard Chinese Characters.’ This is an extension to teaching institutes overseas of Article Twenty of the Language Law of the People’s Republic of China promulgated in 2000 which states: ‘Putonghua and the standardized Chinese characters shall be taught in classes for foreigners who are learning Chinese [sic]’.[4]

This Tenth Principle is the only explicit evidence for the exclusion of certain subjects from the teaching syllabus of Confucius Institutes, but few commentators seem to have paid it much attention. The significance of the regulation, however, is clear: not only is it against the rules to teach any Chinese language other thanPutonghua within a Confucius Institute, it is also forbidden to teach students the non-simplified characters still widely used in Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and many other Chinese communities beyond the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party. The reason why the most obvious interdiction covering subject matter in the Confucius Institutes has been so little discussed probably stems from the fact that although outsiders are always on the lookout for evidence that the Chinese party-state is trying to exercise control over prominent political issues, linguistic matters are generally regarded as being relatively insignificant.

It is undeniable that learning Standard Chinese, or Mandarin, along with simplified characters is of great benefit for beginning students of Chinese, but the exclusion of other ways of speaking and writing Chinese should immediately raise suspicions. Perhaps the compilers of the regulations assumed that people would not question the status of Standard Chinese and simplified characters as the undisputed legitimate forms of Chinese speech and writing, and that such regulation would not be taken as a political move? If it really were the case that literacy in traditional characters and proficiency in Chinese languages other than Standard Chinese were completely irrelevant to the study of Chinese, there would be no demand for them, and indeed no need to legislate specifically against teaching them to non-Chinese or foreign-born ‘heritage students’. It is true that as an undergraduate I heard fellow students and ethnic Chinese of various backgrounds wonder out loud why people would want to waste their time learning traditional Chinese script, literary Chinese, or Hokkien or Cantonese, when they could just concentrate on learning ‘Modern Standard Chinese’ (that is, standard People’s Republic of China Putonghuawritten in simplified characters), but at the same time I knew students who wanted to study Cantonese rather than Mandarin and others who preferred to learn their Mandarin in traditional script.

The directive ‘You must not discuss the Dalai Lama’ is bound to cause much more heated discussion outside China than ‘You must not teach foreigners how to write the Chinese character 漢’ but both statements are based on the same underlying principle, that is, how to encourage non-Chinese to extend their knowledge of China, but only in ways that the Chinese state finds acceptable. The control through Confucius Institutes of what can and cannot be taught as Chinese is as equally rooted in the politics of the People’s Republic as the control of what can and cannot be discussed about China. It is by nature detrimental to a wider understanding of China as is the exclusion of certain censored topics.

The trend towards literacy in Chinese based solely on simplified characters for non-native users of Chinese is hardly anything new. It is, not surprisingly, encouraged by the practical benefits of access to a larger market and the relatively small output of reading materials in the traditional script from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many international students of Chinese regard the non-simiplified script as being a superfluous relic of the past and concentrate their energies on learning instead what they regard as ‘Modern Chinese’. Unfortunately, it is still the case at present that a Chinese literacy restricted to simplified characters still only constitutes semi-literacy in Chinese.

Knowledge of non-simplified Chinese is not restricted to the older generation in China. The literate younger generation of mainland Chinese are generally familiar with reading non-simplified Chinese script even if they cannot write it. This is a skill they gain through reading signs and inscriptions or subtitles on pirated DVD’s and illegally downloaded films, as well as via reprinted books and texts of all kinds. So declining to teach traditional Chinese script to non-Chinese denies the learner an ability that many Chinese themselves have acquired unconsciously through long-term exposure. Training in at least recognition of the traditional script is essential for foreign learners, since most are not exposed to any written Chinese until later in life. The result of late and limited exposure to written Chinese in a non-Chinese speaking environment means that foreign learners are less familiar with the contexts of words, and therefore less likely than literate Chinese to be able to guess the simplified form of a character they have learnt in a traditional text, let alone find it in a dictionary.

From an early stage in their studies, tertiary-level students of Chinese should be encouraged at least to be able to read and understand texts in the traditional script in addition to their reading materials in simplified Chinese. If they are not taught this skill they will have great trouble reading texts not only from Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also those from their own local Chinese communities, as many of these still print materials in the non-simplified characters. The most important reason for familiarity with traditional Chinese is the access it gives to texts published beyond the reach of the Chinese party-state, either from Hong Kong or Taiwan, or indeed from elsewhere. This is important in an era of globalisation in which much new knowledge production is being undertaken beyond the ken of China’s officialdom. Many rich and detailed academic analyses of current events in China that are restricted or censored inside the People’s Republic are only published in traditional characters. It is for this reason in particular that the importance of the traditional script to the study of contemporary China should not be underestimated. After all, what scholar of contemporary Chinese politics can afford to ignore (or be unable to read) the large and growing corpus of material on Communist Party history, infighting and factionalism written by mainlanders but published exclusively in Hong Kong and Taiwan? Or, for that matter, what competent sociologist, legal expert or historian can afford to be unable to read comfortably work published by leading thinkers and writers from the Chinese world censored at home but available outside the mainland?

Of equally great concern is the effect of semi-literacy on the informed study of the Chinese past. If students are not taught to read non-simplified/standardized characters or become familiar with the rudiments of the various kinds of Literary Chinese (Wenyan wen 文言文 orGuwen 古文) that have evolved from pre-Qin times,[5] they may have to forgo reading original sources. Relatively few simplified character editions exist for many works published before the late 1950s, and many other works which have been printed in simplified Chinese or translated into modern Mandarin come with ready-made interpretations based on the party-state’s orthodox views of events and Chinese history. In contrast, many of the best editions of classical texts available in China itself are printed in the traditional script, as are many contemporary academic discussions of Chinese philosophy and history. In an ironic twist through the exclusion of traditional characters from the teaching syllabus, the Confucius Institutes will help non-Chinese students understand less about Confucianism by ensuring they have difficulty reading serious scholarship and pre-modern materials related to it.

It is likely that the policy on teaching only simplified characters at Confucius Institutes is partly a reflection of the way Chinese language is taught inside the mainland education system itself, and partly of the conviction of the party leadership that the simplification of characters was one of their great contributions to the growth of a contemporary Chinese culture. However, one suspects that a major consideration in the drafting of the bylaw for the Confucius Institutes has been to set foreign learners on the ‘correct’ ideological path in their studies of China by making sure that texts in heterodox script from Taiwan and Hong Kong remain opaque, thereby creating a generation of China scholars who will feel perfectly comfortable dealing with a simplified China be it online or in print, but challenged by such media outlets as the Hong Kong Apple Daily, or the publications of a plethora of Hong Kong and Taiwanese publishers. Serious students of China need to be comfortable reading across many Chinese worlds.