Bashing Confucius

by Terence MacNamee

Writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung last week, journalist Claudia Wirz, who has been following the setting up of Confucius institutes in Switzerland for several years, reviews the whole process and come to a disappointingly negative conclusion.

She sees the institutes as an exercise in what Americans call “soft power”. In her view, however, the Chinese can try to build up soft power all they like, but they don’t succeed for two reasons:

  1. Chinese is a very difficult language, and its history and literature are an unknown quantity in the rest of the world;
  2. The Chinese look bad in the Western world because of their lack of democracy.

As for point one, this is true, but the Chinese can do a lot by making the major names better known through popular educational books in foreign languages. We must admit that in the Western world itself, names and references that every educated individual supposedly knows are fast disappearing from general knowledge. Yes, the Chinese language is difficult for Westerners, because they do not have an ear for tones, and the writing system requires a lot of effort. Pinyin is more a hindrance than a help, because of its lack of relation to existing phonetic transcription conventions in the West. We in the West have never tried to cultivate an “exotic” language before – but at least we have lots of experience learning each other’s languages, and our “classics”. We should apply that experience to the new task, and maybe we might come up with something ourselves that the Chinese would be glad to use.

As for point 2, the lack of democracy is no bar to commercial relations when it comes to “cracking the Chinese market” and making money, so why should it be to culture either? Westerners studying Chinese language and culture are not compelled to admire Xi Jinping & Co; they can find plenty to admire in the traditions of calligraphy and visual art, philosophy, spirituality and so on to fuel their interest in China and things Chinese. No, I think disliking Communism is more a ready excuse for not making the effort than anything else.

Unlike the NZZ author, I find the Chinese effort at creating soft power to be a fascinating experiment, and we should be looking at it positively, and even contribute to it, instead of condemning it.