Confucius Institutes in Africa emphasise culture exchanges, not just teaching Chinese lifestyles, says ex-Director

Confucius Institute at the University of Johannesburg (UJCI), the fifth Confucius Institute opened in South Africa, was established in 2016, offering Chinese language teaching to students and nearby communities.

After six years of development, the institute has set a successful example of cultural exchanges.

Today, with the deepening cooperation and better courses, the role of UJCI will become increasingly imperative.

Recently, students of international communication at the Renmin University of China, who were intrigued to know about the experience of the Confucius Institute in cultural exchanges interviewed Peng Yi, an associate professor at the School of Law and Politics, Nanjing University of Technology.

From January 2018 to February 2022, she worked as the Chinese Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Johannesburg (UJCI), South Africa.

In this discussion, Peng narrated her work experience in South Africa and reveals the landmark cultural exchanges during Chinese language teaching.

What informed your decision to work at the Confucius Institute, and how was the selection process?

It was one of my colleagues who mentioned that we have this cooperative program with Confucius Institutes in South Africa and Spain during a small talk. He believed I can fit into any situation smoothly with a responsible attitude, and encouraged me. I applied for it without much hesitation because such a platform would be a rare opportunity for me to sharpen my skills during work.

More than that, it would be a great honor if my efforts could make a small contribution to promoting cooperation between the two universities and friendship between the two countries. That’s how I applied to be a candidate for the Chinese director.

As for the selection, I would say the whole process was very rigorous. Firstly, I obtained a school recommendation to the headquarters after a strict selection. Then it led me to another selection which was a full-day task that included written tests and interviews in both Chinese and English. The tasks were wide-ranging. It was quite a brainstorming day. It’s not hard to tell that the two-step selection was very strict, so the directors are indeed the best choices.

During work, although our courses are open to the public, we mainly get along with students as well as staff in universities and local government agencies. Therefore English was sufficient for the past four years.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa. Apart from English, one of its native languages, Zulu, is spoken by the largest number of local people. I encouraged teachers to learn some Zulu from the students or teach themselves, to better communicate with the local community.

I also learned some French and Spanish when I was in graduate school. I think language can promote friendship and communication between people and countries. An extra language is an extra pair of eyes, where people can read your sincerity.  During cultural teaching and research activities, speaking Zulu brought me closer to local people, even though they were just very simple words. People there would show more respect and interest when they know you have tried to communicate with them sincerely, so the effect of the activities naturally speaks for itself.

What would you say was the motivation for the South African students in learning the Chinese language?

Some of them simply like the Chinese language and culture, and the motivations of others are multifaceted. For example, university students want to study, travel and work in China, or work in some Chinese enterprises in South Africa. University teachers want to have international exchange and research cooperation or to jointly apply for projects, publish articles, and so on. And some employees in local companies want to expand the Chinese market.

Before the epidemic, every year, South African young scientists, young student leaders, and international students went to China for visits and study. The Chinese Embassy in South Africa (CESA), the South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), and the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST) invited us to do pre-departure training in Chinese language and culture.

At a teaching and learning class

So, can we correctly assume that if one understands the needs of the local students and be willing to offer assistance, all teaching and research can be vital, and it would be easier to go deeper and farther in knowledge exchange?

Yes, I couldn’t agree more with what you said. One’s energy is limited. Students have heavy school work already, and others like company employees are busy as well. If all we offer is regular Chinese teaching classes, people would hesitate to decide to devote relatively more time to studying Chinese here.

That’s why we later started 6-8 hours classes in Chinese medicine and culture for Johannesburg University Health College, tourism Chinese classes for tourism students and practitioners, and other short classes such as Chinese technology and more. Students can get in touch with the core of Chinese culture quickly and learn some basic professional terms they need.

In this process, we are appealing by showing that our courses can be helpful and flexible, much lower cost of time for students to judge whether our courses are practical. Once they find it worthwhile, the participants will adjust their schedule and devote more energy to the regular Chinese language courses, cultural courses, and other research activities that UJCI offers.

Besides, we were often invited by the South African government or South African companies to provide language and cultural training. In early 2021, we were invited by the South African National Tourism Department (NTD) to conduct a two-month language training course for selected South African tour guides. NTD reported in seven consecutive tweets about the training on its official Facebook account. We were invited by various ministries such as DHET, and we trained over 100 local employees for Huawei’s program in South Africa “Seeds of the Future” program.

We trained and recommended a lot of local talents for the South African government or South African companies, and received extensive support.

Therefore, I think that we as teachers at Confucius Institute should reflect on and refine constantly on our curriculum. The courses should be divided into different levels and categories to cover as much of the needs of everyone. We need to seek cooperation with multiple social entities. By doing so, we can go deeper and farther and enhance our reputation in the local community day by day.

How easy was it for the UJCI to introduce students to Chinese customs, such as traditional festivals?

In China, we celebrate a number of festivals each year. In January and February, there is the Chinese New Year festival, and in September and October, there are the Mid-Autumn festival and a National Day celebration. On these occasions, we put up shows, while informing students about the festival’s history and symbols.

Our celebrations emphasize cultural exchanges between China and South Africa rather than just sharing Chinese culture.

The performances at festivals feature elements from both nations. On the 2020 Chinese New Year celebration, an elegant traditional Chinese dance and a dynamic African dance met. One could appreciate the performance of the renowned choir, the University of Johannesburg Choir, after being moved by the Chinese song “My Motherland”.

South African students demonstrated their talents in addition to that. Calligraphy and martial arts were displayed by the first-place winner of the Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competitions in South Africa. Chinese artistes also performed face-changing masks and paper-cutting.

Interactive games were part of the sessions. Students from South Africa and China engaged in cooperative games like chopsticks challenge and tongue twisters. Laughter was heard everywhere. Everyone in attendance was able to savor the traditional cuisine of both nations after the performance.

Up to 200 people attended before the COVID-19 epidemic, including the University of Johannesburg’s Chancellor, deans and staff members of several faculties, friends from South African politics, commerce, and academia, members of the community, and our partners, among others. That party was fantastic.

In addition to major events, we occasionally held the Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day) Song Festival in August. Students from the two nations get together and sing love songs. A loving mood is created by lovely music.

We took part in South African festivals as well. September 24, 2019, was South Africa’s Heritage Day. I was invited by Wits University students. A group of Quanzhou, China, intangible cultural heritage masters were visiting there at the time, so I invited them to the celebration. The South African students were ecstatic as they watched their performance and thanked us for providing such a fantastic show to support their festival.

How, in your opinion, would culture introduction and language instruction be combined more effectively?

The cultural introduction complements the language instruction. On special days like Dragon Boat Festival and the 24 Solar Terms, our teachers will explain the history and festival of the customs to students in the language class.

We also provided cultural classes in Chinese painting, calligraphy, and martial arts. They were quite popular among students.

In this way, students gain knowledge about Chinese culture and participate in activities while they learn the language.

We also presented cultural activities outside the classroom on various occasions. Many students enrolled in our classes after viewing the performances. They claimed that it never occurred to them how beautiful Chinese calligraphy and music are, how rich Chinese history is, and how advanced Chinese technology is. In order to study in China, they want to learn the language and culture of the country.

We can understand that the primary force behind cultural exchanges is interest. Also from your narration, UJCI has been active in a variety of areas, particularly technology. How did you achieve that feat of exciting their zest?

Simple. By creating a system that addresses multiple aspects of interests, without limiting it to the language part. We offered many platforms and chances for interactions and win-win cooperation between the two countries.

We hosted a seminar on women’s status in China and South Africa on International Women’s Day to empower women. Leaders of the student union and other interested students took part in the discussion. Together, they identified issues that both nations shared and resolved them. The students felt closer after the activity and were more curious about one another’s cultures.

Along with organizing events, we operated as a link between various parties to promote China-African cooperation in research and other sectors.

In 2018, we pushed for the foundation of a university-level Center for African-China Studies.

In 2019, we built a link between Nanjing Tech University and the University of Johannesburg. Both universities are strong in engineering. Nanjing Tech University is an engineering-based institution, and the University of Johannesburg is a comprehensive university with a good engineering base.  Two colleges have national laboratories for environmental and chemical engineering. Through our matchmaking, both institutions recommended strengthening the research interchange and collaboration between the two universities in the environmental and chemical industries. In 2019, South Africa-China Joint Research Centre on Chemical and Environmental Engineering was founded.

Many academic members and students in relevant fields who travel to China for research or exchange benefit directly from this program, which is supported by the departments of science and technology of both nations and the Chinese Embassy in South Africa.

In addition, in August 2021, we held the first high-level forum on cultural and tourism cooperation between China and South Africa. Since then, there has been a number of tourism industry practitioners and university students, and teachers coming to UJCI to learn the Chinese language and culture.

Working for UJCI, we need to think out of the box and situate ourselves within a larger, deeper context. When we have a broader perspective and construct a system that is not confined to the field of language education, any portion of the entire system will be beneficial since they are complementary to each other.

When we see the potential of a certain field, whether it be language teaching, cultural activities, scientific research, etc., we grasp every chance, drive initiatives, establish platforms, and bridge between various parties in an effort to realize it. In this way, we may not only improve that field but also contribute to bilateral cooperation.

Report by Guan Yilun, Lin Qianyu, and Sadakat Yussayin, postgraduate students at the School of Journalism and Communication, Renmin University of China; Jiang Xiancheng, a Ph.D. student at the School of Journalism and Communication, Renmin University of China.


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