Visitors to the Confucius Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln may be greeted with a warm smile and a cup of tea by director Charles Wood.
Chinese artwork and statues decorate the walls of the institute. Tucked away in Nebraska Hall, instruments and books wait to serve those who are willing to learn from them.
Wood and Shi Li, an instructor who teaches Chinese for the Confucius Institute, goes to work every day with hopes of broadening the horizons of people who have never had the chance to see what China is like with their own eyes.
Li said she sees the institute as family, but the U.S. government struggles to see its value.
According to the National Association of Scholars, 78 Confucius Institutes currently exist at colleges and universities in the United States. Additionally, 33 Confucius Institutes in the United States have either closed or are in the process of closing.
Confucius Institutes across the country have been controversial. Much of the scrutiny Confucius Institutes face is based on suspected ties with the Communist party and influence on academic freedom, according to Time. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chairman Rob Portman took issue with a “stunning lack of transparency and reciprocity from China,” and Sen. Ben Sasse called the institute’s effects “often-nefarious.”
However, Wood said China has no influence on the UNL Confucius Institute’s actions, and UNL’s administration has never approached the Confucius Institute about shutting down.
“We take the initiative, not China,” he said. “They never tell me what to do. If they tell me what to do, I will shut down the institute myself.”
UNL’s Confucius Institute was founded in 2007 when UNL began its partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong University in China. According to UNL’s Confucius Institute website, it was the 20th institute established in the United States, and the partnership was backed by the International Chinese Language Council.
The major focus of the Confucius Institute is to teach the Chinese language and some Chinese culture to the community and the university. It provides qualified teachers to various schools across Nebraska, has distance education and hosts classes for people of all ages.
“They are already teachers in their own country, either secondary teachers or even university faculty,” Wood said. “To qualify, they go through a very rigorous selection. We interview [them], and [a] school individual [interviews them] as well.”
Li’s job involves teaching Mandarin in community classes and helping with Confucius Institute events such as calligraphy classes and Chinese New Year celebrations.
“Being able to share ideas with different people … while teaching Mandarin and meeting people all over the world adds so much fun to my life,” she said. “I truly enjoyed the friendliness and the kindness of American people, which, to some extent, released me from being lonely as a newcomer here.”
According to Wood, the main aim of the institute is to make sure Nebraskans benefit from learning Chinese language and culture and to promote academic interaction with Xi’an Jiaotong University.
“The goal is to spread cultural exchange and goodwill,” Wood said.
The Confucius Institute also offers activities such as music events, art displays, dinners, festival celebrations and classes covering subjects from cooking and tai chi to the university community. According to Wood, high school students have an opportunity to take a trip to China.
“We probably hold about 40 or 50 events per year,” Wood said. “I hope the students make use of it.”
Wood said the Confucius Institute also offers night classes, weekend classes, community classes, seminars and study abroad opportunities.
“Our state has been really supportive because of the things we do,” he said. “And, I really truly believe that for Nebraska to excel … an institute like this plays an important role.”
Wood said he believes many of the Confucius Institutes that have been shut down have either closed due to lack of transparency or changes in federal rules. For example, Confucius Institutes are not allowed to receive money from China to fund their language programs. Institutes that break rules like this could be shut down.
“I think being transparent, and being able to really be a part of the community and get support from the community and university, is really important,” Wood said.
Wood makes it a priority that everyone working for the Confucius Institute at UNL knows and follows all the U.S. bylaws involved. These laws outline the rules and procedures the institute must follow.
“I want to make sure that everything is done according to the U.S. rule and Western culture,” he said, “not bringing the Chinese way of doing things here.”
On Feb. 10, The Daily Nebraskan contacted UNL spokeswoman Leslie Reed for a comment on whether the university has ever considered shutting down UNL’s Confucius Institute.
“We appreciate the role our UNL Confucius Institute plays in broadening awareness of Chinese language and culture,” associate vice chancellor for global affairs Josh Davis said in an email. “As with any program, we are constantly evaluating effectiveness.”
Past, Present and Future
UNL’s Confucius Institute won the Confucius Institute of the Year award in 2012 and Model Confucius Institute in 2015, according to its website. The awards represent outstanding achievement in teaching and promoting Chinese language and culture, as well as supporting exchange between schools in China and the United States.
Wood said he loves working at the Confucius Institute because of the diverse people he gets to meet.
“It’s meeting people from kids to educators to legislators and friends. Not only here but in China,” he said. “That’s international. We meet a lot of institutes.”
In the future, Wood said he wants to improve promotion of the Confucius Institute so the UNL community has a better understanding of what it does.
“People feel Confucius is very old, but it’s more than that. China is also very modern,” Wood said. “We keep promoting old culture, but we like to also promote the new culture. The new generation is exciting; it’s dynamic.”
Chris Heselton, the associate director of the Confucius Institute, said his favorite part of working at the institute is the variety of areas there are to focus on, including education, academics, his own research and cultural events.
Wood said he believes it is important to keep the Confucius Institute at UNL running because it provides people with a window into a foreign country.
“That’s where the goodwill and understanding and knowledge comes in,” he said. “It’s important for us to really understand each other, especially in this day and age.”
Wood thinks his Chinese background is important, and he describes the UNL Confucius Institute as “a bridge.” Li agrees.
“Through the Confucius institute, I have the opportunity to experience true American life and ideas,” she said. “It is a bridge that connects a curious mind and a warm-hearted country through which mutual understanding and appreciation can be better achieved.”
Wood said one of the main goals of the institute is to help students become more familiar with Chinese language and culture. He believes this is important because it helps the future generation be more informed and culturally aware.
Li is proof that the institute is helpful to teachers as well. She sees the Confucius Institute at the UNL as a home.
“Here, I can always find solutions to my problems, help and support in my personal and work life,” she said. “I’m so grateful and blessed to stay with this family.”