Confucius Says...

Joseph Sui Ching Lam already had a good job when he was appointed director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Michigan. He is a professor of music (Musicology) at the School of Music, Theater and Dance.

"I'm still teaching half-time. It's squeezing me a little bit. I'm lucky to have two good jobs," he says.

"Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs."
The Confucius Institute at UM (CI-UM) is an unusual organization, one of a growing number of such centers in the U.S. and around the world. At the end of 2009, there were 282 Confucius Institutes in 88 countries. According to Xinhua, the official Chinese government news agency, Hanban's (aka the Chinese Language Council International) goal is 1,000 CIs by 2020.

Dedicated to promoting the arts and culture of China, it's co-funded by Hanban and the UM Provost's office. Hanban is a non-governmental organization affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. Some China watchers see the network of Confucius Institutes as an exercise in soft power by the Chinese government and a propaganda tool of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

USC's Center for Public Diplomacy has a group dedicated to studying Confucius Institutes. Its website says, "Nation-states are paying greater attention to culture and communication as an essential part of their national power in global affairs." The USC group examines CIs as a platform for Chinese cultural diplomacy in the context of U.S.-China relations and higher-education management.

Lam says, "We have great autonomy."

CI-UM was launched in November 2009, offering artistic and cultural events. Unlike 95% of its siblings, it does not focus on teaching Chinese language because U-M already has a strong Chinese studies department. The institute grew out of University President Mary Sue Coleman's China Initiative, which aims to build partnerships that will enable U-M's faculty and students to reach their fullest potential in a globalizing world. Half of CI-UM's funding comes from U-M, the other half from Hanban. It also partners with Renmin University (People's University of China) in Beijing.

"Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it."

Lam's aspirations for the institute are ambitious: "Dynamic, flexible, high art to everyday, traditional to modern," he says. And he's highly qualified to lead. A Harvard-trained musicologist, he studies late Ming dynasty court music, along with other aspects of Chinese music history. His graduate studies also gave him a thorough grounding in Beethoven and Bach, he notes. He's a former director of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments and former chair of the musicology department. "For the next year or two, we'd like to have two major events, big productions; a couple of distinguished lectures; and five or six lectures and round table discussions."

"We plan many good lectures. When we invite people, it won't be just Chinese people," he adds. "We'll invite Americans as well. Chinese culture is global. We want different voices, different interpretations. We are not here just to repeat what Chinese people say about China."

On Nov 22, the CI-UM presents Mao Xiang and the theatre in late Ming, early Qing, a lecture by Oki Yasushi, professor of Asian literature at the University of Tokyo.

On Nov 23, Paize Keulemans will discuss recent research on Suzhou playwright Li Yu. Keulemans is an assistant professor of Chinese literature at Yale University.

Dec 5 is the tentative date for a classical Chinese opera performance by master musicians in the 600-year-old Kunqu style. Such a performance would be out of reach to students in China, Lam points out. Even if they could afford tickets, getting them would be highly competitive and the production would sell out. China's new prosperity has boosted art and culture. Art schools are booming and Chinese artists are finding it easier to make a living, Lam adds. Although some in China consider classical opera a dying art, it is enjoying a revival, Lam says.

"It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them."

Critics of the Confucius Institute network and its artistic outreach see the program as a dangerous exercise of soft power, a term coined by scholar Joseph Nye. In contrast to hard power (its tools are warfare, aggression, economic sanctions), soft power achieves its goals by attraction. It is friendly, sneaky to some viewers: a handshake, not a slap to the head.

The Canada Tibet Committee's website sees CIs in a less-than-benign light. The site says CIs are "an insidious and prominent example of (Chinese government)…propagandizing…firmly embedded across a swathe of universities, schools, colleges, and other educational establishments."

"There's no doubt that the Chinese government is anxious to promote a positive image of China at home and abroad. Chinese leaders invest considerable resources in this effort, which includes the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo. The Confucius Institutes are part of this campaign," says Clayton Dube, associate director, USC US-China Institute. The Institute promotes understanding of the complex US-China relationship with research, training and events.

"U-M's Confucius Institute enlivens the cultural environment of the university. Given how narrow the cultural worlds of most Americans tend to be, this is a good thing. Developing an appreciation for Chinese poetry, opera, and literature doesn't mean that Americans will stop reading Thoreau and others (that is – to the extent that Americans still read Civil Disobedience and other such works)." Dube also notes that teaching Chinese language skills to Americans will enable us to tell more Chinese what we think, what we value, and what we think about the U.S. and about China.

Besides, the U.S. has plenty of its own soft power initiatives, such as the Peace Corps and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Looking at its efforts so far, CI-UM doesn't appear all that dangerous. This past fall, it presented:
  • An exhibit of comics art by contemporary Hong Kong conceptual artist Danny Yung with a meet-the-artist round table
  • Ren Hai, director of the Olympic Center of Beijing Sport University, speaking on the social impact of the 2008 Olympic Games
  • Living Dreams: Memories of the 1980s Generation, an original comedy-drama, performed at the Walgreen Drama Center by U-M Chinese students who belong to the Zhen Shi Yen drama club
  • "Urghur popular music and minority nationalism in China", a lecture by Chuen Fung Wong, assistant professor of music, Macalester College.
Living Dreams was especially exciting for Lam because it focused on – and starred – Chinese students studying in America. "We learn reality through art. We're mostly exposed to professional musicians – they're middle-aged. These are young, talented amateurs. The play is original, authentic, not through a scholar's lens. We hardly know how young people in their 20s and 30s think about themselves and China," he explains.

"On April 12, we'll have a fascinating performance of a Chinese adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, Chinese opera style. It will be unique, high quality. We'll video the performance and post it on our web site," Lam says.

Other plans for 2011 include co-sponsoring major art events with the UM Museum of Art. One upcoming exhibit will highlight contemporary Chinese wood block prints. Pan Gongkai, one of China's best known painters and art scholars, may visit the CI-UM next March.

"Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?"

On the outbound side, plans are being finalized for the UM Symphony to tour 10 cities in China in May 2011. Lam calls the trip for 75 musicians and professors a major step in generating a cultural exchange program.

Lam's back-burner ideas also sound exciting: he's developing workshops on Chinese gastronomy and embroidery. Costume is another area of interest. He'd like CI-UM to host a fashion show – just one more aspect of China's hugely varied culture.

"Not just fine arts – we want to be more avant garde. 'Diversity and comprehensiveness' is our motto," he says.

He'd like to develop a film series, as well – one that would complement, not compete with, the existing series from the Center for Chinese Studies. CI-UM's website to-do-list makes clear there are even more cultural imports to come. It includes the creation of a Chinese Opera and Theatre Workshop, and the development of a comprehensive, web-based Information Warehouse for Chinese Art Museums in North America.

CI-UM targets the university community first, but Lam is also looking for an audience in the greater Ann Arbor community. The Detroit area has a Confucius Institute at Wayne State University. Michigan State University and Western Michigan University also have CIs.

Each of the four regional CIs initiate programs and offers them to each other through Hanban. Their strength and number show how much Hanban thinks of Michigan, Lam says.

Constance Crump is Concentrate's Senior Writer. She's also an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was Family-Friendly Entrepreneurship.

Send comments and questions here.

All photos by Doug Coombe


Joseph Lam with figurines by artist Danny Yung

Joseph Lam on the U of M Diag

Joseph Lam at the Confucius Institute

Figurines by Danny Yung

Joseph Lam on the U of M Diag
Signup for Email Alerts