Every three days a Confucius institute was founded in a foreign country over the past year, which was out of the expectation of Kong Lin, senior official in charge of Chinese teaching overseas.
This tide for learning Chinese was initiated from the 1st International Conference on Chinese language held in Beijing in July, 2005, through which the Chinese government showed its interesting in popularizing Mandarin, China's official language, Kong recalled.
The first group of 25 Confucius institutes around the world were officially acknowledged by the government then, and the number has increased to 123 in 49 countries and regions.
Named after the famous ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius institutes replaced the nondescriptly-named Chinese Language Centers, trying to spread Chinese language and culture worldwide.
At Kong's office, the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (NOTCFL), applications for establishing Confucius institutes by foreign universities came in every day through letters and faxes.
"This move is to comply with the surging demand for Mandarin learning, as more and more people have realized the important role China has been playing in the world," Kong said.
China emerged as the world's fourth largest economy, contributing a yearly average of 13 percent to world economic growth over the past five years.
Statistics showed in 2003, 200 primary and middle schools in the United States given Chinese language lessons, and the figure tripled this year.
In 2005, nearly 30,000 took Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), a national-level test of Chinese proficiency of non-native speakers such as foreigners, overseas Chinese and students of Chinese ethnic minorities, while this year the figure doubled. HSK is eyed by many people as TOEFL in the United States for those who want to enter the country.
The Ministry of Education says 40 million people are learning Chinese the world over, but predicts the figure will hit 100 million by 2010. In China alone, the number of foreigners studying Mandarin has grown from 36,000 ten years ago to 110,000 this year.
However, behind the optimistic statistics, Kong also felt pressure -- Chinese teachers and relevant teaching materials were still in short of demand. Among the 1,000 kinds of Chinese language textbooks, few are easily accessible to non-native speakers.
"We should change the way of thinking when teaching Chinese to non-native speakers, emphasizing more on the sense of language instead of complicated grammar," Kong said.
Kong said the office decided to cooperate with foreign publishing houses to compile different teaching materials on Chinese language in different countries.
Quite a few Chinese primary and middle schools also actively sought for cooperation on Chinese language teaching with foreign counterparts in respective friendly provinces and cities.
"It will not only expand the channels for promoting Chinese, but also push forward educational reform in China," Kong said.
She noted that the training of personnel on Chinese teaching overseas was also changed. Students major in Chinese language teaching overseas should first learn the language of targeted country and then their native language, which totally reversed the previous situation.
Kong noted that China began to launch Chinese language teaching overseas some 20 years ago when China adopted the reform and opening-up policies. The overseas surging demand for Chinese language learning gave rise to the Confucius institute.
About one month ago, the prestigious Colombia University of the United States held a Chinese Culture Festival with each building on campus hanging a red lantern.
"My colleagues there told me that the U.S. people got to know for the first time that Chinese expressed their sense of happiness by hanging a red lantern," Kong said, stressing that people could better understand each other by learning each other's language and culture.
According to the schedule of NOTCFL, China will have built 500 Confucius institutes by the end of 2010.
"More and more Confucius institutes help Chinese language and culture to gain its popularity in the world," Kong said.
(Xinhuanet Jan. 1, 2007)