An Arrival in Mainland China
Shenzhen´s outskirts are accessible from any place in Guangdong Province, but access to the city itself is restricted for non-Shenzheners. The International Airport is outside the restricted area, in Bao´an District to the West, but if you want to get inside Shenzhen from the airport, there will be a passport control along the way.
Some years ago, I was on a mini bus from the airport to Shenzhen. It was late in the evening, and I was asleep. I woke up because a policeman stood next to my seat. He was looking at me, and seemed to be slightly confused. Apparently, he didn´t speak English, and he hadn´t expected a foreigner to travel on this small vehicle.
I produced my passport and asked if I had to get off the bus. The time before, everyone had had to walk through Shenzhen´s immigration and change the bus after the procedure. “No need”, said the policeman, and added that my hanyu was very good.
I was still sleepy and a bit confused, but managed to utter the usual ceremonial reply to the accolade: “My guoyu is still no good.”
“We speak putonghua”, the policeman portly replied.
Indeed. Guoyu is spoken in Taiwan. It is basically the same as Putonghua – both also referred to as Mandarin, but not the official People´s Republic of China language. And of course, ever since the Chiang Kaishek government had fled to Taiwan in 1949, guoyu and putonghua had developed their own respective histories and some varying expressions.
That´s how a foreigner´s Guoyu came to town in mainland China and was politely, but firmly reinterpreted into Putonghua. Anyway, the policeman and I were speaking the same language, were we not?
Putonghua goes into the World
In March 2004, China´s 汉语国际推广领导小组办公室, or Office of Chinese Language Council (will be referred to as “Hanban” in the following) officially established the “International Volunteer Centre of Chinese teachers from China”. The concept is pretty similar to many such projects from Western countries, such as the American Peace Corps. And same as the Peace Corps, the Volunteer Centre of Chinese teachers is an official organisation, with the Hanban (which might be comparable to the British Council) as its parental organisation.
In an interview with China Radio International´s Chinese service in 2004, then director of the project, Li Xinyuan (李新元), explained the concept of the Volunteer Centre. The Chinese government had sent “official” teachers to more than sixty countries already, but that did by no means meet the demand. The volunteering concept was the answer. According to Li, the project was open to potential volunteers who were required to have received higher education, to have some fundamental knowledge of foreign languages, enough to fit easily into work and life. As for professional skills, the organisation stressed the need for knowledge of liberal arts or social sciences, but other people whose study subjects appeared suitable had been eligible, too.
The first volunteers had been to places in Asia like the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. In November 2004, the first five volunteers went beyond, to Mauritius, East of Africa.
Most or all of these five came from Peking or Tianjin. According to Li´s interview with China Radio International, officials sent from the Mauritius education ministry had asked for face-to-face interviews with the teachers, which was most suitable with people from Peking and around.
Both the Chinese and host country government took a share in grants to the volunteers, and their health insurance. The host country was also expected to provide accomodation “in accordance with local standards”.
According to Li, the number of candidates who applied on their own initiative was at 5000 in 2004, while the requests from abroad were rising, too. As for Europe, sending volunteers to Greece and Poland was already on the cards.
Besides teaching Chinese, other professional work or assistance was also part of the volunteering project, but cultural exchange and promotion seems to rest mostly with the Confucius Institutes.
Language teaching and Government
The Volunteer project seems to be pretty much modelled after the American Peace Corps. According to its website, more than 190,000 Peace Corps volunteers “have been invited by 139 host countries to work on issues ranging from AIDS education to information technology and environmental preservation.” In addition, the Peace Corps volunteers also work in the field of education. The fact that it is “an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship” probably made it an appropriate model for the Chinese leadership to emulate, too.
The Hanban defines teaching standards for Chinese and foreign Chinese language teachers alike. At least one of the five volunteers who went to Mauritius in 2004 had attended a “Chinese as a Foreign Language Training” (对外汉语培训). It probably corresponds with the Hanban standard, as Chinese as a Foreign Language Training schedule from March to May 2008 includes Hanban tests.
English as a foreign language doesn´t feature as prominently on the Peace Corps website, as Chinese does on the Hanban website, and its presentation on China Radio International. However, “issues like health education and environmental awareness [are integrated] into English, math, science, and other subjects.” Certainly, the American volunteers are much more likely to meet English-speaking people in most of their host countries, than Chinese volunteers are to meet Chinese-speaking people in theirs. The British approach is different. The British Council is teaching English, but seems to base it less – if at all – on volunteers. The teachers overseas and in Britain seem to be professionals – a condition that the Hanban might have preferred too, if there were enough of them to meet the demand as described by Li Xinyuan. In general, one can probably think of the British Council as an organisation that combines language teaching and cultural exchange (which is divided on the Hanban and the Confucius Institutes in China). And the British Council expressly states image building as a goal, too: “We take pride in celebrating the UK’s creativity and achievements, while looking for ways to enrich the cultural and intellectual life of the UK, by bringing its people together with people from other countries.”
The British Council points out that they “operate at arm´s length from the UK government” which makes them “able to build relationships with those who may be wary of working with government bodies.” That may be an icebreaker – but there are significant connections with politics. Neil Kinnock, former Labour and opposition leader, and later a European Union Commissioner, is chair of the Council, and a substantial amount of the budget comes from government sources.
The Hanban, as is the American Peace Corps, is a governmental agency, and as usual for such an agency in China, there are a many chefs in the kitchen:
“The Chinese Language Council International is composed of members from 12 state ministries and commissions, namely, the General Office of the State Council, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Finance, the Overseas Chinese Affaires Office of the State Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the State Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Culture, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (China Radio International), the State Press and Publications Administration, the State Council Information Office and the State Language Committee . President of the Council is State Councilor Chen Zhili.”
The fact that there are many chefs, but only one political party at work at the Hanban does not create a mainland Chinese monopoly on the global practice and use of Chinese language and its teaching. Taiwan´s Ministry of Education (that´s guoyu again) is active in the definition of Chinese as a foreign language, too, while Singapore seems to rely at least partly on mainland Chinese organisations.
Outside the Chinese-speaking world, institutions like the George Mason or Rutgers University offer opportunities for certification in non-Chinese-speaking countries.