Born in Wuhan in central China in 1947, Professor Hsiang-te Kung is a 75th-generation descendant of Confucius. Shortly after he was born, his father left for Taiwan to help revive the sugar industries abandoned following Japan’s defeat in World War II. He and his mother and brothers followed soon after. Changes in relations across the Taiwan Straits subsequently made it impractical for him to return to the mainland.
In 1969, he left Taiwan for doctoral studies in the U.S., eventually settling as a professor of geography at the University of Memphis (UM) in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1986, with China’s accelerating reform and opening up, he first visited East China Normal University in Shanghai, and then traveled onward to Wuhan, looking for opportunities for cultural and educational exchanges while reconnecting with his roots.
The first Confucius Institute, a non-profit education organization aiming to promote cross-cultural exchanges, was opened in the Republic of Korea in 2004. In 2006, 20 years since his first visit to the Chinese mainland, Kung submitted an application for starting one of the first Confucius Institutes in the U.S. at UM, in partnership with Hubei University in Wuhan.
Under his direction, it quickly became the center of Chinese language and culture learning throughout the mid-south, supporting universities, colleges and school education. It also hosted international conferences and scholarly exchanges, organized exhibitions, dragon dances and kungfu performances, and provided advice for local businesses seeking input on better serving their Chinese customers in the U.S. or reaching out to customers in China.
The Memphis-Wuhan connection was a good fit, with both cities having much in common. While neither are first-tier cities in cultural and educational spheres, both are centrally located logistics hubs and serve outsized roles in regional, national and even global commerce. Memphis, for example, is home to the headquarters of FedEx, while Wuhan is famous for manufacturing, culture and healthcare centers, and is also known as a major trade hub in central China.
As of 2019, there were 550 Confucius Institutes worldwide. They drew inspiration substantially from similar organizations operating globally for the purpose of promoting language and cultural exchanges, including the United Kingdom’s British Council (founded in 1934, now with an estimated 229 centers in 110 countries), France’s Alliance Française (founded in 1883, now with more than 800 institutions in 133 countries), Germany’s Goethe-Institut (founded in 1951, now with 159 centers in 98 countries), and Spain’s Instituto Cervantes (founded in 1991, now with 86 centers in 45 countries).
The establishment of the Confucius Institutes coincided with the rising dominance of the business model in American higher education. In fact, many U.S. universities welcomed these institutions, taking advantage of their high-quality instruction and testing but without having to foot the bill.
Confucius Institutes have always operated transparently and legally and by some accounts have been more disciplined in this respect than some of their European counterparts. Yet the latter have received no sanction as “foreign missions” by the U.S. Government despite having similar organizational and financial structures and governmental funding.
More importantly, from the beginning, Confucius Institutes avoided above all any political propagation or surveillance activities, used locally vetted texts, curricula and staff, in part because it was the right thing to do but also because they knew if they didn’t it would invite trouble.
There was also another reason they remained apolitical: Chinese politics and foreign policy are complex and dynamic, not monolithic or static, despite portrayals by detractors. Therefore, not only would it be impractical, if not impossible, to use such centers to convey such messages, but also the need to shift narratives at speed would quickly undermine their ability to convey them authoritatively or even focus on their core mission—providing access to high-quality instruction in the Chinese language, which no one has questioned.