Colorful opening ceremony welcomes Confucius Institute to MU

Friday, April 8, 2011 | 5:17 p.m. CDT; updated 5:59 p.m. CDT, Friday, April 8, 2011

In a concert for children Friday morning, The Chinese Folk Music Orchestra of Shanghai Normal University played at Jesse Auditorium. Yichu Zhu played "Horseracing" by Haihuai Huang with an Erhu, a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, also known as the Chinese violin. A separate ceremony took place the same morning to welcome a Confucius Institute to MU.

COLUMBIA — American and Chinese flags hung side by side in Jesse Hall on Friday for a ceremony welcoming a Confucius Institute to MU. The institute aims be a bridge of cultural understanding and business expansion between Missouri and China. 

The ceremony brought MU officials and Chinese dignitaries together after a year-long application process, said Handy Williamson, vice provost for international programs and strategic initiatives at MU. 

"This step reflects our commitment to global opportunity and interaction," Chancellor Brady Deaton said in his opening address. 

Chinese musicians played traditional Chinese instruments throughout the ceremony, highlighting the cultural exchange that will be fostered by the institute.

The ceremony conveyed an atmosphere of celebration, with Chinese representatives at a table adorned with flowers on one side of the stage and U.S. leaders at an identically adorned table on the right. Behind them, a large-scale screen flanked by the flags displayed examples of traditional Chinese dance and celebration.

Earlier Friday, the Chinese musicians joined MU music students in a performance for schoolchildren, also at Jesse.

MU has about 560 Chinese students, making theirs the largest student group from any one foreign country. The new addition to MU's campus will be the 83rd Confucius Institute in America and the 323rd in the world. 

The institute, partnering with Shanghai Normal University in China, will be directly linked to existing Chinese language courses and cultural programs at MU. The need for a stronger program grew as existing cultural education programs matured and interest in China grew, Deaton said in an interview before the ceremony.

"The Confucius Institute will allow us to make our language offering stronger," Williamson said in an interview Thursday. "The university is under-invested in Asian languages."

At the ceremony, Deaton expanded on that goal: "It will expand and deepen cultural and educational exchange between China and the university, the larger community of Columbia and the state of Missouri."

Deaton emphasized that the Confucius Institute will bring Chinese language education to students of all ages and provide consultative services to those who wish to develop business relationships between Missouri and China. 

The institute will be located in the Office of the Vice Provost of International Programs in Jesse Hall. It is funded by the Ministry of Education in China, which will pay a minimum of $150,000 a year to keep at least two instructors at MU, Williamson said. The institute may receive more money if it brings speakers or artists from China.

Controversy has surrounded the openings of several Confucius Institutes. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, educators have feared that dependence on funding could make programs susceptible to pressure from the Chinese government to stifle free speech. The article cites one such occurrence, in Israel. 

MU will not accept any constraints on educational topics or programs, Deaton said in the interview, and the university would not have considered a program that was anything other than an expansion of current programs and opportunities. 

Deaton said because of positive reviews from chancellors at the University of Kentucky and the University of Nebraska, he finds it difficult to take such concerns seriously.

"There's been an overwhelming enthusiasm and curiosity from almost every aspect of the community," Williamson said. He does not anticipate any problems with the program. 

Deaton, who recently visited Shanghai, said inclusion of the Confucius Institute is meant to lay the foundation for decades down the road. "This is an opportunity," he said, "to broaden the horizons of the students of the University of Missouri and the community."

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