This fall, the University of Southern Maine announced the establishment of a Confucius Institute. It is one of more than 70 similar institutes in the United States and more than 300 worldwide.

The institute already is working with public schools and just announced that a course in beginning Chinese will be offered to the public in collaboration with the USM College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. I am told that this is the first language course of its kind to be offered at the university.

Confucius Institutes are sponsored by an agency of the People’s Republic of China, with the goal of promoting the study of Chinese language and culture around the world and, according to many, of projecting “soft power” in the interests of China. They bear comparison with, for example, France’s Alliance Francaise or the former U.S. Information Agency, now part of the Department of State.

Some observers have found it remarkable that the People’s Republic of China has named these institutes after the universally known cultural and historical figure who lived in the sixth century B.C.

Under Mao in the 1970s, Confucius was condemned as the embodiment of the old “feudal” society. Today, much has changed, and interest in the ancient philosopher has reawakened in China. The government has seen fit to name its cultural outreach after this revered ancient teacher.

For me as a teacher of Chinese history, this prompts a few reflections about the study of Confucius, and more broadly, Chinese history and culture in America.

No one can have missed the fact of China’s rapid development over the past 30 years. News reporters, talk show pundits and policymakers have chronicled and debated the meaning of this at great length.

China is variously seen as a fantastic business opportunity, a destroyer of American jobs, a cultural treasure, a field for religious conversion, a challenge to America’s preeminence, a violator of human rights, etc. Unfortunately, what is often lacking in such discussions is an appreciation of the complexity of China’s past and present society.

Advocates of one view or another tend to cherry-pick sources for a simplistic reading of China’s past and future. Nor have opinion makers done a very good job of conveying a nuanced and informed idea of China to the broader public. It seems that it is the role of university educators to do their best to make up for this.

Regarding Confucius in particular, his ideas came to constitute the intellectual and moral core of the Chinese civilization. He urged his fellow men to seek and fulfill their potential through learning and moral cultivation; to be tolerant, respectful, and compassionate toward others; to be trustworthy and responsible members in society, and to nurture and strengthen their civilization with humanistic values.

For more than 2,000 years, it was this simple teacher, not powerful rulers, who provided Chinese people with measure and inspiration. Moreover, his teachings spread across East Asia and beyond.

But is Confucius, one may ask, relevant to 21st-century Americans? I truly hope so.

First we should recognize that there seems to be a great deal of humanistic common ground in basic values between Chinese culture and Western culture, common ground that needs to be explored in reading, reporting and teaching.

Speaking of my own teaching experience, I offer courses on East Asian history and Chinese thought. Students tell me that they appreciate the Confucian notion of man’s perfectibility. His emphasis on education, morality and good governance resonates with them.

This speaks to something we all share: we are drawn to the nobility of ideals. They inspire us to strive for the betterment of our society and ourselves.

As for USM’s Confucius Institute, despite the criticisms that these efforts have sometimes received, I hope it will play an important part in promoting Chinese language study, cultural education and exchange programs at our university and in larger communities.

— Special to the Press Herald