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Confucius goes to Chile

Perched on a hill in the fashionable coastal town of Viña del Mar – adjoining the port city of Valparaíso – is Chile’s first Confucius Institute. It overlooks a cluster of buildings that could symbolize Chile’s long march towards globalization: the German School; the sprawling Jumbo supermarket (whose arch-rival Lider was recently acquired by US-based WalMart); and the Universidad Santo Tomás, the first Chilean university with a campus in China.

Inside the Confucius Institute red paper lanterns, shiny new texts and teachers who never stop smiling exude the spirit of determined optimism essential to learning Mandarin in a city so lacking in Chinese culture that there’s no place to eat a decent plate of Peking Duck.

Chile was the first country outside Asia to sign a free trade agreement with China and the Andean nation is positioning itself as a platform for Chinese investment in Latin America. No wonder, then, that Chileans are flocking to Chinese language classes.

There are now two Confucius Institutes spreading the word in Chile. Another has just opened in Santiago, the nation’s capital. The Institute here at Universidad Santo Tomás (UST) opened in April 2008. On the first day of class in this April semester I am the first to arrive. Three Chinese instructors greet me. They get right to work, cajoling me into repeating Ni Hao (Hello), Ni Hao Ma (How are you today?), Xiexie (Thank You) – gateways to polite intercultural exchange. The head teacher is so effusive in appreciation that I feel sorry to tell her that I am only visiting.

Three first-year students arrive and the real work begins. After 50 minutes of baffling tones and characters I wonder whether Confucius had penned the Chinese adage: ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’

Chinese philosophy, however, is not what this trio seeks. They want to become chefs and they believe that Chinese language skills and cuisine can spice up their careers.

The second-year students are more appreciative of Chinese culture. The folk dances and tea ceremonies on the Institute’s calendar are aimed at expanding their cultural horizons beyond acupuncture and martial arts. But new students are mainly interested in learning Chinese for its future economic benefits, according to the Institute’s director, Lifen Sun.

Former UST owner Gerardo Rocha shared that interest. When he invited the Confucius Institute to Viña del Mar, his sights were fixed on profits across the Pacific Ocean. His UST educational empire, with schools in 13 Chilean cities and alliances in 33 countries, opened its first campus in China in 2007 at the Anhui University.

Rocha did not live to fulfill his ambition to ‘set up 100 universities in China’. In a bizarre incident, he died last year whilst murdering his wife’s lover.

But his words still resound in the Confucius Institute’s classrooms: ‘Free from suspicion and formalities that hinder rather than help, we will be friends once we get to know one another. And this will smoothly evolve into doing business.’

The question is whether this business will be two-way. ‘In the future, Chile will be full of Chinese,’ predicts student Camila Santibañez. ‘Just look at all the new businesses opening up in Valparaíso.’

Lezak Shallat – a regular contributor to the New Internationalist – is a freelance journalist who has lived in Chile since the 1980s.

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