Tuesday, 11 October 2016

THE CHINESE CONNECTION: Jamaica’s Confucius Institute cherishes its active role in promoting Chinese culture and education

OPEN HOUSE: At the UWI-based Institute, cultural exchange is the primary business. (Below) Dr. Courtney Hogarth.

A notice board at UWI’s Faculty of Humanities announces the arrival of a brand new course in the Department of History dubbed “The History of Modern China”. The local newspapers recently heralded October 1 as National China Day, and a couple of weeks earlier Hope Road’s Olympia Gallery unveiled its latest must-see exhibition, “Conveying the Heart,” which yielded a memorable celebration of Chinese culture and history, while highlighting the mastery of iconic Chinese painter Li Shaowen.

Looking ahead, the Chinese Embassy and the Jamaican government will mark 45 years of diplomatic ties in 2017. And, considering local infrastructure, the extended North Coast Highway and the enduring Chinese Benevolent Association on Hope Road are the sterling products of a fruitful relationship. Indeed, the Chinese continue to have a profound impact on life and livelihood in Jamaica. And nowhere is their involvement in Jamaican affairs more deeply felt these days than at the Confucius Institute.

Based on the UWI Mona Campus, the Institute (the first of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean) officially opened its doors in February 2009 and, in spite of limitations, has been playing an active and important role in promoting Chinese language and culture, and strengthening educational cooperation between China and Jamaica.

Dr. Courtney Hogarth has been Director of the Institute since its inception, and he’s especially pleased with the contributions the Institute has already made to the lives of young Jamaicans, in particular. “An Institute like this is important because it provides opportunities for people to be exposed to Chinese culture,” Hogarth, a fine artist and sinologist, tells TALLAWAH, seated behind his office desk on a crisp Friday morning.

Specifically, he goes on to explain, the Confucius Institute offers classes in Mandarin to university and high-school students and annually sends batches of students and teachers to China for educational and work experience. In fact, just three days before our visit, five students flew off to China to take up scholarship programmes. “You find that the younger people are always curious and looking for ways to expand their horizons, and taking up the scholarship offerings is one way of satisfying that curiosity,” Dr. Hogarth concludes.

UWI’s Dr. Paulette Ramsay, Head of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures agrees. “The [Institute] is equipping our students to access one of the world’s most important economic markets and to more adequately prepare them to become global citizens, and to unlock the potential in the Caribbean for economic and social development,” she argues.

As former Chinese Ambassador to Jamaica, Dong Xiaojun, points out, “The Institute has really become a bridge for mutual understanding and friendship between the Chinese and Caribbean people.”

Even Jamaicans who are travelling to China on their own have consulted the Confucius Institute. “From time to time, persons who are going to China to visit or study will call and ask us to design courses for them,” Dr. Hogarth reveals. “As long as we know the needs of the Jamaican community, we will be better able to serve them, because we’re not working in isolation. As long as they express interest and curiosity in what we do here, we can work together in meaningful ways.”

Worldwide, there are some 500 Confucius Institutes in operation, and Hogarth, who holds a PhD in Classical Chinese Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, envisions Jamaica’s own ranking among the finest one day. What’s the game plan going forward? “Certainly the regular programmes have to keep going. We want to improve our Mandarin teaching and provide more scholarships,” he notes. “There’s a standard to uphold, and that can be challenging in the Jamaican environment.”

With the pressing need for more space to do more work, a proposal is now on the table for the construction of a bigger building – but remaining on the university campus. Inside their current lodgings, there’s a director’s office, an office for the Chinese director, a lobby area showcasing Chinese literature and memorabilia, and a few other rooms for classes, as well as film and documentary screenings. While the construction of the bigger space has been given the green light, no timeline has been finalized for the work to start.

“It will become our permanent base, with additional rooms to carry out our programme and introduce new programmes,” Hogarth explains. “But it has to develop along the lines of the demand for our services. In the long run, what is it that Jamaicans need and will need from the Confucius Institute?” 

Former Chinese Director Lu Shaogong is quick to address the long view, as well. “We will continue to devote ourselves to satisfying the demands of the people who want to learn Mandarin, to strengthening educational and cultural exchanges between China and Jamaica,” he says, “and to promoting development of multiculturalism and the construction of a more harmonious world.”

> Interested in learning Mandarin, or going to China to study? Contact the Confucius Institute at 927-0375 or 970-4795.

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