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Late in the afternoon, as long shadows play across Kigali’s lush rolling hills, a dozen Rwandan student show up for Chinese class at the Confucius Institute. They greet their Chinese teachers with a “ni hao,” – hello, in Chinese, and then the guys gather for a kung fu lesson, while the women watch on the fringes.
“I like learning Chinese,” says Marianje Ayinkiamiye, who’s been studying here almost a year. “I’d like to study Chinese medicine, and bring it back here. Also, I like singing in Chinese. May I sing you something?”
Her voice is sweet, and rich. The song is a traditional Chinese ode to the jasmine blossom. The Chinese government has been blocking online mentions of “jasmine.” It’s been worried about potential attempts to spread the “Jasmine Revolution” of the Middle East to China.
“I hadn’t heard about (that)," she said.
No surprise there. China’s Confucius Institutes around the world are about spreading appreciation for Chinese culture and language, not news about political faultlines in China. The Confucius Institutes are part of the Chinese government’s multi-billion dollar effort to improve its image in the world, and increase its ‘soft power’ – the degree to which others admire, appreciate and want to emulate China. Since the Confucius Institute project started seven years ago, some 300 have opened around the globe – 21 in Africa.
“I want African people to know the real China,” says Kong Lingyuan, the Kigali Confucius Institute’s Chinese director. He’s lanky and laid-back, having apparently absorbed some of the local culture from when he was a PhD student in anthropology at Berkeley. But he still doesn’t think highly of Western media coverage of China – including coverage of China’s efforts in Africa.
“For instance, they say Chinese companies take out Africans’ resources, and pollute the environment,” he says. But in fact, in Rwanda, more than 80 percent of the roads were built by Chinese companies. And the biggest building was built by Chinese people.”
Chinese companies are involved in extracting copper, minerals and oil from places like Zambia, Congo and Angola but that they also build infrastructure. Kong shrugs good-naturedly, but says he still thinks the international image of China in Africa is off.
“Because the Chinese use these resources to serve the whole world, including America, Europe, Africa – not just China,” he says.
The Confucius Institute here has about 300 students now, with big plans to expand – to teach Chinese in Rwandan universities, high schools and eventually, primary schools. The first program in a high school is about to start. Kong says, while the outreach is intended to improve Rwandans’ understanding and appreciation of China, there’s something of practical value in it for them, too.
“Chinese language will become an international business language,” he says. “Right now, it’s English, but China will become more used. So people who want to do international business will do better if they learn Chinese.”
Some of the students here don’t need to be persuaded. Enable Sibomana, a 28-year-old physical education teacher, says he’d like to earn a master's degree in physical education in China.
“If we speak the language, the Chinese government gives Rwandans a chance to go,” he says. “They give us scholarships – more than other countries.”
Sibomana throws himself into the kung fu instruction at the start of class, crouching and punching the air. He towers over his Chinese instructor – and when he crouches, his pants hitch up to reveal Tweetybird-emblazoned socks.
And then – onto the classroom, where the second part of today’s lesson is on learning the Chinese National Anthem. Next month marks the 40th anniversary of China-Rwanda diplomatic relations, and the Rwandan students and Chinese teachers plan to sing each other’s national anthems.
Teacher Zeng Guangyu cues up the music as students file in. At 28, he’s already been in Rwanda for two and a half years, and says he loves it here.
“No pollution. No traffic jam. And the weather is like spring,” he says with a grin. “And the peaceful pace of life – it isn’t like in China, where we’re always rushing.”
Zeng says he taught African students in China before coming here, and was impressed with how quickly they picked up language – perhaps not surprising, since many of them speak several. But here, he says, it’s a bit more of a challenge.
“They don’t have the context to use Chinese, so they don’t have much motivation to learn,” he says. “Even though they learn some Chinese, it’s not enough to apply to work for a Chinese company, or to use in daily life.”
Still, Zeng presses on. He explains to the class that they’re first just going to listen to China’s National Anthem. He plays it, and the other Chinese teachers in the room sit straighter as the familiar chords rush over them, the exhortation for Chinese to rise up against their oppressors, and use their blood and flesh to build a new Great Wall, a new China.
The song comes to an end, and Zeng turns hopefully to his Rwandans students.
“So, you’ve just heard the Chinese National Anthem for the first time. What is your feeling?” he asks.
There’s a pause. One student raises a hand. “It’s too short,” he says.
“Too short,” Zeng replies, looking a little deflated. “Ok. Well, let’s start learning it anyway.”
He walks the students through the first line, “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!.” They repeat, and repeat again. And again. When he gets to the part about “With our flesh and blood, let us build our new Great Wall,” he skips over translating “xuerou” – blood and flesh, but does translate “Great Wall.” After a few repetitions, he turns the recording back on, and the students try singing along.
It’ll still take some work. But then, the Chinese teachers also have to get cracking on learning the Rwandan National Anthem. One of the male students offers to come up and sing it. Its lyrics couldn’t be in sharper contrast to China’s anthem. It’s about how Rwanda is a land of beautiful mountains and lakes and volcanoes, of people living peacefully together. No mention of flesh and blood here. Rwanda has had more than its share of spilling both, and prefers now to focus on a more hopeful future.
The student finishes singing the Rwandan national anthem, and takes in the applause. Then, he says, “and now I’d like to sing a Chinese song.” He, too, launches into the song about the jasmine flower – singing in a high falsetto. The Chinese teacher, Zeng, looks slightly flustered.
“Wow, we haven’t reviewed that song in almost a year, and the students still remember,” he says. “I guess that shows how well you can remember words if you set them to music. So we must work on our national anthems!”
Director Kong already has the Rwandan anthem down. He thinks it’s important to show respect for the local culture, when teaching your own.
“The former director here, an older guy, had a bad relationship with the local director, because he didn’t know how to deal with local people,” Kong says. “He only wanted African people to learn Chinese, but he did not want to learn local culture. When I came here, I learned some of the local language, and the national anthem, and I learned Rwandan heritage. And they treat me very well. I think if you want other people to learn your culture, you should learn theirs first.”
After class, Kong runs into his Rwandan codirector, a woman, and they greet each other like old friends. Kong suggests they sing the Rwandan national anthem together, and they do, with relish, to the delight of the students who gather to listen.
Kong may just have tapped into the secret to real soft power — reaching not for power, but for a genuine human connection.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.