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The China Institute of New York – Eight decades of promoting Chinese Culture

The China Institute of New York – Eight decades of promoting Chinese Culture

By Stina Björkell

Entrance to the China Institute. (Image: China Institute)
Entrance to the China Institute. (Image: China Institute)

China Institute in New York City, founded in 1926, is the oldest establishment of its kind in the United States. Radio86 spoke with Nancy Jervis, the institute’s vice president and Confucius Institute dean, about the growing interest in the West towards China.

One of the main founders of the China Institute was the renowned educator and philosopher John Dewey. One of his most notable students was Hu Shih, one of the major figures of the May Fourth Movement, an antecedent of the communist movement in 1919, Jervis explains.

“Hu Shih invited John Dewey to China, where he spent about eighteen months giving lectures. And what Dewey, who lectured in English, found was that everywhere he went on university campuses, there was a great deal of interest in the US and everybody was able to understand his lectures. He came back to the US and realized that people there knew almost nothing about China. So he thought that Americans needed to be educated more about China and that is the beginnings of China Institute,” Jervis summarizes.

The institute was built using a $25,000 from the China Foundation, which administered the money China had paid as reparations for the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion. Later on, the fund was primarily used to foster education and build universities in China, but in this sense, the institute is also linked with Chinese history, Jervis explains.

“When we started, the mission was promoting mutual understanding between Americans and Chinese. We were also a kind of home away from home for Chinese students and scholars who were studying in the US. Many of them came to the US in the 20s and 30s after the fall of the Qing dynasty looking for, as Hu Shih put it, democracy and science– and for some other roads for China,” Jervis says.

“After the 1970s is really when Chinese students and scholars started to come abroad and to the US again. As the number grew and grew, most university campuses began to offer the kinds of services the China Institute had been offering, like social gatherings, so we focused more on educating people in the US about China. Recently, we kind of revived in a different form that audience — we now have a weekend program in Chinese for Chinese ex-pat intellectuals who are interested in their own culture. It has a consistent and growing audience,” Jervis explains.

Art as a tool for education

The China Institute promotes Chinese culture through exhibitions and special events that serve to highlight different forms of Chinese art.

Co-curator Cary Liu discusses the importance of one of the exhibition’s signature pieces during the Curator-led Gallery Talk. (Image: China Institute)
Co-curator Cary Liu discusses the importance of one of the exhibition’s signature pieces during the Curator-led Gallery Talk. (Image: China Institute)

“We have an art gallery that presents two or three, usually art historical exhibitions, each year. That began in 1965. The gallery grew out of the institute’s efforts to educate, because the former head of China Institute and the former head of one of the most well recognized private schools in NY were friends and the latter was interested in internationalizing kids and asked him to find some Chinese art pieces that she could use to teach about Chinese culture,” Jervis explains.

At that time, the institute already had a group of Chinese art patrons around it, so he borrowed from their collections, Jervis says. “Eventually, they decided that there should be a place where Chinese art could be exhibited. At the time, even though the Metropolitan Museum had a huge collection, it wasn’t on view. The China Institute was the only place in the US, where you could consistently see Chinese art all the time. Since that time, we’ve also had a few contemporary shows and cultural shows,” Jervis says.
China fever

As China intensifies its efforts to reach out to the rest of the world ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, more and more people in the West are developing an interest in this age-old culture. The staff at the China Institute has also made note of this trend, and its current premises are quickly becoming too small to accommodate its activities.

“Now, there is China fever in New York,” Jervis says. “We have lots of classes for children and there’s lots of Chinese speaking nannies bringing blond blue-eyed kids to our classes. Many schools have started to offer Chinese classes — especially the private schools,” she says.

Many of the people who regularly take part in the institute’s activities are children from adoptive families, third generation Chinese American families, or people who have lived and worked in China and come back and who want to give their children an edge by teaching them Chinese, Jervis says. Chinese is also now being added to the curriculum of many schools, public and private, in the US, and China Institute is there to support this development.

“We do a huge amount of outreach to K-12 teachers, because increasingly, we are teaching more world history, and the curriculum is changing and incorporating much more of China in it, and the teachers find that they don’t have the background to teach it, so we offer professional development courses for them,” Jervis says.

But China fever is not only local, it’s fast spreading across the entire country, Jervis says. “It’s across the US,” Jervis says. “The mayor of Chicago just returned from a China trip totally in a China frame of mind. He wants to make Chicago a business setting and he wants all the kids in school to learn Chinese — so he is totally behind it. They have a huge program in the public schools. And they’re teaching Chinese, not to the wealthy private school kids, but to the African American community, the Hispanic community etc, so, it’s quite interesting what he is doing,” Jervis says.

The workings of an institute

The China Institute also comprises the Confucius Institute of New York, which promotes Chinese language and culture teaching with the support of an international network of affiliated institutes. “We were the second Confucius Institute to be established in the US, the first one was in Maryland,” Jervis says. Currently, there are about thirty Confucius Institutes in the US alone and about 200 around the world. All the institutes work in “loose” cooperation, Jervis points out.
Zhang Xin discuses the complexities of real estate finance in China. (Image: China Institute)
Zhang Xin discuses the complexities of real estate finance in China. (Image: China Institute)
The operations of the China Institute of New York are funded through a combination of channels. “We have fee for service, and fund raising gala parties, where corporations buy tables to support us. Around 15-20 percent is fee for service, then we have grants for our professional development programs and high school Chinese programs, two grants from the US government and one from a private foundation. What’s interesting is that both the US government and the Chinese government through Hanban, which funds the Confucius Institutes, are directed at getting people to study the Chinese language. In the US,also have something called the National Strategic Language Initiative, which promotes learning strategically important languages — and one of the first languages was Chinese,” Jervis explains.

Currently, the China Institute has about 2,000 active members, Jervis says, although many more take part in its activities on an irregular basis.
China: a treasure chest for a young anthropologist

Nancy Jervis has a long running personal interest in China which peaked in the 1970s when she got a chance to go to China right after President Nixon’s landmark visit of 1972.

“I belonged to a group of young anti-Vietnam War Asia scholars,” she reminisces. At Columbus University, Jervis wrote her PhD thesis on anthropology with specialty on China. Her career in China-US education exchange spans three decades.

“I guess the 1960s and the Cultural Revolution, and being part of the student and other kinds of movements in the US got me into this. But I had also been interested in China as a child. It’s always been there. And when I decided I wanted to concentrate on anthropology, because I really liked the idea of field work, I had to pick a place to do it, so I picked China. And also there was money for it at that time. So if you picked Chinese, you had a chance of getting these scholarships, which I got,” Jervis recalls.

“From 1979 to 1982, because I was in the US-China friendship association, I was invited to go and work in China. So I spent three years living there, mostly in Beijing. In China, I taught American sociology and social studies and did translations and so on. So I’ve just been doing this for a long time. I came to the China Institute in 1988, after I got my degree,” she says.

After Jervis came back to the States, her intrigue for China remained strong. Ten years later, she returned to a village in Henan she had visited during her first stay and wrote her dissertation on it.
Changing times

Today, the possibilities to study the language spoken by the world’s largest population are endless. “When I was studying, there were only the six or seven major universities that had a Chinese language program. Now, every college has one. And high school kids are coming into college with a huge amount of Chinese already, so the colleges have to gear up. So everything is changing,” Jervis analyzes.

In the past, foreign language education in the US has not fared well in international comparisons.

“Language education in the US has been lagging behind. Also, it has been very difficult for any native teacher to teach in a public school because all of the requirements for certification. So now, because of the lack of Chinese and other language teachers out there, they’re starting to have these fast track certification programs for native speakers of all languages. As a result of the emphasis on Chinese language teaching now, it’s going to change the way languages are taught in public education in the US over the next ten years,” Jervis says.

This spring, the China Institute will run a series of short courses on Chinese contemporary art, which has the art community in New York buzzing. The ongoing exhibition of rare shadow puppets from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) will also run until May 11.

China Institute of New York:
Author: Stina Björkell

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