Emma Emeozor; [email protected]
Recently, the atmosphere at the Tolulope Odugbemi Hall of the University of Lagos had the semblance of a carnival as students and teachers gathered, beaming with excitement, on the occasion of the “Chinese Bridge” Chinese Proficiency Competition, organised by the Confucius Institute. Participating students demonstrated their proficiency in Chinese language and culture. Besides the quiz segment, the students also demonstrated their proficiency in Chinese music and dance, martial arts, speech-making and drama. But the unique feature of the event was the fact that all the participants were Nigerian students drawn from 13 secondary schools and three primary schools in Lagos State, which explained the ovation that rent the air throughout the event.
China knows too well the role language has played in Europe’s ‘inroad’ into Africa. But could this be the secret behind the vigour with which Beijing is pursuing its language and culture programme in Nigeria and Africa in general? Chinese director at the Confucius Institute, Professor Wang Yongjing, said the event with the slogan “Learn Chinese, Double Your World” is “only a bridge to connect China and Nigeria.”
She said “young Nigerians are welcome through this ‘bridge’ to China” to learn more about the country’s language and culture. She was upbeat when said “By working here, Chinese teachers have already come through this bridge to meet the local people.” Currently, native Chinese teachers are working 18 at centres in Nigeria.
But why would the programme target young Nigerians at the level of secondary and primary schools? Wang said there is no ulterior motive other than the fact that the institute believes that “children are the future of any country.” She said that, beyond this belief, the institute is focusing on young Nigerians because Nigerian parents have expressed the feeling that China is a right destination for their children. “So, we are happy to be here to help these parents and their children.”
But why would Nigerian parents want their children to go to China? Wang points to the similarities in the culture of the two countries “such as the love for family members, care for the elderly, care for babies as well as care for parents.” She observed that “no matter how hard the situation may be, parents want to assist and support their children, even when the children have become adults.”
She said the similarities between the two countries go beyond family love, “We see similarity in the love for music and dance and love for peace as always shared by the two nations.”
Drawing attention to the history of China and Nigeria, she said, “I have discovered that both nations love playing drums in almost all the celebrations that take place daily. I have also seen similarity in the printing of fabrics. I learnt the art was copied from a province in China. And it is already adopted here by the local people.
“It is also interesting to note that there are some Nigerians who believe they originated from China. So, we have discovered a lot of things to identify the similarities between the two countries.”
However, she agreed that there were also dissimilarities in the culture of the two countries: “We can see the difference in the dressing pattern of Nigerian women. The dressing of Nigerian women is splendid. This is to say Nigerian culture is colourful and this is an aspect we want to introduce to China.
“Since I’ am based here in the University of Lagos and there is a women society here, I really hope we can work together on this. I would like to introduce the beauty of Nigerian culture in China because I have also noticed that in any situation Nigerians find themselves, they are very good at singing and dancing to express their feelings and ideas. We really admire this.”
On what the students learning Chinese language would benefit from the programme, Wang said the institute would assist those students who demonstrate a satisfactory level of proficiency to apply for scholarship in Chinese universities, as there were “over 100 universities ready to admit our students.”
Even as China encourages other nationals to learn its language and culture, it has reservations on exporting its religion. Therefore, the teaching of Chinese religion is not on the agenda of the Confucius Institute. Wang explained this: “We know people here (Nigerians) go to church every Sunday. But we respect the right of people to freedom of worship and affiliation to the religion of their choice. So, we are not really thinking of introducing Chinese religion here because it is not an easy thing to do, more so as people are born into a certain religion. Chinese always believe in Confucianism and Buddhism. So, we respect the beliefs of others.”
Is Wang’s explanation to suggest that the institute does not recognise the need to also mould the spiritual life of young Nigerians the Chinese way?
Wang gave a tacit answer: “Take my parents, for example, they used to go to the temple for worship. In China, we have temples, instead of churches, where we pray, do recitation and re-educate ourselves. I learnt a lot about religion from my parents and also by visiting the temple. It is not difficult for anybody to learn Chinese religion. This can be done through visits to the temples and historical sites where there are documents to read.”
When reminded of the Indians who are propagating Yoga and its spiritual and disciplinary values, Wang said China practises martial arts, which fulfill the same goals as Yoga. “Last month, I attended a martial arts event organised by the Chinese Star TV. It was sponsored by one of the local banks here. It was the first time Chinese martial arts would be held in Nigeria. I learnt from the organisers that many Nigerians want to practice it to discipline them. Here at the Confucius Institute, we have marshal arts. Already, we have 25 students learning it every Saturday afternoon.”
Is the Nigerian government, particularly the Ministry of Education, involved in the activities of the Confucius Institute, considering the influence it is exerting on the people? Wang gave a negative answer, saying, “Presently, we have no link with the government. We are working in collaboration with the universities; for example, my university is collaborating with the University of Lagos. We belong to the university community. We believe the university can cooperate and carry out joint activities, including exchange programmes.
“But I wish we can link with the government. I have seen officials of the Ministry of Education here. I hope my Nigerian co-director can help us to get in contact with the local government officials, too. Some officials of the local governments and Immigration office have written me to say they want to study Chinese language. We really hope we can be of help to them too.”
Wang was also particular about the similarity between Nigerian women and their Chinese counterparts, “Chinese women love their husbands and children, they are hardworking, taking care of the family, their hearts are always filled with the thought of their children and husbands. They consider their children first. This is something I see in all Chinese women who are married and it is the same here (in Nigeria).”
On the dissimilarity between the two groups, Wang observed that “many Chinese women are academicians, belonging to various institutions of learning. They are loyal not only to their families but also to the country.”
Continuing, she said: “Take myself as an example, I left my husband, my children and parents to come to Nigeria because I considered the assignment as a necessary sacrifice for my university. I don’t think Nigerian women can do this. Though we belong to the university community, we consider the needs of the government alongside the needs of the family and sometimes the needs of the country have to take priority over the needs of the family.”
Wang disagreed with the notion that Chinese women have no relevance in China’s politics: “Many People say China is a man’s world but we have the policy of equal treatment for both men and women. Be it in politics or in the civil service, there is a certain percentage of positions allotted to women.
“For example, we have many female teachers in the universities and, in the School of Foreign Languages, where I come from, 80 per cent of the workforce is made up of women. This is a reflection of how it is in the government and many organisations across the country. It will interest you to know that pregnant women enjoy holiday to take care of themselves and their babies.”
Wang, who is spending her third year in Nigeria, described her experience in the country as colourful, emphasising, “this is what I want.”
She said: “I can’t learn Nigeria’s culture without working here. My experience has meaning for me and my country. The local Chinese people see Nigerians as their brothers and sisters. This explains the reason I don’t feel nostalgic about home. I travel home once or twice a year.”
Even then, she admits that there are challenges working in Nigeria, with attention to the problem of electricity, bureaucracy and lateness to events by most people. Earlier in a chat with Diplomat Circuit, the Deputy Consul-General of the Chinese Consulate in Lagos, Guan Zhongqi, had described the “Chinese Bridge” event as “good.”
He said “on the one side, it is China and on the other side, it is Nigeria. Language connects the two nations. I am a diplomat from China, but here I speak Nigerian language just as the people learn Chinese language.” Zhongqi believes “when you learn Chinese language, other worlds appears on your way, your life becomes more excellent.”
He expressed the hope that “more Nigerian students will learn Chinese language and culture and introduce it to other
Nigerians.” On the benefits of the programme, the diplomat said: “For the two countries, People-to-People exchange is very important and learning the language is key to its success. Through the “Chinese Bridge” competition, we can build a bridge to connect China and Nigeria and promote our two countries relations.”
The Second Secretary, Culture Office, at the Chinese Embssy in Abuja, Wang Guiping, described the event as good promotion of Chinese culture: “It was an excellent performance by the Nigerian Children. I was highly impressed. It will attract more Nigerian students to learn Chinese language and culture and help to enhance China-Nigeria friendship.”
According to a flyer distributed to guests at the event, the “Chinese Bridge” Chinese proficiency competition is a large-scale international contest sponsored by Hanban. It consists of three events: “Chinese Bridge” “Chinese Proficiency competition for foreign high school students” and “Chinese Bridge” Proficiency competition for foreign students in China. The competition is held annually. 3,000 college students from 110 countries have participated in the semi-final and finals in China while 2,700 secondary school students have been invited to China to share their achievements and happiness, learning Chinese language and culture.