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A wise choice
by Greg Russell

Hsiang-te Kung will tell you he is just an ordinary man. "Don't make me special," the University of Memphis professor of geography says. But Kung is no ordinary man. He lives by words of wisdom drawn from the ages, philosophies first uttered centuries ago by Confucius. And using this wisdom, Kung, not surprisingly a direct descendant of the sage, has become the man of the moment at the U of M. He recently helped the University secure a prestigious Confucius Institute, beating out several top southeastern universities along the way.

"I tell people to respect others, work hard and to be honest and sincere," Kung says. "In doing that, we can live in harmony and make society a better place to live in."

Raines and Wu Chuan-xi  

University President Shirley C. Raines and Hubei University President Wu Chuan-xi sign an agreement linking the two schools as partners of the Confucius Institute. Hubei is funding at least one scholarship for a U of M student and is donating several hundred volumes of Chinese literature for a 4,000-book library that will be part of the Confucius Institute, to be located in Wilder Tower.

It is a philosophy he teaches to his students and family and, in the past year, in putting together a proposal to the Chinese Embassy and the Office of the Chinese Language Council International that resulted in the U of M being chosen to house a Confucius Institute. The University is one of about 20 schools in the United States selected for an Institute, joining such places of higher education as the University of Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina State University, Michigan State University and the University of Maryland. Once the initiative is complete, the U of M will be one of approximately 150 institutes worldwide hosting a Confucius Institute. The school bested several other universities in the state and region with a proposal spearheaded by Kung that Chinese officials said was "one of the best proposals ever."

The purpose of the Institute is widespread, according to Kung. It will create better trade relations, promote understanding of the Chinese language and culture, develop friendly relations between the U.S. and China, accelerate the expansion of multiculturalism, and provide opportunities for students studying the Chinese language through courses and exchange programs. In addition, the Institute will house an extensive library of Chinese literature, with some 4,000 books being donated to the U of M by the Office of the Chinese Language Council International and additional volumes coming from its partner school in China, Hubei University.

One of the most important aspects, Kung says, is outreach.

"We are seeking to promote the Chinese culture and language not only at the University, but in the community and throughout the southeast," Kung says. "We will create a more harmonious relationship between the U.S. and China through this outreach."

Kung says an example of this outreach is a plan that will send area K-12 principals to China to learn about Chinese culture. This knowledge will eventually trickle down to Mid-South school children. Similar projects will follow.

A China Study Center will also be created within the Institute and will act as a research unit that targets contemporary China's social and natural problems.

The National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, headquartered in Beijing, will fund the Confucius Institute at the University.

The facility certainly is a feather in the cap for the U of M and the timing is impeccable. Since President Bush normalized trade relations with China in 2002, the country has burst onto the scene as an economic world power.

"The 20th century was the United States' century," says philanthropist Rudi Scheidt, a former cotton executive who has spent much time in China and for whom the U of M School of Music is named. "Odds are the 21st century, the century we are in now, will be the century of China and eventually India. No matter what line of work you are in, this will be one of the major factors that will measure your success. So learn a little Chinese. Study Eastern cultures."

The Confucius Institute also fits in with plans by President Shirley Raines to position the University as one of the leading metropolitan research universities in the country by 2012. She says that the University has always had strong connections to China through various exchange programs, and this will only strengthen the bond.

"The University of Memphis is deeply honored to receive this much-sought-after Confucius Institute," says Dr. Raines. "Memphis has a long history of involvement with China in trade and in cultural exchanges. The Confucius Institute will build on our strong friendship and opportunities for students and faculty."


Dr. Hsiang-te Kung, a descendant of Confucius, was instrumental in helping the U of M land a Confucius Institute on campus. Photos by Lindsey Lissau.

The U of M already offers exchange programs with a multitude of Chinese universities, including China Three Gorges University, Huazhong Normal University, East China Normal University, Xinjiang University and Shanghai University. Chinese language classes have been offered at the U of M since 1985. Some 30 professors from China teach at the University.

As the proposal was being developed, officials from the Chinese Embassy and the Office of the Chinese Language Council International visited campus on several occasions. In return, Kung and various U of M officials, including Raines and Provost Ralph Faudree, have traveled to China.

The Institute will have its own floor in Wilder Tower and should be finished in 2008. Kung says a sculpture of Confucius to be designed by a local artist will greet visitors. Space for the 4,000-book library as well as room for a director and at least two visiting Chinese professors is planned.

Kung says the University was able to secure the Institute over other universities because of several factors.

"Memphis is the headquarters of several international companies such as FedEx, International Paper, a regional medical center and St. Jude," Kung says. "FedEx already has a huge presence in China," he says, while mentioning that after Raines signed the final agreement, it was sent to China via FedEx.

One deciding factor in the U of M receiving the Institute was made possible by the donation of $1 million by an anonymous benefactor that created an Asian Studies and International Trade program on campus. Students in this discipline will pursue a rigorous curriculum that includes in-depth international business and economics study, extensive study of either Japanese or Chinese language and advanced courses in the history and geography of Asia.

"Universities are being asked more and more by American companies to produce students who are entering the job market who possess the skills to function in a global market, particularly in Asia," says Faudree. "Our program will provide students with the critical combination of skills that these companies are seeking."

Kung says the U of M's partner school, Hubei University, will set up at least one scholarship at the University. Expect dozens of teacher, student and researcher exchanges with China as the program grows.

Hubei University is located in central China's Hubei Province and has ties with universities and research institutes in Australia, Britain, America, Japan, France and other countries, which will further the U of M's reach.

One Chinese official says Kung himself was a major reason Memphis was selected.

"I'm very respectful to know you are an offspring of Confucius," William Hu, an administrator at Hubei University, wrote to Kung. "[I have been told] that though you are an expert in geography, you are also dedicated in promoting Chinese culture to America."

Kung, who has been at the U of M since 1981, remains modest but proud of his heritage. He says that his family name is included in Confucius' family tree, which is kept inside the Confucius Temple in Qufu City in China's Shandong Province. Confucius, who lived between 551 and 479 B.C., is still revered in China as the wisest man in history.

Kung was born in China and grew up in Taiwan. He came to the States in 1969 and began teaching geography at the U of M in 1981.

The awarding of the Institute ended a nearly yearlong and detailed process by Kung.

"Confucius traveled extensively around China spreading his philosophy," Kung says. "The governors at the time listened to him and helped tie the family, society and the country together."

Which, in a way, is what Kung has accomplished in helping the University secure the Institute.

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