Learning Chinese in Vietnam: The Role of the Confucius Institute

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Southeast Asian countries have always been one of the priority regions of the Chinese foreign policy due both to the geographic proximity and to the long historical and cultural connections and new forms of economic and trade cooperation which have been formed on that basis. Vietnam supports close interaction with its northern neighbour not only in the Party matters, but also in the trade and economic, agricultural, tourism, educational, medical, and other spheres. Naturally, this suggests intense learning of the Chinese language on a large scale. China, in its turn, is interested in maintenance and increase of its positive image among the countries of Southeast Asia. That is why China applies various methods and tools of nonforce pressure, which are known as “cultural soft power”. One of these tools is the Confucius Institute (Classes). China considered it the site of promotion of the Chinese language and Chinese culture abroad. From the outside, Vietnam and China appear to move toward each other in the matter of teaching and learning Chinese, but the reality shows that the Vietnamese side is not hastening to join the Chinese initiative, striving to control the situation, and does not let the Chinese side expand the Confucius Institutes network in Vietnam. Also, the analysis of the situation has shown the insignificant role of the Confucius Institutes in teaching the Chinese language.

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For centuries Vietnam experienced the strong cultural influence of China, and China would like to retain the situation. Southeast Asia is the region where China began to apply the tools of cultural diplomacy and “cultural soft power”. Nonforce pressure of China on SEA countries often attracted the attention of Russian and foreign researchers (see works by G.N. Lokshin, D.V. Mosyakov, S.K. Pestsov, A.M. Bobylo, L.R. Rustamova, B.M. Jain, J.D. Schmidt, Lu Fang, Zeng Zheng, Yang Hongjuan, etc.).

One of the tools of China’s “soft power” is the Confucius Institutes (Classes), which used to be established worldwide under the auspices and with the approval of the PRC State Council. The Chinese consider them to be not only educational and cultural centers, but also informal diplomatic sites. SEA's importance for China is shown with the fact that at the end of 2018 nine of eleven SEA countries had 37 Confucius Institutes and 17 Classes [Chen Lu 2020: 45]. However, in spite of serious political and financial support of the Confucius Institute network from the Chinese Government, their activity is sometimes far from efficient and does not contribute to fortifying the Chinese “soft power”. This Russian article is the first attempt to describe the role and importance of the Confucius Institutes in the promotion of China’s “soft power” on the territory of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The data on the situation of teaching the Chinese language in Vietnam are being introduced in scientific circulation, which is of great importance in comprehending the nature of educational and humanitarian relationships between the SRV and the PRC.

The author has used a broad range of Vietnamese, Chinese, and English sources. Both general and special methods have been applied to their analyses.

Teaching Chinese in Vietnam: The Current State

The state policy concerning teaching and learning Chinese in the SRV can be considered a marker of bilateral relations. During recent decades, the relations between the neighbors have been strained enough, accompanied by territorial conflicts in the South China Sea and roused with anti-Chinese moods in society. However, there exists a close Party, trade, economic and humanitarian cooperation between the countries. Such paradoxical relations, in G.M. Lokshin’s opinion, have been caused with “the main care of the Vietnamese leadership to use all the key factors of diplomacy, economic relations and military connections to reserve their autonomy and independence and to avoid being involved into the orbit of the Chinese policy” [Lokshin 2013: 82].

The normalization of the relations with China having been achieved in 1991, the Vietnamese began actively learning Chinese. Vietnamese pupils usually learn English as the first foreign language, but they can choose other languages if there are conditions for their teaching. The SRV Ministry of Education and Training made attempts to transfer Russian and Chinese in the status of the first foreign languages to begin their learning from the third grade [Tiếng Trung: 12.07.2021] but in vain. Now, Chinese is usually learned as the first foreign language from the 6th to 12th grades in the scope of the full seven years course [Ibid.]. In 2016, the Chinese language was learned in 46 centers of 9 provinces concentrated chiefly in the northern border regions, the total number of students learning Chinese was 12 thousand (cf. Russian is learned by but 1200 students, and Japanese by 25 thousand [Tiếng Nga: 12.07.2021]).

A number of Vietnamese specialists advocate the necessity to learn Chinese at school beginning from the first (junior) grade, but most experts consider the pilot projects of the Ministry of Education untimely and groundless. At the same time, they often mention the necessity to learn Chinese script at the third grade of High School, because about 70% of lexica are Vietnamese words with Chinese roots necessary to understand the native tongue and national literature, which used Chinese characters for centuries [Dạy chữ Hán: 13.07.2021].

To stimulate learning Chinese at school, the Embassy of the PRC in the SRV regularly awards grants to the pupils of primary and middle classes learning Chinese. In 2019, there were awarded 40 such grants each of 3.5 mln dongs (150 dollars) [Ibid.], i.e., about half of the average salary in the country.

The Chinese language is represented in the system of higher education widely enough – more than 40 Vietnamese higher education institutions have Chinese institutes, departments, and chairs. And 76 higher education institutions train specialists in the Chinese language. Bachelors speaking Chinese are usually trained for interpretation, as well as for trade and economic spheres and tourism industry [Danh sách: 12.07.2021]. Besides, in Vietnam a number of higher education institutions teach Chinese as the second foreign language or as an optional subject, which significantly enhances the capacity of training sectoral experts. To join the Chinese language courses, one should not, as usual, take exams in this language [Các trường đào tạo: 14.07.2021].

Besides, Vietnamese higher education institutions actively collaborate with Chinese ones. Nowadays, there are various joint programs for training bachelors and masters according to the scheme “1+4”, “1+3”, “2+2”, “3+2” etc. [Chen, Xu 2015: 54]. The training in the scope of joint programs is carried out in accordance with the enrollment plan of the Vietnamese Ministry of Education. Besides. the SRV and the PRC have signed the agreement to provide the Chinese joint short courses and further training for the senior management of the SRV, government officials, as well in various spheres of China – ASEAN cooperation [Nguyen Thu Huong 2017: 15].

Annually, about 130 persons are trained at the expense of Chinese government grants for magistracy and doctorate in China [Nguyen Thu Huong 2017: 14] in such spheres as language and literature, science and technology, management, foreign trade, international relations, design [Yuenan xusheng: 06.20.2021]. Peng Shituan, Cultural Counselor of the PRC Embassy in Vietnam stated that in 2018 2000 Vietnamese students had received various Chinese Government grants, i.e., 18% of the total number of Vietnamese students in China [Yuenan 79 ming: 25.06.2021]. Claims for Chinese government grants are presented through the Department of international cooperation of the SRV Ministry of Education and are under its control [Thông báo tuyển sinh: 12.07.2021].

China is interested in attaching Vietnamese students to learn, considering it to be one of the opportunities to neutralize anti-Chinese moods in Vietnam. However, the data of the PRC Ministry of Education show that the number of Vietnamese students learning in Vietnam is not stable (Table 1). In 2014–2016, the number of students sharply decreased, due to the strain of Sino-Vietnamese relations [2014 niandu: 25.06.2021]. Meanwhile, as compared to other SEA countries, the number of Vietnamese students in China is significantly less than, for instance, in Japan. According to the Ministry of Education of Japan data, in 2019 in universities and schools of the country there learned 73389 Vietnamese [Zairi waiguo: 25.06.2021]. Despite the COVID-19   pandemic,   in   2020 13,549 students from Vietnam learned in China [Vietnamese students of Chinese: 15.11.2021], but mostly they were not content with the quality of online teaching and were forced to take a pause to cut short their studies.


Table 1. The Quantity of the Vietnamese Students Learning in the PRC 



















Compiled from reports and statements of the PRC Ministry of Education and other sources


Besides, The Chinese language and culture in Vietnam are actively promoted not only by mainland China but also by Taiwan. Taibei economic and cultural bureau (TECO) functions in Hanoi. Annually, the Ministry of Education of Taiwan sends Chinese teachers to Vietnamese schools and universities, promotes the study of traditional hieroglyphics, their testing methods of Chinese, and methods to attract Vietnamese students to be educated in Taiwan [Planting Seeds: 06.25.2021]. Also, these programs are popular among Vietnamese students. Thus, according to the statistics of the Taiwan government, in 2019 17,421 Vietnamese students learned in Taiwan [Everington: 28.12.2020]. So, the number of Vietnamese students learning in Taiwan is even higher than those who learn in mainland China.

Chinese researchers mention that their own system of training Sinologists has been formed in Vietnam, which does not need the participation of the Chinese side at all [Zhao Hongxia 2014: 506]. However, the expediency to establish the Confucius Institute in Vietnam is motivated by numerous problems by Chinese researchers. They are the problems of Chinese teaching, such as overcrowding of learning groups, low educational level of Chinese teachers, lack of uniform programs and standards, fragmentation of Chinese manuals, low level of logistical support, the backwardness of teaching methods, lack of specialized Chinese courses of higher level (for example of ancient Chinese), etc. [Chen, Xu 2015: 52]. Chinese researchers attach great importance to the Confucius Institute's role which it must perform in promoting the Chinese language and Chinese culture in Vietnam. But the reality does not sustain this view.

The Establishment of the Confucius Institute at Hanoi University: Chinese Dreams and the Vietnamese Reality

In October 2013, during the PRC Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Vietnam and his meeting with Premier Nguyen Tan Dung, the decision was made to establish the Confucius Institute at Hanoi University, the partner institution from the Chinese side was Guangxi Normal University. Do Thanh Van (Chinese 杜青云), mentions that the establishment of the Confucius Institute in Vietnam was preceded by a lasting negotiating process, which was halted in October 2006 due to mutual distrust and lack of sufficient contacts [Du 2009: 42]. The opening ceremony took place in December 2014, the first cultural event was held in September 2015, and lessons began in April 2016, when the first Chinese teacher arrived [Lu Fang 2019: 22]. So, it is to conclude that the Vietnamese side did not hasten to launch the Confucius Institute on the background of acute confrontation with Beijing after the drilling platform commissioning in the SRV Free Economic Zone in the South China Sea.

Do Thanh Van mentions two moments that contributed to the establishment of the Confucius Institute at Hanoi University as late as 2014. She believes the primary cause was the name itself which had been negatively perceived by the Vietnamese. Vietnam’s development was closely connected with Confucianism, but simultaneously it introduced such principles as the scorn of women and the social division into rulers and ruled. The Vietnamese think that the Confucian Institutes will propagate Confucianism and therefore reject them. Secondly, the Vietnamese are concerned with the question of national identity. Do Thanh Van believes that the Vietnamese fear the restoration of the hieroglyphic educational system [Du 2009: 49]. Also, the Vietnamese public worries that the Confucius Institute will sharpen the problems of cultural assimilation and the incapacity of Vietnamese culture to oppose the Chinese one [Thanh Phương: 21.10.2013].

Investigating the factors of the Confucian Institutes location in SEA countries Zeng Zheng and Yang Hongquan [Zeng, Yang 2017] found that at the background of other SEA countries Vietnam seems to have sufficient grounds in favor of this process. First, Vietnam has a high level of trade with the PRC (it is the fifth among the SEA countries). Second, it is the second country after Thailand, attractive for Chinese tourists. Third, the percentage of the ethnic Chinese in the local population is very low compared with other SEA countries (less than 5%) [Zeng, Yang 2017: 70], Vietnamese sources [Lịch sử di cư: 15.11.2021] evidence 1.5 mln ethnic Chinese. Meanwhile, the network of the Confucian Institutes in Vietnam did not expand; moreover, the process of establishing the only Institute was slow enough.

The establishment of the Confucius Institute in Vietnam was preceded by a sequence of revolts among intellectuals [Hung: 01.07.2021]. So, Doctor Nguyen Nia, an expert in Sino-Vietnamese relations, told the Vietnamese service of VOA, that Beijing desires to show its soft power through cultural influence. During the Cultural Revolution China destroyed Confucianism and now is going to restore it to influence other countries... This step is disadvantageous for Vietnam [Trung Nguyen: 31.10.2013]. Numerous Vietnamese experts consider the Confucius Institute as the actor of promotion and dissemination of Chinese culture among the Vietnamese youth. Doctor Nguyen Xuan Dien, a research fellow of the Institute of Hán-Nôm Studies in Hanoi, believes that teaching the Chinese language and Chinese culture is but the screen hiding the further cultural and ideological agitation in favor of current China [Thanh Phương: 21.10.2013].

A journalist of “The Diplomat” considers the establishment of the Confucius Institute in Hanoi to have been a way to distract attention from more serious problems of Sino-Vietnamese relations, transferring the focus to a less painful humanitarian agenda [Huỳnh Thục Vy: 24.11.2013]. The author of the publication writes that the appearance of the Confucius Institute will add nothing to the dissemination of the Chinese language and culture in Vietnam because the existence of strong links in various spheres of the two countries is the significant reason for learning Chinese irrespective of whether the Confucius Institute is present in the country or not. She considers the establishment of the Confucius Institute to be another demonstration of China’s “soft power” in the context of its “rigid power”, which is thrust to the Vietnamese government by China.

In 2019, at the ceremony dedicated to the 5th anniversary of the Confucius Institute at Hanoi University, the Educational Councilor of the PRC Embassy in Vietnam declared that the Confucius Institute was to become the platform for building educational cooperation between the two countries and, beginning from Hanoi University was to spread throughout Vietnam. [Yuenan Henei: 16.12.2019]. However, the reality evidences that the plans of the Chinese side can hardly be realized because Hanoi University alone has signed 50 agreements with different higher education institutions of China [Viện Khổng Tử: 12.07.2021] and the Confucius Institute in the matter of internationalization of Vietnam’s higher education is of insignificant importance.

In 2019, the Confucius Institute at Hanoi University taught Chinese in the scope of additional education at the language courses. The personnel of the Confucius Institute consisted of directors from the Vietnamese and Chinese sides, a secretary, and three teachers having been sent by the Chinese side [Lu Fang 2019: 22]. The information on the “Vietnam Plus” portal mentioned that in 2019 1770 persons learned at various courses of the Confucius Institute [Confucius Institute in Vietnam: 01.07.2021]. The total number of those who successfully passed the first exam HSK (HSKK) at the Confucius Institute, was 1250 persons. That was not the only examination point at the Confucius Institute. [Thi HSK ở đâu? : 01.07.2021].

Ongoing activities are scarce [Nguyen Thu Huong 2017: 21] and, usually of the three kinds: cultural activities devoted to traditional Chinese feasts and customs, language contests, and Chinese courses proper including also some aspects of Chinese culture (calligraphy, dance, etc.,). Numerous cultural activities set the tone and Chinese teaching is auxiliary [Nguyen Thu Huong, 2018: 4]. The same is the assessment by Chinese researchers. Liu Fang from the Confucius Institute office at Guangxi University notes in his research that in 2014-2017 the Confucius Institute at Hanoi University held but 19 cultural activities [Lu Fang 2019: 22].

The influence of the Confucius Institute at Hanoi University is rather weak and limited usually with the University itself. Of 180 respondents only 73% said that they had heard something of the Confucius Institute, 11% desired to participate in cultural activities, but 445 agreed to the opportunity to participate [Nguyen Thu Huong 2017: 22].


Based on our research, it is to be concluded that the role of the Confucius Institute as a site for the promotion of the Chinese language and Chinese culture in Vietnam is extremely insignificant. The Confucius Institute at Hanoi University does not possess human resources, which could satisfy needs in the Chinese study even at Hanoi University. The importance of the Chinese courses proper and cultural activities held by the Confucius Institute is not significant, the activities are scarce and receive no coverage in the local mass media. The Confucius Institute is not the only point for passing the Chinese certification exam (HSK). There is high demand for learning the Chinese language in the SRV, but Vietnamese students prefer to learn it not on the grants of the Confucius Institute, but on various government grant programs or on private means. Vietnam satisfies his needs in preparing specialists speaking Chinese through interregional cooperation with Chinese higher education institutions, usually located on the borderline with Vietnam. Besides, one should remember the significant role of Taiwan in the matter of teaching Chinese and Chinese culture in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the establishment of the Confucius Institute in Vietnam (especially in the background of strained relations) reflects the efforts of China in the promotion of its “soft power”. On the other hand, the agreement of the Vietnamese side to open the Confucius Institute may be perceived as an attempt of the SRV government to harmonize what cannot be harmonized. Also, it is noteworthy that the Confucius Institute not only had had any contribution to the promotion of the Chinese language in the SRV but to some degree served a new cause of the growth of anti-Chinese moods and violent discussions in Vietnamese society.


About the authors

Natalia V. Selezneva

Novosibirsk State Technical University

Author for correspondence.
Email: xie-ling@yandex.ru

Ph.D. (Philology), Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Regional Studies

Russian Federation, Novosibirsk


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