It's the world's most widely spoken language, and yet few Kansas schoolchildren study Mandarin Chinese.
"The good thing is the rest of America is about the same place we are," said Bill Tsutsui, Kansas University associate professor of history.
KU wants to put the state ahead of the curve with the opening of one of the first Confucius Institutes in the United States. The institute, established by KU and China's Ministry of Education, will offer Chinese language and cultural programs.
KU officials will host a dedication May 4 and expect to open the institute in August at KU's Edwards Campus in Overland Park.
"It's all about being prepared for where the world is going," said Tsutsui, who will be executive director of KU's institute.
KU's Confucius Institute will be among the first in the nation. There are institutes in Illinois, Maryland and New York, and more are planned. China hopes to create 100 Confucius Institutes across the globe by 2010 in a move to increase knowledge of China.
KU and China's Ministry of Education have contributed equal amounts of financial support totaling less than $250,000 for the institute's start-up, Tsutsui said.
The institute will look to businesses, private donors, foundations and other funding sources for more support.
Programming plans range from the development of Chinese language curriculum for prekindergarten students to lectures and programs featuring Chinese culture.
The institute in the fall will launch a Chinese language course for seven Kansas high schools that will be offered via videoconferencing. Lawrence high schools are expected to participate.
Currently, Shawnee Mission and Olathe are the only two Kansas school districts offering Chinese language instruction, said Nancy Hope, KU associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies who will be the institute's associate executive director for education.
Hope said the goal is to build interest for Chinese language classes in Kansas communities. At the same time, the institute will encourage more KU students to pursue careers as Chinese language school teachers.
KU's School of Education has a Chinese language teacher training program, but only a handful of students have passed through it in the last several years, Hope said.
"China is the future," she said. "It can only help our future if we're more aware of Chinese language and culture."
The institute will aid businesses with workshops to help employees get better acquainted with Chinese language and culture.
And organizers are considering language classes for families with Chinese adopted children or for those planning to vacation in China.
Kansas exports to China were $210 million in 2004, an increase from $174 million in 2003, according to the state commerce department.
And business is good for Jeff Willis, president of China Leads LLC, an Oskaloosa-based company that helps small and midsize companies better use the Internet to export to China.
Willis plans to refer clients to the Confucius Institute.
"I think it's an excellent opportunity for us as Americans to be able to understand better how to communicate with Chinese (speakers) to our mutual benefit," he said.
Tsutsui said he hopes the institute addresses economic needs as well as cultural and security issues as it educates the public about China and prepares Kansans for a global society.