Starting this fall, more Kansas schoolchildren than ever before will begin learning the most widely spoken language in the world.
Kansas University's new Confucius Institute opens this summer, bringing Chinese language and cultural programs to the region.
Bill Tsutsui, KU associate professor of history and the institute's director, said he compared the current situation with China to the times when many were concerned about competition from Japan.
"I think this time around with China we have the opportunity not to be caught napping - that we really can be on top to this latest challenge to American dominance a lot quicker than we were with Japan," he said.
The institute will launch a Chinese language course for seven Kansas high schools, reaching about 45 students. The classes will be offered using videoconferencing. It's the biggest push to date to help the state's children learn the language, Tsutsui said.
KU offered the course to all Kansas school districts. Several signed up instantly, and 12 districts remain on a waiting list, Tsutsui said.
"This is really showing the interest across the state in Chinese," he said.
Two visiting scholars from China will teach the language classes. One will be based in Overland Park, where several public languages classes will be offered. Another scholar will be based in Lawrence to head up the high school language program. Tsutsui said he also hoped to offer a language class for the Lawrence community.
Seminars will be offered on a fee basis to local businesses and corporations. Organizers also plan to bring in at least one lecturer a year and to host music or arts functions.
Many hope the institute will have an economic impact as it educates local businesses about the culture and language of China.
Kansas exports to China were $210 million in 2004, an increase from $174 million the prior year.
The institute began with a memorandum of cooperation signed by former KU Provost David Shulenburger while on Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' October 2005 trade mission to China.
KU administrators say the institute will build upon KU's long history of ties with China. KU's Center for East Asian Studies is the only federally funded National Resource Center in East Asian Studies between the Mississippi River and California.
"KU just has an extraordinary history of involvement with Chinese studies," Chancellor Robert Hemenway said. "Our center for East Asian Studies is one of the best-known centers for the study of China in the country."
More than a dozen KU faculty conduct research with some focus on China. And KU offers bachelor's and master's degree programs in Chinese language, Chinese literature or Chinese language and culture.
KU dedicated the institute in a May ceremony at KU's Edwards Campus in Overland Park.
The Institute is a partnership between KU and China's Ministry of Education. Both contributed roughly equal amounts totaling less than $250,000 for startup. The institute will be based at the Edwards Campus.
"It's the further extension of our mission to serve greater Kansas City," said Bob Clark, the campus' vice chancellor.
KU's center is among the first in the nation. It joins institute in Illinois, Maryland and New York.
But there will be more. China hopes to expand to 100 institutes across the globe by 2010.
Each Institute carves out its own niche. The institute in Chicago, for example, is focused at the K-12 level.
KU's Confucius Institute has a broad approach, trying to meet the needs in many areas.
"We want to reach as many people as possible with as broad a reach as possible," Tsutsui said.