In 2004 China opened its first Confucius Institute in Seoul, South Korea, after trying out a pilot program in Tashkent, Uzbekistan earlier that year.
The purported aim of these institutes is to promote Chinese language and culture, by providing training for instructors as well as textbooks. It also offers information for people and companies interested in doing business in China.
As of November 2009 there were 282 Confucius Institutes all over the world. Many countries and cities are keen on opening an institute, mostly because of the interest in China, but also because as long as the hosts provide space (usually in post-secondary institutions), the institutes are willing to provide much of the curriculum and training.
While the Chinese government is trying to promote the Confucius Institutes as counterparts to Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institute, there are skeptics who think China is trying to use these cultural institutes as a vehicle for propaganda purposes. Some educators have expressed concern the Confucius Institutes were meddling in their existing curriculums, while others felt having a presence in their city or country gave the Chinese an opportunity to expand its soft power.
What's ironic is how China has chosen to name its institutes after Confucius, the ancient sage from the 6th century BC, as Chairman Mao once vilified him as a symbol of backward conservatism.
And now the Chinese mainland will have another battle on its hands -- Taiwan is interested in starting up its own cultural institutes.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou recently said that he has instructed the Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA) to implement plans to set up Taiwan Academies around the world to promote traditional Chinese language and culture.
He explained such academies were necessary as the Confucius Institutes are now dominating the teaching of the Chinese language and culture in non-Chinese speaking countries.
It is an obvious attempt by Taiwan to battle for supremacy in the "one China" issue, but starting so late, it's definitely going to be an uphill battle for Taiwan to make any ground with its Taiwan academies even though the CCA already has a handful of cultural centres in some foreign capitals and a few language schools on all continents.
Ma hopes they will incorporate the language institutes with the cultural centres, as most of them are only focused on promoting Chinese culture and Taiwanese contemporary arts.
Nevertheless, it's an interesting attempt for Taiwan to promote Chinese, as the island nation uses traditional Chinese characters, and its own symbols to help pronounce characters. It's a system not used anywhere else in the world, as pinyin, developed in China in 1950 has made it so much easier for foreigners to learn the language.
When the CCA starts getting this project off the ground, it'll be interesting to see who wins out in this battle for soft power supremacy.