China's Confucius Institutes and the "Necessary White Body"


  • Heather Schmidt



Abstract. Confucius Institutes (CIs), modelled on similar European organizations, promote China’s official national language and culture abroad. Unlike their European counterparts, however, the interactions between CIs and Canadian audiences are haunted by complex histories of a racialized “Oriental Other” in Canada and “Western Other” in China. Through ethnographic research on the Confucius Institute in Edmonton and the CI Headquarters in Beijing, this paper explores racialized representations of China and Chinese culture, as well as racialized understandings of the desired Western audience, in both locations. I argue that representations of Chinese culture are caught between two competing logics which I term reorientalism and reorientality. Reorientalism attempts to reclaim definitions of Chineseness and redress misunderstandings about China while simultaneously making China comprehensible and ultimately marketable through reorientality, or a use of familiar Orientalist tropes. Canadians (most often imagined and represented as white) are encouraged to engage with this reorientality through their own performance and embodiment of Chinese culture (a conceptually distinct process I call re-orientality) as a means of understanding the project of reorientalism. However, the spectacle of Chinese culture through CIs resonates with Canadian multiculturalism in ways that may unintentionally reproduce a social landscape that normalizes whiteness and the consumption of ethnicized Otherness.