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A white statue of Chinese philosopher Confucius stands tall in Pakistan's federal capital. Behind it is the impressive building of the Confucius Institute, Islamabad — the rebranded Chinese language department at the National University of Modern Languages (NUML).
This programme, like several other Confucius Institutes around the globe, was set up to promote Chinese language and culture. It was founded with support from the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), and Beijing Language and Culture University in April 2005.
NUML's Chinese language department, however, has been around for nearly half a century. When it was first formed in September 1970, there were only about 13 students who took the course. Over the years, interest in the department has increased exponentially.
Rasheeda Mustafa, who has been teaching Mandarin at NUML for the past 19 years, says, “Thousands of students have learnt Mandarin [at NUML] and have went on to pursue professional roles in different fields.”
Perhaps to match this increasing demand, the Chinese government had contributed towards the expansion of the Confucius Institute at NUML back in 2015. "This centre will contribute towards cementing Pak-China relations," Zhang Daojian, a lecturer at the institute, had told Dawn at that point.
The institute has continued to attract a higher number of students since, Mustafa says. Enrolment has nearly doubled in recent years. This year, 460 students have been admitted into the programme, 300 in the morning and 160 in the evening.
Activities at the Confucius Institute go beyond learning Chinese; the department hosts a number of cultural events including a Chinese Lantern Festival and 'Monkey year'. In 2010, the institute also launched two Chinese-language radio stations which broadcast in Islamabad (FM 104.6) and Lahore (FM 95).
Daojian says that Pakistani students are very sharp and learn Mandarin in a short amount of time. “Mandarin is not difficult for those who want to learn it,” he says.
Speaking of the increasing strength of the classrooms he says, “The number of students is increasing with the passage of time because of Chinese job opportunities… There were two sections of the certification [in the past], now there are 10.”
Mustafa says the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a big factor for this. She says that students can see the tides changing and expect that knowing Chinese would mean more job opportunities, in Pakistan and in China.
This is reflected in many students’ responses when asked about their interest in learning the language. Marya Kamran, a student from Rawalpindi, says that while she is interested in learning different languages, “choosing Mandarin is aimed at starting my own import and export business”.
Learning Chinese has certainly helped alumni acquire jobs in the past. Zeeshan Mehmood, alum of NUML’s Chinese department, says that after finishing his Chinese language course in 2014, he got employed as a translator in a Chinese construction company working with Pakistan.
The institute clearly recognises this. A few years ago it started offering a short-term course focused on ‘Business Chinese’ language. The curriculum focuses not only on the language, but also basic etiquettes that students may need when conducting business in China. The course also has books like ABC Business Negotiation.
But not all students have aspirations of conducting business in China. Mustafa says that students are also showing more interest in Chinese because after learning the language they go to pursue Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degrees in China.
Mahnoor Shermeen, one of the 149 women studying Mandarin at NUML, hopes of going to China for higher studies.
She adds that after taking Chinese classes, students appear for a standardised Chinese proficiency test called HSK. The test is administered by the Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing, China. HSK consists of six levels; after passing four students become eligible to apply for scholarships in China, Shermeen says.
The increased interest in learning Chinese not only means that more students from around Pakistan are enlisting in NUML, it has also resulted in Confucius Institutes opening in different parts of the country. Right now there are four operational institutes. There is one each in Islamabad (NUML), Faisalabad (Agriculture University), Lahore (Punjab University) and Karachi (University of Karachi). Another institute is under construction in Gilgit.