Institutes teaching Confucianism have proliferated too rapidly, stretching the network's meagre Chinese-language educational resources to the limit and causing quality problems worldwide, a senior education official says.
When the network was established in 2005, the plan was to build 100 branches by 2010, but by the end of last year, there were more than 300. Xu Lin, secretary general of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, also known as Hanban, said universities in more than 100 countries had applied for centres and her work hours were mostly consumed by meeting delegations from around the world.
'Some university presidents came several times a year,' Ms Xu said yesterday. 'We found it difficult to pour cold water on their eagerness to have a Confucius Institute on their campus. Once the door was opened, closing it became impossible.
'But we also realised that after the rapid growth in recent years that speed was not everything. Quality issues abound when an organisation expands too fast. The foremost issues include the lack of qualified teachers, diverse textbooks and a mature teaching methodology.
'We will keep the total number of new Confucius Institutes to within 500 next year.'
Ms Xu said that some teachers sent overseas had cried during phone calls because they could not adapt to their new environments.
'Most of our teachers spoke only English, and the language might not be useful in their host countries,' she said. 'We also don't have textbooks that are tailored to reflect the unique culture, history and practice of each country. The fast development of the internet and multimedia made some of our teaching methods obsolete.'
In the past four years, the central government has spent 500 million yuan (HK$568 million) on the programme, raising concerns abroad that the Communist Party was using the centres to build up its soft power.
But vice-minister of education Zhang Xinsheng said the expansion of the institutes was not because of the investment made by the government but was a natural product of the mainland's rapidly developing economy and long, rich culture.
'The government is not doing the hard sell; it's just that many people have suddenly become interested in learning Chinese nowadays,' Mr Zhang said.
'For every yuan that the central government spends on the institutes, there was an equal amount paid by the foreign governments or educational institutes; and in developed countries in North America and western Europe, the share of overseas investment was much higher.
'Chinese culture stressing peace and harmony is more popular than ever.'
But as the Confucius Institute network grows and evolves, it will not be spreading the word about traditional Chinese, the ancient and more sophisticated form of Chinese characters that has been regaining a measure of popularity on the mainland in recent years, according to Xiamen University president Zhu Chongshi.
'The invention and popularisation of simplified Chinese is one of the profoundest social advancements in Chinese history. It helped most people, including farmers in the poorest areas, shake off illiteracy,' Professor Zhu said.