Hundreds of Confucius Institutes have been established around the world since the mid-2000s to promote Chinese language and culture. However, unlike the Goethe-Institut, Alliance Française and British Council, cultural organisations that represent Germany, France and Britain, respectively, the Confucius Institute has had less success in projecting its country’s soft power abroad. Confucius Institutes have been accused of disseminating Chinese propaganda, among other more serious misdemeanours, but only the most naive would believe that the British Council and so on do not engage in some form of propaganda to promote their countries. The difference between them and the Confucius Institute lies in the level of sophistication with which this is done, and the divergent starting points for each country in terms of their international image. It’s fair to say that Confucius Institutes have an uphill task because culturally, contemporary China scores rather low in the popularity stakes, compared with Western European nations and its neighbours Japan and South Korea. Beijing knows this and recently rebranded the bureau that oversees the cultural organisation, from the Confucius Institute Headquarters to the Ministry of Education Centre for Language Education and Cooperation. It remains to be seen if the name change is just that, or if it will inspire a fundamental reassessment of the way China engages culturally with the rest of the world. China’s Confucius Institutes rebrand after propaganda rows For much of its history, China did not find it necessary to actively project its culture; people from other countries came to China to acquire it. The precocious Chinese civilisation attracted genuine admiration from a number of its immediate neighbours. In some cases, colonisation was a catalyst. In the same way that many ex-colonial subjects in Asia still see their former European metropoles as cultural and intellectual lodestars, the Koreans and Vietnamese, who were colonised by China at various periods, adopted Chinese mores and venerated Confucianism as their state ideologies despite their fierce national and independent instincts. Across the seas, Japan and the kingdom of Ryukyu (modern-day Okinawa) were also enamoured by many facets of Chinese culture, from the writing system and religion, to art and tea-drinking, and acquired them through official and private means. In all these nations, fluency in the Chinese language, which is very different to their native tongues, was brandished by those who possessed it like a prestigious badge of honour, much like English among Chinese Hongkongers. Even on the other end of the Eurasian land mass, China was much admired by Europeans before the Industrial Revolution. The writings of European missionaries and travellers to China reveal an appreciation for the rationalism of Confucian thought and its merit-based bureaucracy. The German philosopher Leibniz (1646–1716) wrote: “I almost think it necessary that Chinese missionaries should be sent to us to teach the aims and practice of natural theology, as we send missionaries to them to instruct them in revealed religion.” However, when the Industrial Revolution transformed Europe, China was slow to jump on the modernisation train and got left far behind. Confucianism and many aspects of Chinese culture were discredited and dismissed, notably by the Chinese themselves several times in the 20th century. Even as many mainland Chinese today believe that they have almost caught up with developed nations in material terms, at least in the more affluent parts of the nation, they are under no illusions that they are culturally attractive to the rest of the world. If the rebranded Confucius Institutes are genuine avenues for “language education and cooperation”, then it is a good thing because greater understanding between different peoples and cultures is exactly what’s needed in an increasingly tribal world.