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Liz Martin, Deseret Morning News
Shi Jian, vice president of Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, and University of Utah President Michael Young sign the agreement Tuesday founding the Confucius Institute at the university.

The Confucius Institute became the newest part of the University of Utah community Tuesday when an agreement was signed to partner with a Chinese university.

As one of only 13 institutions in the nation to host a center for Chinese culture and learning, U. officials announced the opening of the new institute and the beginning of a partnership with the Sichuan University in Chengdu.

"It will generate a great deal of interest in and knowledge of this important nation and thereby help to further Utah's ties to China," said Robert Newman, dean of the U.'s College of Humanities, where the institute will be housed. The Salt Lake campus will welcome two full-time language teachers from the Sichuan province, in addition to offering a variety of events to enhance the study of knowledge of Chinese language and culture.

Already the university offers more than 30 courses related to an Asian studies program, while Utah State University, Weber State University and Brigham Young University all have similar programs that have generated a lot of local interest in Chinese and other Asian cultures, Newman said.

"It is clear that this is a university with a capacity to look beyond geographical borders to the rest of the world," said U. President Michael K. Young. He remarked that a significant number of U. students speak languages other than English, making the U. a good location for such a venture.

"This is a window for American students here and local people here to get to know China and Chinese culture," said Shi Jian, vice president of Sichuan University. He issued an open invitation to faculty and students to also visit his university to help his students learn more about America. The agreement between the two universities has been in the works for more than a year, he said.

"The relationship between the United States and China is solid, and we are in fact old friends," said Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr., adding that it may in fact be a "spicy relationship," but a strong relationship nonetheless. Huntsman, who has multiple ties to China, said he hopes the institute gives more people an opportunity to reflect on Confucius as a person and delve into the moral and political teachings he issued to the world.

"This very much will be a learning opportunity for the people in our state," he said, inviting everyone to discover the "mysterious East."

The Confucius Institute will offer China-related cultural activities such as films, opera and music performances, art exhibits and public lectures on Chinese society, culture and history, all of which will be open to the campus and community. China's National Office of Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language will provide an initial $100,000 start-up fund in the first year and will support various programs thereafter upon request.

The U. will provide staff support and space for the institute, and a $100,000 gift from Jon Huntsman Sr. will help ensure the institute's establishment and ongoing success.

The school founded the Asia Center earlier this year, with hopes of giving interested students a place to study. Janet Theiss, the center's director, also a Mandarin speaker and Chinese history professor at the U., said "the importance of China cannot be overstated in this country, and it behooves all of us to know more about it."

A lot of students, she said, already have ties to the country, but a growing population will welcome the new institute and its many opportunities.

"The world orients itself to China, and this gives us the opportunity for us to orient ourselves toward China as well," Young said. "We are on the road to establishing the basis for a long-term, deep and permanent relationship with China and it's a journey well worth it."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com