This fall, the world's first Confucius Culinary Institute is scheduled to open at UC Davis, revealing the magic and mystery of Chinese cuisine dating back 2,500 years.
UC Davis food science alumnus Martin Yan, longtime host of "Yan Can Cook," will advise the program, one of hundreds of Chinese language and cultural programs China has helped start in the United States.
"We'll use cuisine and culinary arts to promote better understanding of Chinese and American culture and history," Yan said. "A lot of people don't realize Confucius spent much of his life developing dietary guidelines and teaching how the way food's served and prepared applies to the social order."
Confucius, born in 551 B.C., was a scholar who influenced the use of chopsticks and encouraged devotion to elders and learning. His philosophy has influenced Asian culture ever since. But during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, the communist government discredited his teachings and anyone thought to be among China's elites or intelligentsia, including piano teachers, poets and professors.
Confucius has made a comeback worldwide through the Confucius Institute, an agency funded by the Chinese government that has established 75 Confucius Institutes at universities in the United States and more than 550 Confucius K-12 classrooms.
The institute isn't without controversy. Some critics suggest universities might be reluctant to discuss issues sensitive to China's government, including the Dalai Lama, Tibet and Taiwan, for fear of losing institute funding.
American institutions partnering with the Confucius Institute ought to be aware of what they're getting, said Peter Hershock, an education specialist at the East West Center, a U.S. think tank.
"It's China's effort to exercise soft diplomacy. They have the purpose of furthering China's own interests in the international sphere, much like the U.S. government's Fulbright Program, spreading U.S. values," Hershock said.
"It's incumbent on U.S. schools to be aware that we're establishing a relationship with a country that has a checkered record on human rights, from the U.S. perspective."
Lilly Cheng, managing director of the Confucius Institute established at San Diego State University in 2009, said China hasn't put strings on its programs.
"In 2012, we hosted the Dalai Lama with UC San Diego and the University of San Diego, and heard nothing from China."
Davis officials, who met with the director of the Confucius Institute in Beijing, said "there was no mention of how and what we should teach," according to Dr. Linxia Liang, UCD's director of Asian International Programs.
The first Confucius classroom in the Sacramento area opened at Rocklin Academy in October 2011 with a $10,000 grant from the Confucius Institute, said Chinese teacher Peggy Kao. Now 120 students in grades 7-11 are learning Mandarin and Chinese culture using computers and materials supplied by China, Kao said.
The way the Confucius Institute interacts with universities is different than with secondary schools, Hershock said.
"When they come to secondary schools, they bring free materials that they use in China, and we wouldn't want to presume those textbooks are free of bias, any more than American textbooks."
At the Rocklin Academy, one of the lessons pictures a cartoon of an FBI agent spying out a window.
"We can use this opportunity with the Confucius Institute to make the kinds of changes in Chinese sensibilities so they no longer have (cartoons of) FBI agents in textbooks," Hershock said.
The Rocklin program was launched with help from San Francisco State University, one of several California universities partnering with the Confucius Institute, which often provides teachers and materials.
"There is a huge demand for Chinese language, but it's difficult to find enough qualified teachers," said Junbo Chen, the institute's North America representative. "The idea was to try to meet the demand all over the world."
Since 2004, the Chinese government through the Confucius Institute has trained Chinese teachers worldwide.
"So many newspapers have said China's a communist country, so we're going to teach communism. Absolutely not," Chen said. "We never get involved in the local teaching curriculum."
Chen said he's excited about Davis' program.
"We have institutes on traditional Chinese drama and history, but this is the first one for Chinese cuisine," he said.
The idea was proposed by Bill Lacy, vice provost for University Outreach & International Programs. UC Davis, known for its wine and food science programs and the Robert Mondavi Food and Wine Institute, already has a fruitful exchange program with Jiangnan University, one of China's top food and beverage schools, Lacy said.
The UC Davis program, which has applied for a $150,000 startup grant, will serve as a platform for trade collaboration with the Chinese food and beverage industry, Liang said.
The program is piloted by food science professor Charlie Shoemaker. Courses and tastings could feature Chinese delicacies, he said.
Confucius, a man of peace and civility, didn't like knives and sharp objects at his dinner table, Shoemaker said.
"He's tied to the use of chopsticks, which meant chefs had to prepare foods in small bites easily manipulated."
The key ingredient of Confucianism is "li," meaning polite, respectful relationships, said Cheng. In the Cultural Revolution, the government "knocked down anybody who was a teacher and Confucianism was crushed and his entire estate, including tablets containing his analects, or guiding principles for life, was destroyed," said Cheng.
In the 1990s, after China began to open up to the West, Confucius' teachings about filial piety and the value of respect and learning made a comeback, Cheng said.
The Institute supplied 10 Chinese professors to teach Chinese language, calligraphy, meditation and qi gong on San Diego State's two campuses, Cheng said.
Confucius was born in Shandong, China, not far from Sacramento's sister city, Jinan, "the capital of Confucianism," Cheng said. It's famous for "Lu" style cuisine, including steamed dumplings, long noodles and large round steamed breads, Cheng said.
Yan plans to host Confucian-style banquets also featuring sea cucumbers, fish, shrimp and abalone delicacies Confucius probably ate in moderation.
"He was a gourmet, a food and rice wine connoisseur who said we have to respect nature by eating everything fresh."
Confucius used food to teach balance and harmony, Yan said.
Confucius culinary masters from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canada and the U.S. will give demonstrations. Along with classes on the psychology and anthropology of Chinese cuisine, the food and wine events will likely be open to the public, so anyone can learn how Chinese food, life and society are intertwined, Yan said.
"There's no reason to cook food people can't eat. If we respect the food and the ingredients, then we learn to respect other people."