Pounding drumbeats herald the entrance of the king of beasts into the hall at Hillhead High, where pupils, teachers and education professionals are seated in rows and waiting expectantly. Nostrils twitching, eyebrows arched, the great red and white lion surveys the audience with a blend of curiosity and disdain. He is mighty and the creatures watching him seem small, weak and perhaps a little frightened.
The lion dance is the climax at the launch of Hillhead High in Glasgow as one of the worldwide network of Confucius Classrooms. And what a climax. He stamps his feet. He shakes his mane. He ascends rhythmically, balletically up widely-spaced vertical cylinders, where a missed step would mean disaster. At the summit, the beast rears up on his hind legs, his massive head brushes the roof and he surveys his kingdom with utter confidence.
Ai-Ling Anderson, who has been teaching Chinese at Hillhead High for 10 years, believes there are no genuine differences between the people of China and of Scotland. "There are only good people and bad people," she says. "Everywhere."
Maybe so. But the lion dance, performed across East Asia for entertainment or good fortune is both fascinating and foreign to Scottish eyes. It could never have been created in Kelvindale or Morningside. A Burns Supper might seem equally strange, though less exciting, to eastern eyes. Fundamental differences might be few, as Mrs Anderson believes, but cultural differences are many.
Confucius Classrooms exist to share and celebrate those differences in culture and language, and to help people get past them. Following an agreement in 2007 between Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Hanban - the organisation that provides Chinese language and culture resources to the world - there are now eight such hubs in Scottish schools and 13 participating education authorities.
There is also an online Confucius hub in Glow, to allow every education authority access to support for Chinese teaching, says Learning and Teaching Scotland chief executive Bernard McLeary. "Demand for fluent speakers of Chinese languages is increasing throughout the world," he says. "It's only right that children in Scotland have the opportunity to learn these skills and to widen their horizons. Mandarin might be perceived as difficult to learn but the children in these hubs have embraced it."
Courses and resources in the Confucius hubs around Scotland are provided for the benefit of pupils in that particular school and in all the neighbouring schools, as well as the wider community. Hillhead High is uniquely well placed to be such a hub, says headteacher William Wight, because of its location in an area with more Chinese families than anywhere else in Scotland.
"But that's not all," he says. "When I came here as headteacher, I couldn't believe the richness, the cultural diversity we have in this school. There are 29 first languages spoken among our pupils, whom we take from 35 different postcodes."
Hillhead High has been delivering Chinese language and promoting Chinese culture for 10 years, he says. "In that time we've had 100 per cent pass rate in GCSE and A-levels, and this year our pupils will be sitting the new SQA exams (Intermediate). There are young people here at the launch today from all our associated schools and from the Glasgow Gaelic School. All of them are going to benefit from our Confucius classroom."
That wider role and responsibility has developed gradually, having grown out of the experience gained initially in teaching native speakers. Two years ago, Mrs Anderson began accepting non-native speakers to her classes at Hillhead High, and these now form the majority in the junior school. Given the complexity of Chinese language and writing, these classes can be a challenge, says the teacher from Taiwan, where she taught English for years before moving to this country with her Scots husband.
"We have four native speakers and 14 non-native speakers in our first-year class," she says. "Those different levels make it hard to teach."
The solution came partly from the location of Hillhead High at the heart of Glasgow University, and partly from a little lateral thinking, says depute head Bob Dalrymple. "We made contact with the Chinese department at the International College, which prepares students from abroad for entry to university courses. A large number of their students are now coming here every day to help Ai-Ling in her classes.
"It's great for our pupils and it benefits the students, because they are learning more about this country and its culture, and are getting plenty of practice with their English."
Through Learning and Teaching Scotland, the Hanban has provided each of the eight Scottish Confucius Classrooms with pound;10,000 to equip them for teaching Chinese language and culture. Schools have some freedom in spending these funds to suit local needs, but accountability is exacting, says Mr Dalrymple. "I'm filling the evaluation form in now - it is very detailed."
Language has been the focus of teaching at Hillhead High over the years, but cultural activities, which will now feature strongly, have never been far from the classroom. "We use co-operative learning, which I've been doing as part of my chartered teacher programme," says Mrs Anderson. "That works well."
The study of language is not an end in itself, she says. "We learn languages for communication. We want people to see and respect other cultures. So we use lots of Chinese culture in our teaching - calligraphy, dance, music, singing, tea, chess, knots, diablo. You need to take time to let students understand and practise all these things, to learn what people do - how they think in different ways."
But how does this square with her belief that Chinese and Scots do not think differently, that people the world over are fundamentally the same?
"Take the languages," she replies. "English and Chinese are very different. In English you have to be so specific. In Chinese it is the same word for "he" or "she" and for present or past. We have more freedom, more scope for imagination. Chinese language is poetic. English is scientific.
"The truth is only one truth," she concludes in a thought worthy of Confucius. "But there are many ways to approach it."
Who's in the hub?
Learning and Teaching Scotland has launched Confucius Classrooms in:
- Edinburgh (St George's School)
- Perth and Kinross (Perth High)
- East, North amp; South Ayrshire (Grange Academy)
- West Lothian (Bathgate Academy)
- East Dunbartonshire (St Ninian's High)
- North Lanarkshire (Our Lady's High)
- Glasgow (Hillhead High)
- Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Moray, and Angus (Hazlehead Academy).