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Hearts and Minds
Wider Sino-African cultural exchanges enhance mutual understanding
By Yu Nan | ChinAfrica December 2015

Principal ballerina Yu Chuanya performs in the jointly presented version of Swan Lake  by Joburg Ballet of South Africa and Liaoning Ballet of China

Professional ballerina Yu Chuanya sets high standards for herself. After a recent long haul flight from Beijing to Johannesburg, the 25-year-old went straight into intensive rehearsals soon after landing, ignoring the effects of jet lag in pursuit of her craft. What drove her passion was the unique collaboration on the ballet classic Swan Lake , jointly presented by Joburg Ballet of South Africa and Liaoning Ballet of China.

Though the Chinese dancers had only five days to rehearse with their South African peers, the first gala performance thrilled a full house in Johannesburg. A highlight of the 2015 Year of China in South Africa events, the collaboration saw 20 performances that created a box-office record for Joburg Ballet, bringing in about $212,000 and witnessing an average attendance rate of over 87 percent.

Supported by China's Ministry of Culture and South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture, Swan Lake  was a new initiative of the two ballet companies to jointly explore the commercial performance market in South Africa. It is a brand of innovative cooperation that augers well for future Sino-African cultural ties.

A matter of satisfaction

The year 2006 marked a milestone in the development of Sino-African cultural relations. The Beijing Summit of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that year established "a new type of strategic partnership" between China and Africa, attaching equal importance for the first time to cultural exchanges and mutual learning as to political trust and economic cooperation.

After eight years of progress in stepping up cultural interactions with African countries, China has made such brand programs as the China-Africa Cultural Cooperation Partnership Program, African Cultural Visitors Program, and China/Africa Culture in Focus a success.

"The Sino-African cultural exchanges and cooperation over the past years have shown the trend of increasingly diversified participants while focusing on cultural branding," said Song Yangqun, Director of African Affairs at the Bureau for External Cultural Relations of China's Ministry of Culture.

Data from the Ministry of Culture confirms the trend. From 2007 to 2009, China held three sessions of African Cultural Visitors Program to share cultural management experience. In 2012, the First Cultural Ministers' Forum of FOCAC was held in Beijing.

Nigerian Minister of Culture and Tourism Edem Duke, speaking on behalf of African delegates, expressed his satisfaction on the fruitful cultural exchanges in his address at the opening ceremony. Duke diverged from his drafted speech to say, off the cuff, "We have witnessed the exchanges strengthening mutual friendship and I believe [they] enhance the well-being of both Chinese and Africans."

The forum also passed the Beijing Statement, which aims to deepen Sino-African cultural cooperation. It was decided that in the next three years, 100 cultural institutions from each side would start working together under the China-Africa Cultural Cooperation Partnership Program. The program would be a platform to develop and collaborate on art professionals and help African nations develop cultural businesses. The two ballet companies joining forces for commercial performances in South Africa this year, according to observers, is an example of effective implementation of the cultural partnership program.

"Joint production seems natural as conditions are mature in South Africa for commercial performances in terms of theater conditions, ways of promotion, cast and audience resources," Song Yanqun told ChinAfrica . He added that not every African country however has the resources as South Africa does and it takes time to nurture the African market and find a suitable mode of operation. "Countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mauritius and Seychelles have the potential to become the next market," he said.

The co-produced ballet is only one of the series of activities staged in the Year of China in South Africa, the first time an African country has hosted a Year of China. Different cultural activities centered on China, including Peking Opera shows, intangible cultural heritage exhibitions, symposiums and TV and film festivals have been staged as part of the event.

2015 African Culture Special Show on Campus is held in a middle school in Beijing

Going beyond entertainment

The innovative model of two ballet companies co-producing a performance has also become a platform for bilateral cultural industries' cooperation.

Paul Mashatile, former Minister of Arts and Culture of South Africa, said culture had become a major driving force for economic growth in many African countries. Boasting of rich cultural resources, China and Africa face a common challenge in how to translate these resources into economic benefits for the well-being of the people. "Culture is not only entertainment, it is also about business, and about jobs," Mashatile told ChinAfrica .

South Africa's performing arts, Nigeria's film industry dubbed Nollywood, the Makonde wood carvings of Tanzania, sculptures of Zimbabwe, they have all developed into famous cultural industries in Africa, according to Mashatile.

"China and Africa need to jointly seek ways of transferring their respective unique cultural elements into products and promote them in each other's domestic markets," said Song.

In the past, governments were the only drivers and partners in this field. Now cultural cooperation is being expanded by letting the people and market play their parts. The Roundtable Conference on China-Africa Cultural Industry, held in 2013 and 2014, has become an information-sharing platform for exchanges and cooperation in the culture industry. African culture officials and experts and their Chinese colleagues discussed the role of the culture industry as an emerging industry on both sides, as well as policies, success stories, concerns and prospects for such cooperation.

Song noted that combining cultural exchanges with the development of the economy and improvement of local people's livelihood has achieved good results.

China has enhanced vocational training in various fields, including the martial arts, library management, heritage protection, and pottery, to help African countries foster professionals. The focus of personnel training is shifting from government officials to artists, cultural management staff and professionals, according to Song.

Since 2010, China's Ministry of Culture has sent craftsmen from Qinghai and Guangdong provinces to Benin and Lesotho, to train locals in the techniques of thread inlaying and pottery respectively. "Such training for developing African skills was well-received," he said.

Yeneneh Tesfaye, a former Ethiopian student who trained at the Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School in north China's Hebei Province, has gone on to become a star circus performer in his home country. He said the acrobatic course in Wuqiao, known as the home of acrobatics in China, taught him the ancient Chinese art and was a turning point in his life.

Respect bridges civilizations

As the saying goes, the key to people-to-people exchanges lies in heart-to-heart communication.

No matter whether it's an African student like Tesfaye learning acrobatics or the popular Chinese TV series, A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era , dubbed into Swahili, both enrich cultural and people-to-people exchanges and promote friendship.

"African societies have the same large families that the Chinese have and their audiences can relate to the drama," Cultural Counselor of the Chinese Embassy in Tanzania, Liu Dong, told ChinAfrica . "[The TV series] helped Africans understand today's China better," added Liu, who has made great efforts to promote Chinese TV series.

Song Yanqun said geographical remoteness as well as language and cultural barriers do exist, yet the most important principle [for bridging the gap] is respect for each other's people and civilization.

The value of cultural cooperation is immeasurable. "Art knows no borders. The mission for both Chinese and South African dancers is to convey intimate emotions through the art form of ballet to the audience," said Yu Chuanya, the ballerina.

Song said that China's cooperation with Africa, as put by President Xi Jinping during his visit to Africa, is guided by sincerity, real results, affinity and good faith. "In view of this, I believe the message delivered at the Johannesburg Summit of FOCAC will be one of China's continued support for Africa," he added.

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