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UPDATED: June 15, 2012 Web Exclusive
A Cultural Tour of Africa
By Liu Yunshan

I had an opportunity to visit Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe in November 2011. As I traveled from north to south on the African continent, I was able to take a close look at African culture. The trip convinced me that Africa is not a "cultural desert" as some have claimed, but an oasis steeped in culture.

We should pinpoint where we first came from before knowing where to go

In essence, art comes down to a cultural expression of man's views, emotions and inner feelings. Without emotions and spirit, presentations and techniques have no artistic value. Culture transcends borders--the more national characteristics it exhibits, the greater global recognition it enjoys.

Prejudice results from ignorance. If I had not set foot in Ethiopia, I would never have imagined the country has a long history and a splendid civilization. That's because today's highly developed mass media have made Ethiopia synonymous to hunger, poverty, war and disaster. TV images and news photos invariably portray Ethiopia as a country of malnourished people with vast expanses of waste land.

Museums provide the easiest access to a country's culture and history. A two-story building with cement walls and a fenced courtyard in front, the National Museum of Ethiopia is incredibly shabby. Before told what it is, you could mistake it for a hotel by the road. The inconspicuous museum, however, houses a huge number of relics that beguile the world. Someone joked that earnings from auctioning a single exhibit are enough to build a magnificent museum.

The most precious item in the museum's collection is the fossilized remains of an early hominid named Lucy by Westerners. U.S. paleoanthropologists discovered the remains in Ethiopia's Afar Region in 1974. Representing 40 percent of the skeleton of a woman who lived 3.2 million years ago, they are the earliest human fossils unearthed to date. Lucy shows that despite its barren land, Ethiopia is the origin of mankind, the cradle of human civilizations and the native place of human beings. Archeologists at the museum said since she died at around 20, Ethiopians affectionately call her Miss Lucy. As a matter of fact, we should call her Granny Lucy instead, because she is our oldest known ancestor and deserves respect as the grandmother of mankind.

In the museum, there is an exclusive exhibition room for Lucy. Also on display in the room are human fossils dating back to more than 2 million, 1 million, 400,000 and 200,000 years ago. Ethiopian experts gave us a vivid account of the story behind each fossil. They dwelled upon the evolution of human beings with solid evidence from anthropologists' point of view, while recalling the triumphs and tribulations they have experienced since remote antiquity from historians' perspective.

Visitors with a sense of history are bound to take a break in this small exhibition room, lost in thought and filled with reverence. In my opinion, this room, only several dozen square meters in size, serves as a shrine for all humanity that documents our long history and an ancestral temple of the big human family, which has 7 billion members today.

While in Ethiopia, we were impressed with the Ethiopians' heartfelt pride. Every member of modern society, no matter which part of the world he or she is from and no matter which ethnic group he or she belongs to, should pay tribute to the birthplace of mankind and those who have lived there to this day.

Worshipping ancestors is a deep-rooted Chinese tradition, which I believe is a virtue of our nation. The continuity of the Chinese civilization over the past several thousand years is partly attributed to the special importance the Chinese attach to remembering the past. In recent years, extravagant worshipping ceremonies have sparked much criticism in China. But we should refrain from being overly critical as long as the ceremonies do not aim to reap profits or have a hidden agenda, because rituals are indispensable to preserving cultural traditions.

Moreover, I think as a nation with splendid culture, the Chinese can be more farsighted and have a broader vision when exploring their roots. Apart from paying homage under the giant pagoda tree in Hongdong County, Shanxi Province, in the memorials of legendary emperors Yandi and Huangdi and in Zhoukoudian caves on the outskirts of Beijing, they should go to Africa and Ethiopia, which are home to the ancestor of our ancestors and where all human beings find their origins. People in modern society are supposed to recognize their shared cultural identify. As we move forward, reflections on the past can make us wiser, more at ease with ourselves and more confident and determined to go further.

A family should respect its ancestors, and a nation should prize its history. Likewise, mankind should venerate its place of origin. Everybody should remember and cherish the place where he or she first came from. Without knowing our origins, how can we possibly know our destinations? Ignorance and disrespect of history will lead to an uncertain future.

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