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Hosting Exotic Cultures
Foreign cultural centers thrive in China, as the country focuses on globalizing its own image
By Li Nan | NO. 5-6 FEBRUARY 4, 2016

Visitors attend a puppet exhibition at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Beijing in July 2015 (COURTESY OF RCIB)

Is it feasible to enjoy a Romanian concert free of charge in Beijing? Can one take free Romanian-language classes with native-speaker tutors available in China? Constantin Lupeanu, chief of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Beijing (RCIB), claimed that yes, all of that is possible.

The RCIB, the first branch of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Asia, was inaugurated by the country's government in July 2015. It aims to introduce Romanian culture and arts to China, increase people-to-people interaction, and enhance dialogue between the two societies.

During its first six months in Beijing, the RCIB has organized a variety of cultural events, including lectures, concerts, stamp exhibitions, painting exhibitions, as well as seminars on Romanian literature. The RCIB invited Alexandru Tomescu--a great Romanian violinist--to perform in Beijing last December.

Facilitating publishing collaboration between China and Romania is high on the RCIB's agenda. It organized the Romanian debut at the Beijing International Book Fair in August 2015, and a number of publishing contacts have been signed since, so that both countries will publish each other's books in the future.

In addition, the RCIB featured free Romanian-language lessons, folk music and dances, and lectures about Romanian history, customs and lifestyles.

Constantin Lupeanu, Director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Beijing (WEI YAO)

A public diplomacy advocate

Lupeanu, 74, is an eminent Romanian sinologist and translator focusing on Chinese literature and ancient philosophy. Before being nominated as chief of the RCIB, he was his country's ambassador to Viet Nam, Singapore and Thailand, as well as a diplomat to China for 15 years.

Lupeanu, born in Murgasi in southwest Romania, fell in love with China when he first read a Romanian version of Tang poems translated from German in secondary school. The poems of Li Bai (701-762), one of the most prestigious poets in ancient China, impressed him so much that he decided to learn Chinese in order to read the original texts. He studied Chinese in Bucharest University and thereafter started his research in Chinese.

To help more Romanians understand China and enjoy Chinese literature, Lupeanu translated original Chinese texts in his spare time. His first translation was the autobiographical novel Gao Yubao , published in 1973. In the following decades, he managed to translate and publish 30 works, ranging from the classics The Book of Songs , The Book of Changes  and The Analects  and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel Journey to the West   to Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping .

His translations have reached millions of readers, and he has set a good example for Chinese learners of Romanian in bridging the two languages and cultures. In 1988, thousands of copies of Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping --his only political translation--were sold out in only five days. He is now working on a Romanian version of the ethnic Yi poet Jidi Majia's collection. "A newly printed book is like my own child," Lupeanu told Beijing Review .

To translate Chinese literature with accuracy, Lupeanu studied a large quantity of books about the Chinese way of thinking, geography, philosophy and so on. He also studied a variety of different periods in Chinese history. Lupeanu is so fascinated with Chinese culture that he came back to China to run the RCIB, starting a new life while helping improve cultural exchanges between the two countries.

A glimpse into exotic cultures

The RCIB, in fact, is the ninth member of a club of registered foreign cultural centers in China. Cultural centers are government-funded organizations established in other countries to disseminate their cultures and stimulate people-to-people exchanges. In short, they are cultural ambassadors for their overseas target audiences.

The first registered foreign cultural center in China was set up by France in October 2004. The following decade witnessed eight more centers springing up throughout Beijing. They were respectively established by Germany, Spain, Japan, Russia, Nigeria, Denmark, Hungary and Romania.

Language training, information services and cultural events, mostly done free of charge, are common features of these cultural centers. Xiao Dun, a multilingual editor in Beijing, learned Spanish with tutors from Spain's Cervantes Institute. Also, the French Institute's library has been his favorite weekend destination for a long time. "The library boasts an extensive collection of French books and films. I can enjoy them without charge," Xiao said.

Gourmet festivals hosted by cultural centers are one of the most popular events for Chinese foodies--one can have a bite of authentic foreign food without setting a foot outside the country. "The Cervantes Institute is where I first tried Spanish food. It was delicious and impressive," said Xiao.

The centers also use social media to attract more Chinese people to have a closer look at their cultures. Most centers have their own

official websites and accounts on China's micro-blogging network Weibo. The Weibo account of Germany's Goethe Institute, for example, is followed by 30,000 fans.

Two-way communication

While these cultural centers provide a window into foreign countries, China has signed a series of agreements to establish Chinese cultural centers in many countries abroad.

Since 1988, a total of 25 Chinese cultural centers have been established in countries across Europe, Africa, Asia and South America, including France, Denmark, Egypt, Mauritius, Thailand, Australia and Mexico. A Chinese cultural center will open later this year in Romania.

The functions of the Chinese cultural centers abroad are similar to their counterparts in Beijing. They hold cultural activities including performances, exhibitions, art festivals, and offer training courses on Chinese language and culture. Libraries have also been set up to provide China-related information or data.

Nonetheless, compared to some of its fellow centers, China's cultural centers have yet to tap into their full potential. The Goethe Institute in China, for example, has set up four branches in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan, becoming a valuable representative of Germany in China. The Cervantes Institute has been the first stop of every Spanish eminent artist visiting China. With their headquarters founded in 1951 and 1991 respectively, the Goethe Institute and the Cervantes Institute are good examples for China's own overseas centers.

Communication entails a two-way flow of information. The establishment of foreign cultural centers in China is good for the latter's own cultural improvement. It also shows that China is becoming more and more confident in disseminating its culture.

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

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