Cultural exchange across the ages
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2023-09-26  ·   Source: NO.40-41 OCTOBER 5, 2023

The 2023 Forum on International Communication of Chinese Culture is underway in Beijing on September 22 (XINHUA)

Following in the footsteps of ancient Chinese navigator Zheng He, Chinese Nobel Literature Prize winner Mo Yan arrived in Kenya in late July. "When Zheng and his fleet landed in the area of Kenya some 600 years ago, he saw giraffes and mistook them for kylins, mythical Chinese creatures that bring good luck," Mo said. 

The fleet brought a giraffe back to China as a gift to the then emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). "To deliver the large animal over such a long voyage involved loads of work, including securing it in a wooden ship, feeding it, enduring storms at sea and keeping it alive for over half a year. It was a tough task for the team, who had never seen giraffes before, but they eventually made it," Mo said. The giraffe was kept at the imperial court, "even though they soon found out that the novel animal was not a kylin," Mo said. This story has been shared on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Kenya.

Zheng's seven voyages—naval expeditions on board what were then the world's largest ships, lasted from 1405 to 1433 and covered over 30 countries. That first giraffe kicked off a sequence of competitive giraffe diplomacy, with many countries vying with one another to present giraffes to the Ming rulers in exchange for silk, porcelain and tea.

Youth in Nairobi, Kenya, learn to paint Peking Opera masks on June 18 (XINHUA)

The world of words

Mo shared this story at the 2023 Forum on International Communication of Chinese Culture in Beijing on September 22. Co-hosted by China International Communications Group, the Academy of Chinese Culture and Beijing Foreign Studies University, the one-day forum attracted nearly 400 people from the cultural and international communication sectors.

Mo said along with the animal ambassadors, literature has long been a link between China and other countries. François-Marie d'Arouet (1694-1778), better known by his pen name Voltaire, a prominent figure in Europe's Enlightenment period, was known for his love of China. "He even named his study the 'Temple of Confucius'," Zhang Xiping, a professor from Beijing Foreign Studies University, said at the forum. Zhang mentions this every time he talks about the influence of Confucianism on the Enlightenment period.

In March 2019, when Chinese President Xi Jinping met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Nice, France, Macron presented Xi with the original French version of Confucius ou la Science des Princes, published in France in 1688. Macron explained that the early translations and annotations of Confucius' words had inspired the philosophical thinking of Voltaire and French judge and political philosopher Montesquieu. Today, this book is preserved in the National Library of China.

The power of words conquered Wolfgang Kubin, a renowned 20th-century German Sinologist, when he, by chance, read Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Li Bai's poem translated by a Sinologist in 1967. At that time he was 28, had just received his doctorate in theology and was exhausted.

The old friend bids farewell to the yellow crane tower,

And sails in the mist and flowers to Yangzhou in March.

With his lonely boat fading into the blue sky,

Only the Yangtze River flows to the horizon.

The lines immediately overwhelmed him. This poem was like a switch that turned off his previous life and opened up a new world, leading him onto a totally new life path.

He then became a Sinologist and indulged in translating poems. In 2016, he was awarded the Chinese Government Friendship Award, the highest prize for foreign scholars in China, for his contributions in translation and cultural exchange.

Mo, as a novelist, has seen the growing strength of Chinese literature in cultural exchange. Some decades ago, filmmakers began adapting Chinese novels into movies, which then began to win awards at Western film festivals. This prompted the translation of more original novels into foreign languages.

"Over the past 10 years or so, we have seen a significant increase in the quantity of literary translation works," Mo said. "The literary quality of these selected works has been greatly improved. There is no doubt that Chinese contemporary literature has now become an important part of world literature; that is to say, Chinese writers' works already occupy an important position on the world literary map."

Bigger window 

Tolerance and inclusion are important for cultural exchange, Wu Bin, former curator of Shenyang Palace Museum, said at the forum. "When we appreciate a culture, we don't mean to make it a model that should apply to the world," he said. No culture is superior to another and exchanges should aim to respect, listen, learn and understand.

Tao Qin from the China Artists Association has seen progress through the China Beijing International Art Biennale (BIAB). Launched in 2002, the number of the BIAB's participating countries has reached 117. "As of this year, we have received more than 800 pieces of donated Chinese and foreign art works, making the BIAB's collection the largest contemporary international art collection in China today," Tao said at the forum. Now, it has developed into a major art event in China and a platform for exchanges between diverse cultures.

There are many stories about exchanges between China and other countries that are very interesting but known only to a small number of people, Hao Xianghong from the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, said at the forum. "There are many great stories from the past and we hope to see more in the future."

Jiang Kun, a crosstalk comedian, advocated more innovation in telling China's stories instead of sticking to a few fixed models such as simply performing calligraphy or staging performances by people wearing ancient costumes. "We should understand the interests and needs of people in different countries and design our shows or performances in light of the needs of the target audience," he said.

(Print Edition Title: New Horizons)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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