It’s easy to get lost in the world of be-suited masters practising Tai Chi in the local park, or the souvenir calligraphy that so many people return home with each year from China, but the opportunity to bring your own cultural treasures to the far east can be a different matter. Cultural exchanges are key to a happy, healthy life with foreign visitors and academics alike, so you’ll need to make the effort to encourage them.
Beyond the stereotypes
In the past 10–15 years, China’s interest in Western culture (and lifestyle) has increased. The growing number of Chinese students and tourists who spend time abroad is contributing to a deepening understanding of what’s ‘out there’, however, the average person still relies a bit too much on stereotypes. Pizza restaurants and classic romantic cinema mean that a preconceived love of Italy is imbued, the rise of the middle class in China and the increase in wine drinkers has opened a spot for the French and hamburgers, action movies and a little national rivalry has cultivated a love-hate relationship with the US. In any case, as a foreign academic, you’ll need to be prepared to work hard to forge a cultural bond with the Chinese.
Don’t work alone
One of the best ways to get started when looking to establish a cultural exchange on any topic is to look into the various services offered national organisations. The British embassy serves solely as a visa centre for Chinese wishing to travel and to provide emergency aid for Britons abroad, but its cultural and educational partner the British Council (normally responsible for the oversight and teaching of IELTS university English) hosts a number of events and aids British cultural businesses with their work abroad. Throughout the year, the council also conducts a travelling roadshow of British talent, from authors and musicians to artists and business leaders who give talks to interested parties and students. Get in touch with your closest British Council office to see if you can be of assistance to each other.
The Chinese government plays an active role in cultural promotions as well as part of its ‘soft power strategy’. Similar to the British council, the Confucius Institute is the seat of Chinese language learning around the world and frequently partners with universities abroad. In addition to language teaching and oversight of the HSK Chinese language exams, the Institute hosts activities and performances of various aspects of Chinese culture. The offices are also likely to have wealth of contacts should you decide to try and organise your own event. Do be aware that the Confucius institute reports directly to the Chinese Ministry of Education, so it might be wise to avoid topics of a political nature, if you want to maintain a good working relationship.
If you seek to expand your cultural activities to the various other nations, each has it’s own cultural branch, many of which have huge learning centres in China. The Goethe Institute (Germany), Cervantes (Spain) and Institut Francais (France) all have a presence.
Start with common ground
It’s easier to bridge a small gap than a large chasm. Many Chinese students of the current generation and the last will have studied literary works and plays that are easily obtainable. The works of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and other writers are available in Chinese bookshops and are taught at some secondary schools. If you’re seeking to build up to something larger, this might be a way in. Once you’ve established an interest in literature among a small group, consider inviting visiting writers to give small talks, or piggy back on some of China’s book fairs to invite talent to give a seminar.
The Harry Potter books abound in China as they have done in many other countries; you could use this as a staging post to move on to larger literary topics, but why not use it to move on to further cultural exploration. JK Rowling allegedly wrote parts of her books in a cafe in Edinburgh, why not explain some of the history behind the beloved children’s tales along with a rundown of Scotland and its history.
Remember who you’re talking to
Just as you might struggle to introduce an elderly relative to the idea of eating with chopsticks and watching Kung Fu movies, so you will have different sectors of society in China who will be more or less approachable to aspects of foreign culture. However, the new generation of young rich Chinese are more experimental than their predecessors and they are usually more than happy to engage in some“exotic” activities with their foreign friends or teachers.
Be aware, if in China, that you may wish a cultural exchange event to be approved by a university or official body. While it’s unlikely that you’ll get into trouble, you never know what aspects of society or politics may find their way into a seemingly-innocent event. Once you’ve built a stable of topics and established interest, you could organise talks in local cafes and restaurants, which are considered less formal settings than universities. Many such local business owners in China would be happy to host you for the promise of a few extra customers one evening. In the larger cities in China, small cultural organisations often have their own presences for independent language teaching or various cultural lessons and building a connection with such organisation can be beneficial to hosting your own events.
Other places to look
There are a number of associations established to protect China’s dwindling intangible cultural heritage. If you need a traditional paper cutter, dough model maker or kite builder, chances are there is an association that can help. While there will very often be an English speaker that can help with presentation, many of these associations are made up of the older craftsmen that represent the last of the great masters and they will certainly not speak English. See if you can get a Chinese friend or colleague to help you out researching these.