China and foreign relations

Yu Qiuyu on cross-cultural communication

Scholar and essayist Yu Qiuyu.

On 31 August, the Cross-Cultural Communication Forum was held in Beijing, bringing together scholars and officials in an event sponsored by the China International Publishing Group to address issues related to cross-cuture exchange and soft-power building.

A China Daily report on the event quoted a number of speakers from the conference, who speculated on why Chinese culture has such a hard time getting accepted overseas:

"We Chinese often think and talk in principle and abstract terms," Zhao [Qizheng, dean of the School of Communications at Renmin University] said, adding that some Chinese were too indulgent in professional or political jargon with little concrete meaning to get their ideas across even to the common Chinese, let alone their overseas guests or partners.

Yu Qiuyu, a scholar well-known for his cultural exploration linking China with the rest of the world, echoed Zhao's remarks and said he discovered that a lot of Chinese on their official missions overseas tended to use some ancient expressions that showed the grandeur of their locale. "Their words were so ostentatious that they could only baffle their audiences," Yu said.

In his presentation at the forum, Yu identified several problems with China's current promotion of its culture abroad, mostly having to do with a misidentification of the target audience as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature cross-cultural communication. In the middle of the piece, he offers this blunt evaluation: "Someone said that 'the 21st century is the century of Chinese culture'; I do not know whether this strange assessment may be based on economic development, but on a cultural basis I can be certain: this will not happen."

Yu suggests that China back away from a government-and-politics-based approach to cultural promotion and instead turn things over to actual practitioners of modern Chinese culture, in contrast to some of the officials who spoke of the government's great need to emphasize culture as part of the development of soft-power (see PD links below). Yu believes that talk of Chinese culture conquering the world is pure fantasy, as is any notion of cultural conquest - differences are to be presevered within an understanding that there are certain shared human ideals that no single culture has a monopoly upon.

The text translated below appeared in the 9 October issue of Global Times and is an edited version of the forum presentation.

Is China stuck in 'cultural isolation'?#

by Yu Qiuyu / GT

Why Chinese culture is not as alluring as it ought to be

I once heard an American musician who was friendly toward China say, "Every westerner who comes to China for the first time will be shocked at how many misconceptions they had before they came. Perhaps your propaganda methods have created a kind of cultural isolation."

To call it "cultural isolation" is obviously going too far, since there are few people in the world who deny the grand history of Chinese culture, and few people reject Chinese material or food culture. At present, a "China fever" is gradually rising. However, it cannot be denied that in the case of the Chinese cultural mainstream being understood abroad, despite a certain improvement over the past few years in rejecting habits like "leftist" extremes and arrogant, one-way indoctrination, there nonetheless still exist serious problems. Internationally, our cultural dialogue overall is still stuck in a situation that is hard to accept.

Is this because of political bias? It actually is not - take the two World Expos that China has attended for example: at Hanover, Germany, in 2001, in a public opinion survey taken before the opening ceremony, China's exhibit ranked second on the list of "exhibits you most want to visit." So where then is the problem?

I visited the China exhibit at the Hanover Expo. What struck me most were the photographs of the Great Wall and Peking Opera masks, as well as some backlit photos of famous Chinese vistas. After that it was a smallish model of the Three Gorges, a conceptual model of a Chinese person on the moon, and finally a model of the human body labeled with acupuncture points next to some Chinese medicine. Out of all of the foreign audience who lined up to come in, few lingered at any one spot; most of them walked quickly through in a few minutes and then left.

The China exhibit at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan, obviously took a lot of work, but conceptually there was little change. At that time, there was a computer screen at the main entrance that displayed how long you would have to wait at particular moment to enter any country's exhibit. That screen essentially became a competition board for the attractiveness of each country's culture; for example, France was three hours, Korea three-and-a-half hours, Japan four hours. But at the entrance to China's exhibit you hardly had to wait at all.

The dilemma of these two World Expos reflects several major problems that afflict the communication of Chinese culture abroad. First, those who claimed to have a deep understanding of Chinese culture were unable to find a single captivating emblem of Chinese culture; what they came up with was crude and uninteresting. Second, there was almost a complete lack of awareness of contemporary international aesthetic trends, and audiences from all countries were all imagined to be "patriotic old overseas Chinese." Third, even the most developed countries were careful to invite the country's top-flight cultural luminaries to design their country's cultural window, while for us it was an administrative task that fell to the underlings of some government department - the more levels of inspection something has to pass through, the stiffer and more mediocre it turns out. Fourth, the contemporary allure of ancient Chinese culture was seriously misjudged; the main content of the exhibit - walls done in relief, the four great inventions, the pre-Qin philosophers, the abacus, the archeological relics - was assumed have the power to make visitors stop in their tracks. Compared to the German exhibit, China's hall lacked the clever touches of wisdom. Compared to France, China's hall had little self-mocking humor. Compared to Japan's hall, there was little innovation that looked to the future in China's exhibit. Compared to Korea's exhibit, China's hall was missing the hospitality and beauty of popular culture...taken together, then, China's exhibit was deficient in intelligence, innovation, imagination, hospitality, and interactivity.

The uniqueness of Chinese culture should not be overstated

From the lesson of the China exhibits at the two World Expos, we can go on to demonstrate that there exists a series of problems in the transmission of Chinese culture abroad. This is the starting point of cross-cultural communication and ought to be faced head-on.

First, at the highest spiritual level, culture is a shared spiritual value of all humanity. Placing the value of nationality above the value of humanity is a great obstacle to our cross-cultural communication. Chinese culture is indeed great, but its ultimate meaning is not unique within all of humanity. Many people say that Chinese culture is the original source of many things, such as "What you do not want for yourself, do not do to others" (己之不欲,勿施于人) and "people-oriented" (以人为本), these principles in fact arise in other human civilizations and are not unique to us. In addition, concepts like "peace", "science", "harmony", "balance", and "keeping pace with the times" share the support of the wise throughout all humanity; we often imbue them with some specific political connotations, but it is inappropriate on a cultural level to say that they are the exclusive creations and possessions of Chinese culture.

By the same token, another misunderstanding occurs when we frequently view many spiritual values shared by all humanity as "western culture", or when we speak of western culture only to throw up nationalistic psychological barriers. Ultimately, what should obviously be shared human spiritual values end up speaking a nationalistic language, lowering ourselves and turning others into strangers.

If we increase our recognition that Chinese culture is one part of the culture of humanity - an admission not just on our lips but in our hearts - then things will be much more optimistic. For example, not long ago some Chinese Canadian scholars successfully had the Nanjing Massacre included into textbooks. They said, in the past, we Chinese were always complaining about China's tribulations. Foreign students might think that in the wars of the past, so many nationalities suffered that they might not care too much. We elevated this event to a basic level of humanitarianism that all modern world citizens ought to respect, and in this way it has a broader appeal.

At the Hanover Expo, in the main hall of the German exhibit was a pile of unfinished sculptures of great Germans - Beethoven, Hegel, Marx, and so on. A notice said that the great Germans were unable to complete themselves in their own country - they went out into the world - so audience members from all countries in the world had reason to complete the sculptures in their own hearts. In addition, it invited the world audience to add famous Germans from their own countries onto a blackboard. The German people are quite proud, yet they placed their own nationalism into a global and mutual sense. The theme of the French exhibit was France at a Crossroads, unsure of where to go, hoping that the audience from every country in the world might suggest ideas - this expressed the value of culture mutually extending outward.

Cultural differences need not lead to conflict

Second, admitting that culture is a supreme spiritual value shared by humanity, we still must recognize and respect differences in specific forms and presentations. We often get these two areas mixed up; on the one hand, we harbor doubts about the shared nature of spiritual values, while on the other, we mistakenly pursue convergence of cultural forms that are unable to converge. For example, these sorts of reports and commentary are quite common: "Peking Opera will conquer the world!", "Hollywood and Japanese animation are stealing Chinese youth," and so forth. These reports elevate the question of cultural forms to thoughts of national and ethnic unification, and imagine about life-and-death conflict between cultural forms.

Looking at cultural presentation and configuration, differences are one aspect, and mutual respect among those differences is another. Li Bai and Du Fu were good friends, but if they pursued convergence in their writing because of that friendship, it would have been a tragedy for Tang Dynasty culture. Fortunately that did not occur. But that is just one ethnic group in one dynasty; if we expand to look at cultures from different nationalities and countries, from different cultural backgrounds, then the differences are even more important.

In international relations we find an excellent concept called "seeking common points while preserving differences" (求同存异). But we cannot simply migrate this concept to the area of cultural expression, since "seeking common points" is what is most unwelcome there. Hollywood cannot "conquer" the world; distribution numbers are not proof that it has "conquered". I have been to many countries in the world that do not have their own movie industry, and what they watch is all Hollywood - this includes Iraq back in the day. But ultimately they have not become captives of American culture. Like Lu Xun asked in his essay "Grabbism" (拿来主义), do people who eat beef and lamb turn into cattle and sheep? By the same rationale, Peking Opera cannot conquer the world, and A Dream of the Red Mansions will not conquer the world either. Someone said that "the 21st century is the century of Chinese culture"; I do not know whether this strange assessment is based on economic development, but on a cultural basis I can be certain: this will not happen. If one day, the murmuring sounds of recitations of Tang poetry and the Songs of Chu are forced from schools in South Africa, Iceland, and Latin America, then the spirits of Qu Yuan and Li Bai will be sobbing silently up in heaven. For Chinese culture, this would not be a good thing. Alexander, the student of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, conquered half of Asia before meeting his end, but this became an illustrative lesson of the decline of Greek culture.

Beauty is in the coexistence of different cultures, and ugliness is in the removal of those differences. The vast majority of cultural differences will not create conflict, just as when the Euclid, Hegel, and Kant of our minds meet the Confucius, Su Dongpo, and Wang Yangming of our minds, there is mutual appreciation and support rather than conflict and cancellation. If an insignificant soul can do this, then why not a large world? For this reason, I do not support Huntington's "clash of civilizations"; rather, I support what South African archbishop Tutu said: We celebrate our diversities.

In today's world, what is needed in the spread of Chinese culture is not a continual strengthening of the signal but rather an appreciation for cultural differences. And within this, Chinese culture needs to strive for its right to be heard.

Chinese culture must find a new point of strength in the modern world

The third conceptual block is the understanding of one's own culture. Many of us believe that, living our lives within the immensity of Chinese culture, who among us is ignorant of it? This produces a sense of cultural arrogance in which other people's musings on and criticisms of culture are seen as cultural inferiority. Actually, China's ancient sayings are not Chinese culture in practice; China's cultural history is not today's cultural strength; China's cultural advantages do not overcome its serious deficiencies. And living within this culture does not mean that one is instinctively aware of that culture. We breathe all the time, but we are not necessarily familiar with our respiratory system or circulatory system, nor do we know much about the air quality in the city.

Chinese culture today is situated in a position for new choices and self-renewal. Communication, dialogue, and fusion with other cultures is the important turning point for this choice and renewal of Chinese culture.

Over the past 30 years of economic change and social transition, placing economics at the forefront and culture at the rear has been a clever yet unavoidable strategy. What was never expected was that the tremors created by massive economic development require culture to stabilize; everyone went grasping after culture, which had not yet fully transitioned, so it became something even more strange. With exaggeration and balderdash as cultural dialogue, embellishment and triviality as cultural styles, jealousy and animosity as cultural actions, there appeared a sort of "Culture culture everywhere yet where can we find culture?" The plight of the China exhibit at the two World Expos partly reflected the speechlessness of contemporary Chinese culture.

I sincerely hope that those people involved in international cultural communication can on the one hand transmit Chinese culture abroad, while on the other hand, filter and restructure Chinese culture according to an international model. They must inform the country directly that internationally, understanding of Chinese culture is less than nothing; the "sensation" caused by many artistic performances overseas is primarily nothing more than an opportunity for new Chinese immigrants overseas to assuage their homesickness. Internationally, few people are mesmerized by Confucianism, the art of war, kung-fu, face-changing, political machinations, or Tang costumes. Chinese culture must find a new linchpin to flourish in the modern world - neither an economic strong point nor a geographic one, but rather a strong point of culture itself. This will require an extensive exchange of views among many penetrating Chinese and foreign cultural scholars, after which things continuous adjustments can be made as things gradually become popularized. At present, that goal is still far off.

Cross-cultural communication will be achieved through tangible forms

Fourth, the outcome of cross-cultural communication is for common people to find pleasure and natural enjoyment in some form of culture. It is not a national dialogue, nor is it a conceptual one. Form outranks thought, the tangible outclasses the intangible, and actions are better than words. In recent years, many officials and literati have indulged more and more in spouting off strings of idioms, ancient sayings, descriptive words, and parallel sentences to describe Chinese culture and the Chinese spirit, and the proper connotation and denotation of many of these are hard to understand when they are translated into a foreign language; they become an impenetrable "flood of words" or "mass of ideas" and present another obstacle to cultural communication.

I recall that the German poet Goethe's surprising realization of the way Chinese people express emotion was obtained through the third-rate ancient novel The Two Sisters (风月好逑传) rather than through the Analects and other Chinese classics that he read in his youth. In actuality, our feelings toward German culture were not obtained through the words of government, but rather through Goethe, Beethoven, and Bach.

In contemporary media, a never-ending flow of the speech of ideas can never compete with the effectiveness of a single photograph - there are too many examples of this to mention. Moreover, this abstracted speech comes out of the mouths of concept-based individuals, and hence does not readily engage the common people. Government officials and spokespersons are of course individuals of flesh and blood, but their jobs are somewhat conceptualized; people can easily see the kind of background their jobs incorporate. For this reason they are not as persuasive as random interviews in the street.

At the broadest level, cultural communication must choose a format of presentation that is internationally persuasive. Tagore brought Indian culture to the mainstream of western culture. Hemingway allowed European culture to be accepted in the US. In ancient China, Xuanzang, Jianzhen (Ganjin), Zhu Shunshui, Matteo Ricci, John Adam Schall von Bell, and Xu Guangqi were this kind of bridge individual. In modern China, Hu Shi, Zhao Yuanren, and Lin Yutang were perhaps that kind of individual, but unfortunately the chaos of war unavoidably snapped the use of those cultural ties. The China of today has Yao Ming, Lang Lang, and several internationally-recognized movie actors who play a truly active role in those cultural ties. I trust that from this day on, cross-cultural communication will no longer primarily be accomplished through national-level speech and government activities; rather, it will develop centered around these captivating bridge-individuals. These bridge-individuals will perhaps be artists, athletes, scholars, philanthropists, or theologians, but the majority will not be officials. So we must wait to discover them and to protect them.

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There are currently 5 Comments for Yu Qiuyu on cross-cultural communication.

Comments on Yu Qiuyu on cross-cultural communication

China is so vast that it is difficult to identify exactly what Chinese culture is. Is it food? martial arts? packaging design? scenic vistas? painting? religion? medicine? technology, from fireworks to paper to electronics?

Chinese culture doesn't have a set of 'icons', something that defines it in the world view.

I applaud Mr. Yu Qiuyu for his honest analysis of the problems of selecting the representation of Chinese culture for foreign audiences. To me, the problem lies within China itself, as fewer Chinese themselves can identify what is 'Chinese'.

I also liked the point that Chinese culture isn't nationally exclusive, but only an interpretation of human values.

Personally, I wish China would start to really teach the essence of Chinese culture, the simplicity of Daoist thought explained through multimedia or the elegant contrast between the black/white strokes of traditional painting. It's also the ties to family that returns migrant workers hundres of miles home for new year's and the cacophony of noises and rhythms so soothing to the trained ear.

Without wanting to get into too much detail, there's a major problem with the current high culture / low culture divide.

Plenty of funny stuff that people would find amusing or intriguing (furong jiejie, hu ge, wang xiaofeng, online culture generally) is somehow kept off the radar screen when people want to engage in promotion. And this state of denial seems to be only partially government-driven!

There should be a distinction made between Chinese culture and "PRC culture."

The establishment of the PRC brought about the end of traditional Chinese cultural development.

"PRC culture" tried to piggy-back on the several thousand years of traditional Chinese culture but it made no contribution to it.

Literature, poetry, art, music, architecture, dance, etc. have all been stamped with the political brand of a political party, the Chinese Communist Party - peasants and workers. This is not a normal road for development of a culture.

"Nazi culture" did not represent German culture. Nor does "PRC culture" represent Chinese culture.

"PRC culture" is an aberration. In a hundred years, it will be seen as the Sui Dynasty to a new, modern "Tang Dynasty" that will rise in the 21st century.

As long as "PRC" kitsch is included as "Chinese culture," there will always be confusion.

This is a very clear article. I'm still trying to generalize the Chinese, but they are to diverse. Every time I deal with Chinese my prejudice seems to be wrong. I try to read as much useful information about it as I can find. This for sure is a helpful article. I found one on this website too link about cross-cultural communication.

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