How does Chinese culture go global: An Interview with Director of Confucius Institute in Waterloo Li Yan
Guest group photo of 2015 Book & Photo Exhibition Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of World Anti-Fascist War’s Victory (Li Yan, second from left).
Born in Beijing, Li Yan went to study in Canada after graduated from the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1987. Since 1997, she has been a teacher at the Renison University College at University of Waterloo and she is currently an Adjunct Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Chinese language and culture program at Renison University College. Since 2007, Li has served as Canadian Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo. Meanwhile, Li is a bilingual writer, and has written Daughters of the Red Land and Lily in the Snow. The former received nomination for Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1995. In 1996, Li was selected as “Woman of the Year” in Art/History/Literature, being the first Chinese woman who won the award. Her Chinese works include Married to the West Wind, The Deep, Flock of Sheep, Luliang Xiao Sheng, and The Last Love Letter from Norman Bethune. Li won the first prize of the 25th Shanghai News Award in 2016.
Recently, Chang Jianguo, Executive Editor-in-chief of Haiwainet Canada Channel, an affiliate of People’s Daily, interviewed Li, Canadian Director of Confucius Institute in Waterloo on how Chinese culture goes global.
R: Since the establishment of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo, you have been serving as its Canadian director. What kind of role has the Confucius Institute played in the overseas dissemination of the Chinese culture these years and what has the Confucius Institute done?
Li: in my opinion, the Confucius Institute provides people around the world, who are interested in Chinese characters and cultures with approaches and chances to learn about the Chinese culture. It also provides a good platform for cultural exchanges between China and other countries.
Over the past 10 years, the Confucius Institute has done a great deal of work on the communication between China and other countries, which are of fruitful results. We helped the University of Waterloo set up many courses on Chinese culture and literature, improved the arrangements of East Asian studies, and wrote bilingual textbooks of Chinese literature and culture for overseas students. For example, both the Chinese and English versions of Selected Readings of Chinese Literature are written by the Confucius Institute and its first Chinese Director Prof Tang Jianqing from Nanjing University. Along the Silk Road, Essays on History, Literature, and Culture in China is co-authored by the Confucius Institute and Prof Darrol Bryant, Director of Centre for Dialogue and Spirituality in the World's Religions at the university, providing supplementary textbooks for students taking Chinese culture as an elective course. We also established many teaching centers in different cities, including the Confucius Institute Chinese library, and hosted Chinese recital contest and composition contest every year in a bid to encourage and promote teenagers to engage in Chinese writing and inherit the Chinese culture. Making good use of our rich experience over the years, we helped and led neighboring colleges as well as middle and primary schools to carry out more exhibitions of Chinese teaching and Chinese culture.
Besides, via the Confucius Institute, we explored and discussed different forms to strengthen high-end academic exchanges and cooperation, such as inviting Chinese experts and scholars to conduct overseas lecture tours, sending Canadian experts and scholars to carry out exchanges in China, and holding the International Literature Forum almost every year. The measures in recent years, including Literature and our Environment: Seminar on Chinese Canadian Literature, Literature Quilts: Seminar between Chinese Minority Writers and North American Minority Writers, Shared Culture and History: Seminar on Canadian Aborigines and Chinese Multi-ethnic Literature, and the establishment of the first "China Special Session" at the 35th Toronto International Festival of Authors, have built the bridge crossing cultural gap and achieved widespread social effects. As for public construction, the Confucius Institute constantly cooperated with the public libraries of the three neighboring cities to hold Chinese training classes and Chinese cultural classes as well as organize traditional festival celebrations and other events. The Confucius Institute is seeking and creating opportunities for the application and development of the Chinese language overseas in an environment where diverse cultures fairly compete.
R: What is the environment for the Confucius Institute in Canada? Has it ever been doubted and challenged by Western governments or the public?
Li: From the very beginning, the Confucius Institute is greatly supported and welcomed by all school leaders and colleagues. However, as a new thing, it indeed received some doubts these years. For example, the western people thought this is China's attempt to improve its soft power in the West, showing the ambitions of the Chinese government and its people. I am always asked that what the purpose of the Confucius Institute is? In this regard, my answer is frank: the purpose is to strengthen the world's understanding of the Chinese culture and Chinese people, provide a platform for the Chinese people to learn about Western culture, and eliminate misunderstanding caused by ignorance via promoting bilateral communication, so as to promote friendly exchanges among people of the world. When there is a controversy, I always receive interview requests from Western media. In response to their questions, including some hearsay and rumors, I always patiently and sincerely tell them the truth, so that the Western people can understand the good wishes of the Confucius Institute.
The Confucius Institute is considered as China's "soft power", which is also a fact. Actually, as for promoting their own cultures via "soft power", some countries did it much earlier than China. Besides such European countries as the UK, France, Germany and Spain, there is also the Japan Foundation in Asia. In fact, with the Japan Foundation’s funding in1989, the first Japanese class was opened at the University of Waterloo in a bid to support the development of Japanese culture overseas. A few years ago, the Republic of Korea started to build King Sejong Institutes around the world, and Canada's first King Sejong Institute was established next to my office. It is unrealistic for a nation to rely on others to promote its own culture.
I am deeply touched by the fact that, with many things to be improved and enhanced, China still puts large sums of money to invest abroad to establish many Confucius Institutes around the world. From a strategic decision-making perspective, this may be a necessary step, and will help China win the understanding and friendship of the world when its revitalization comes. However, since we are well aware of China's imbalanced social development and the real situation of the people at the bottom, it is somehow against our consciousness to spend money when have these things in mind. We always carefully plan and well spend the money we have and never waste it.
When the Wenchuan earthquake struck, the Confucius Institute and local Chinese groups held a charity sale. With the efforts from all sides, we raised 60,000 Canadian dollars in Waterloo, which are all donated to the Sichuan disaster area. Moreover, the Confucius Institute and local Chinese schools jointly launched an essay contest under the theme of supporting the earthquake relief work in Sichuan so as to encourage overseas Chinese students to actively care for the disaster areas as well as not to forget their motherland.
Many activities sponsored and hosted by the Confucius Institute have brought benefits to friendly exchanges between the two people, and therefore they were very popular among the Canadian people. For example, I organized a delegation of Canadian intellectuals to China in 2015, and we visited Taihang Mountains, walked along the trail of Norman Bethune and donated a precious historical relic of the Chinese revolution--- the only photo of Mao Zedong and Norman Bethune.
Our Confucius Institute is set up inside the campus of Renison University College at University of Waterloo. Dr. Wendy Fletcher, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Renison University College, is not only a Canadian historian, but also a well-known artist. She enthusiastically supports all work carried out by the Confucius Institute, admires Confucianism very much, and always discusses with me about the essence of Confucianism. In 2016, based on my selection of 18 representative Chinese characters from Confucianism, such as love, righteousness, moral integrity, intelligence, trustworthiness, loyalty, filial piety, goodness, integrity and bravery, Dr. Fletcher meticulously drew 18 exquisite and unique oil paintings during her spare time. “The wisdom of Confucius is profound and enduring. The remarkable advantage of Confucianism is that it can accommodate a variety of cultures involving different regions and places, pass down to endless generations, and open up a place to share cultural philosophy between the East and the West. Each and every one of the 18 paintings portrays the central virtues of Confucianism and the attempts to explain the core connotation of Confucianism for today's global village through the colorful contemporary expressionism. Adopting the ancient oracle bone inscriptions and combining the artistic style of expressionism, all the oil paintings symbolize that the bridge built by Confucius’s wisdom has already crossed both time and cultural space. Through this bridge, we will move towards mutual understanding, mutual accommodation and mutual respect for the sake of common interests of mankind. As a partner of the Chinese people, we will work together with the Confucius Institute to jointly build this bridge. With deep gratitude and respect, I would like to offer these crafted oil paintings to the Confucius Institute Conference.” She said.
At the end of last year, the “New Interpretations to The Scholars---Wendy Fletcher Chinese Character and Oil Painting Exhibition” was held at the 11th Confucius Institute Conference in Kunming, which was attended by more than 3,000 guests from all over the world. Hao Ping, Vice Minister of Education, personally accepted these precious donations. At present, the Confucius Institute Headquarters is, at the invitation of many universities around the world, organizing a touring exhibition. This is just one example of cultural exchange promoted by our Confucius Institute between China and foreign countries.
R: Western countries generally use the alphabet language, while Chinese is very different from that, and Western cultural values and Chinese cultural values are quite far way from each other. So, what difficulties have you encountered during the process of your Chinese language teaching and Chinese culture transmission? And how do you cope with these problems?
Li: Lu Xun, one of modern China's most prominent and influential writers, once mentioned that Western letters are like a simple and plain but practical and convenient maid, while Chinese characters are like a beautiful and elegant but luxury and useless lady. This is of course a metaphorical argument. The feeling towards a certain language is very personal and varies from people to people according their own insights. In my opinion, Chinese characters are pictographic and ideographic with strong visual effect whereas English is a more standardized and concise language. Since there are only 26 letters and they are as simple and clear as symbols, the letters themselves do not present much visual effect. This difference has caused a big obstacle for western students to learn Chinese. One student once asked in class, "Does a complex Chinese character contain several syllables?" He did not even know that Chinese characters were based on strokes. But his question also enlightened me to realize that we should adopt a new mode of thinking to teach college students who have the background of phonetic writing to learn Chinese and train them to rely on visual sense rather than hearing. During my exploration process, I created my own teaching method. I disassemble the Chinese characters into pictures to inspire the students’ imaginal thinking, and then use the association and story to deepen their understanding and memory of Chinese.
Even so, Western students still have trouble in understanding Chinese literature, especially Chinese poetry. For example, when I taught the general history of Chinese literature, the most popular and famous Chinese poetries that have been widely passed on for generations, such as “A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day” and “A cowherd points to Almond Flower Village in the distance”, were translated as “The day of mourning for the dead it's raining hard”, and “A herdboy points to a cot amid apricot flowers.” Foreign students feel that the poetry is so ordinary and bland, and they do not understand why the Chinese people regard it as a classic. The aesthetic flavor attached to the Chinese language itself is lost in translation. This change in literariness brought by the difference between the two languages is the most difficult problem to solve.
During the spread of Chinese literature and culture overseas, another issue is the acceptance of values. For example, when foreign scholars talking about Outlaws of the Marsh, Li Kui, in order to force Zhu Tong to join in the group, killed Zhu Tong’s children, which is repulsive and revolting in foreign readers’ opinion. They cannot understand why the Chinese people think Li Kui is a heroic figure and it is difficult to relate. For me, I hope to carry forward the positive and affirmative aspects of the Chinese culture, so we should be more careful in the selection of bibliographic introduction and chapters. An Ivy League University in the US has chosen the Legend of Yu Rang, who was the most famous assassin in the early days of the Warring-States Period, the Legend of Jing Ke, who once tried to assassinate Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China, and Nine Tattooed Dragons—Shi Jin from Outlaws of the Marsh as the teaching materials for its curriculum of Introduction to China. Though these materials are not long, they contain the essence of traditional Chinese cultural values featuring loyalty, filial piety, chastity and righteousness, which are worth of learning. Chinese culture does have a negative factor, and sometimes we cannot escape from it. We should pay attention to the timing and manner of introducing these negative factors. For example, when I taught Chinese literature, students felt that the Chinese people are lack of sympathy and too cruelty after reading Blessing and Kong Yi Ji, two narrative novels of Lu Xun, and I would explain that, because of this, it is necessary for China to reform and promote the advancement of the society.
R: Besides being the Canadian Director of the Confucius Institute, you are also an exceptional bilateral writer. Can you talk about the role of literature in promoting the Chinese culture going global based on your own literary creation?
Li: Literature is a window to demonstrate your own culture to other nations. My first English novel, Daughters of the Red Land, was driven by the intention of erasing some of western people’s misunderstanding on the Chinese people and society. Due to differences in culture, history, society, belief, mode of thinking and other aspects, especially the long-term isolation between the East and the West caused by the Cold War, the general western public had a shockingly superficial understanding of China, including much misconception. This is particularly the case 30 years ago. In light of that, I felt the responsibility to devote every ounce of me into offering more perspectives for the western people to know about China so that they could fairly look at the land that raised me.
When telling foreigners China’s stories through English works, I would pay particular attention to their mode of thinking and wave a fuller-fledged background so that they can understand the connotation of the story from a deeper level. The success of Daughters of the Red Land is first attributed to the reproduction of history and exploration of the strength of human spirit. I once received many letters from readers, who expressed their heartfelt fondness of the work and the strong resonance the work stirred in their heart. A middle-aged female teacher from Toronto wrote in her letter that “your novel made me realize that educated women share similar emotional experience in spite of different social systems and cultural background. We can strongly relate to many of the intricate and complicated psychological activities of the heroine. ” What really touched me is a letter from a female reader in Vancouver. She wrote in the letter that “after reading your novel, whenever I walked into a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown and observing the Chinese people there, I felt something quite different. To me, they are no longer simply-minded or apathetic. Behind each face, there lies rich emotion and the same spirit as us.”
I was gratified to learn that my Chinese and English works were used as supplementary teaching materials by many Canadian universities for Chinese culture and history learning. I sincerely hope that people around the world can know more on the history of the Chinese people so that they can better understand the uniqueness of the today’s social changes in China.
R: What else can we do to promote the Chinese literature and culture going global?
Li: I think we should cultivate a large number of high-quality translators to enhance the communication ability and voice of China in various areas. Translation talents first should have a solid background on the traditional culture before communicating with other cultures and absorbing essence from them.
The Confucius Institute is working on this. We just established a Chinese Study Center and are currently collaborating with Prof. Zhou Min, Chinese Director of the Confucius Institute sent by our Chinese partner university, Shanghai International Studies University to gradually carry out more extensive exchanges in liberal arts. In this way, the need of the Chinese and Canadian people for mutual understanding and drawing from each other’s strength can be met.
For Chinese literature to go global, first we need to identify the obstacle encountered by foreign readers when reading Chinese literary works. At present, there are few foreigners who understand Chinese literature. We need to find an effective communication channel. If properly promoted, excellent Chinese works can earn worldwide recognition. China right now needs a professional translation team with high standard, profound cultural background and pioneering vision. I believe, the cultivation of high-level translation talents will significantly step up the communication ability and cultural representation of the Chinese national in various fields, which is exactly what we need right now.
Story by Chang Jianguo