Cultural exchanges look for new inspirations

Updated: 2013-06-07 13:09

By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)

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 Cultural exchanges look for new inspirations

Chinese composer Tan Dun and the cast members of the Kunqu opera Peony Pavilion take a bow after a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Provided To China Daily

As China has stepped up its efforts to expand "soft power," or so-called cultural capital, US arts organizations and artists have rushed to fill the demand for cross-cultural exchanges that have brought American performers to China, and vice versa.

"The newer generations of Chinese leaders have all been reading Joseph Nye, just like the rest of us," said Cathy Barbash, an independent consultant and organizer of China-US cultural exchanges. Nye, an American political author, coined the term "soft power" in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.

Until about a decade ago, the arts in China were almost entirely state-mandated, but in recent years the government has encouraged cultural organizations to go private. At the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, 6,900 state-affiliated cultural groups were converted to enterprises.

Among the many exchanges and tours facilitated and funded in part by the Chinese Ministry of Culture in 2012 were a Lincoln Center Festival production of Feng Yi Ting, a classic story of love and political intrigue; a performance by TAO Dance at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall; and a staging of the Kunqu opera masterpiece Peony Pavilion at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a production directed by the Academy Award-winning composer Tan Dun.

In the US, where there is no Ministry of Culture equivalent, cross-cultural exchanges have occasionally been facilitated by the US State Department. Their Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program, for example, has sent hundreds of jazz musicians to more than 50 countries since 2005. Last year, the Kate McGarry Quartet traveled to 10 Chinese cities on State Department funding.

In 2012, the department also started American Cultural Centers, through which US and Chinese universities are paired in hopes of promoting American culture in China. As part of the program, the University of Minnesota built a sports-focused cultural center at Tianjin University of Sport and the University of Kentucky established a location at Shanghai University with a focus on Appalachian culture.

In the program's proposal, the department noted the success of China's Confucius Institutes: "The PRC's creation in the United States of multiple university-based Confucius Institutes has increased the level and quality of the study of Chinese language and culture in the US."

For orchestras, ballet companies and other performing arts groups, the interest in China-US exchanges is motivated by an expanding Chinese market, and for the resulting prestige that a China tour can garner an arts organization. Many of these groups already depend on sponsorship and patron funding, but ticket sales are also a component in balancing the books, Barbash said.

China's audience for classical music has expanded rapidly in the last decade, and orchestras will follow the market, she said. Major US orchestras that have visited China in the last few years include the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Symphony and the Chicago Symphony. In 2012, the New York Philharmonic announced a four-year partnership with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, beginning in the fall of 2014.

According to the China Association of Performing Arts, China already generates two to three million performing arts products each year, among the highest in the world. The culture sector currently contributes 3.9 trillion yuan ($627 billion), or more than 3 percent, to its annual GDP.

Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival, noted that a nation's economic success has often translated to increased financial support - and interest - for cultural exchanges.

"But I also think that China has always played a special role in the West, occupying a different space in cultural consciousness than Vietnam or Cambodia does, for example," Redden added. "The West has long been fascinated with China, which has contributed to a fair amount of interchange."

Working with Chinese government agencies can be challenging, Barbash said. Local provincial governments can be particularly difficult, and the product can sometimes show little reflection of the tastes or desires of targeted US audiences.

But Barbash has been pleased to observe an increasing level of sophistication and knowledge of the Western market in recent years, particularly by US-based representatives of China's Ministry of Culture.

Western arts groups are required to work with Chinese government agencies in toning down sexual or violent content, she said. Every public performance in China must be approved ahead of time, and dealing with the bureaucracy can be frustrating.

"Like any government agency though, they can also facilitate things quickly," she said. "The key is to make clear that your intention is simply to spread culture, and to demonstrate an understanding of their concerns. You say, 'I understand your situation, and you understand my situation, and let's try to find a middle ground.' Very rarely is a solution not found."

The financial support provided by the Chinese government for cultural exchanges in paying for airfare, accommodations and other costs has also "helped make things possible, that would otherwise never have been possible", Redden said.

Still, the Chinese government has already signaled a desire to alleviate the enormous cost of supporting its arts industries. Zheng Wen, from the Cultural Trade Division of the Ministry of Culture, affirmed the government's intentions at a seminar on performing arts collaborations held at the Chinese Consulate in New York recently.

"Considerable government resources have gone into the Chinese cultural industry, but China still needs to speed up before its cultural products will reach a point at which they can affect soft power," he said. "In the past, the Chinese government was responsible for promoting most cultural exchanges, but in the future, we hope that businesses will become the driving force in these exchanges and we hope it will prove to be a more sustainable means to keep promoting Chinese culture."

In the long run, Barbash is optimistic about the growth of China-US cultural industries.

"There are fits and starts all the time, and sometimes it feels like three steps forward and two steps back," she said. "But I know that the Chinese are going to make it happen their own way, and it might not be the way Americans want it to be, but they are open to the world and willing to take from the rest of the world what interests them. It's already happening."

(China Daily 06/07/2013 page12)