Chou Wen-chung

About the Center for United States-China Arts Exchange

From US-China Arts Exchange Newsletter, Volume 1 No. 1, Spring 1980


In the early decades of this century, Western art forms had a major impact on the development of the arts in China. Soviet Russia became the principal outside influence on Chinese art, however, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. During the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, there emerged a regimented artistic style designed to conform to a radical ideology. But a liberalizing trend that began in 1977 has since brought a renewed interest in Western artistic achievements.

At the fourth National Congress of Writers and Artists in Beijing last October, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders voiced support for freedom of artistic expression. Thus the coming decade should witness a major thrust in the arts in China, one similar to those we see in science and higher education.

The Center for United States-China Arts Exchange was established in 1978 in anticipation of this resurgence of the arts in China. The programs of the Center are designed to stimulate public interest in the arts of both countries, initiate systematic exchanges between them, and coordinate individual projects. The center [sic] believes that a partnership between the United States and China during this exciting period is a natural one that will reap benefits for both countries and contribute to the cultural advancement of the world.

— Chou Wen-chung

History: Friendly gestures and modest proposals

An unofficial exchange between the United States and the People’s Republic of China began on November 12, 1977 at the Central Institute of Music in Beijing. There, following his lecture on the state of the arts in the United States, Professor Chou Wen-chung, Vice Dean of Columbia University's School of the Arts, presented the audience with records, musical scores, books, and other publications donated by various arts institutions in New York. At the same time, Professor Chou proposed an arts exchange program between the two countries, a possibility he had discussed with Chinese officials during a 1972 visit to China. The audience, which included important figures in the Chinese art world, received both the gifts and the proposal with overwhelming enthusiasm and presented Professor Chou with a selection of Chinese arts publications and several additional proposals.

Since 1977 the United States and China had not resumed diplomatic relations, direct negotiation with the Chinese government was impossible. With the support of Huang Zhen, Minister of Culture, Professor Chou sent a refined version of his proposal to the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. On July 18, 1978 Wang Bingnan, Chairman of the Association, signed a letter agreeing to a people-to-people arts exchange program to begin before normalization of diplomatic relations. Thus on October 1, 1978 the Center for United States-China Arts Exchange was established at Columbia University with support grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Ford Foundation and a research grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Form and Function

Although it operates under the administration of Columbia’s School of the Arts and receives contributions of office space and general support from the University, the Center is a national agency for arts exchange programs between the United States and China. Since the two nations renewed diplomatic ties on January 1, 1979, the Center has arranged its programs directly through the Chinese Ministry of Culture and, when necessary, other governmental agencies.

The Center’s programs of exchange involve specialists, students, materials, events and exhibitions, and special projects, and encompass music, drama, dance, the visual arts, and arts education. To carry out these programs, the Center maintains close contacts with artists and major arts institutions in China and has similarly broad contacts with artists, teachers, educational administrators, professional organizations, and trade associations in the United States.

As an information clearinghouse, the Center provides American organizations, the Chinese Ministry of Culture, and Chinese arts institutions with the information they need to plan exchanges. To take full advantage of the exchange of materials and specialists, the Center organizes conferences, research seminars, and public lectures in conjunction with the relevant departments at Columbia and scholars from other institutions. The Center also consults major American publishing companies, record companies, and performing and visual arts organizations in an effort to shape programs relevant to their needs.