Chou Wen-Chung

Writings by Chou

US-China Arts Exchange: A Practice in Search of a Philosophy

Excerpts from a speech at the International Symposium, “Music in the Dialogue of Cultures, Traditional Music and Cultural Policy,” Berlin 1988; published in Intercultural Music Studies, Vol. 2, International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation, 1989

Cultural interaction has always taken place wherever and whenever individuals of different cultures have come into contact — whether along the so-called Silk Road or in the course of the spice trade. The efforts of individuals ultimately contribute to major cultural changes, such as those that took place in the centuries preceding the rise of the Tang dynasty, or after the downfall of the Byzantine court. In the more recent centuries, the work of the Jesuits, merchants engaged in the clipper trade, colonization by Western powers, and the war in the Pacific, for example, have all brought about cultural interaction. As in the case of Tang culture or the European Renaissance, the cultural “by-product” of political, military, or economic struggles of recent history has been the foundation of the modern world, as we know it.

Today, when international cooperation is widespread and when organizational skills are highly developed there appears to be surprisingly little coordinated, broadly based, long-range planning for intercultural dialogue — particularly in the creative arts. At least in the United States, what is often referred to by the buzz-word, “cultural exchange,” is no more than a one-time extravaganza, aimed at goodwill, publicity, social glitter, or, in all honesty, profit. For such events, there is neither theory, nor methodology; certainly not philosophy.

The Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange and its Programs

The Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University is the only nationwide organization in the U.S. that researches exchange needs in the arts, designs and manages its projects, evaluates exchange results, and aims at exerting influence on cultural development in accordance with its program findings.

The concept of the Center was initially developed during the years 1972 to 1977, as a response to the perceived need for an exchange of information between two cultures on each other’s traditions and current artistic development.

The projects carried out by the Center can be categorized as follows:

  1. for the creative arts…
  2. for professional education for both creative and performing artists: visits, conferences, professional activities, exchange of materials, etc., aimed at both theory and practice;
  3. for arts in general education: a focus on multi-year programs of material exchange, delegations, field work, conferences, and publications;
  4. for children: sharing joint artistic experiences;
  5. for artistic productions [and]
  6. for the public: concerts, ballets, plays, films, television programs, and exhibits.

Chinese Participation/Partnerships

These programs are carried out with Chinese institutions, ranging from overarching super-agencies of the central government to local primary schools, and have included participants from policy-makers on culture to young artists in provincial towns.

Provincial and municipal bureaus of culture… provide much information that helps us plan on a local or regional level.

An agreement with the [China] Federation [of Literary and Art Circles] brought the Center into regular contact with many of the member associations on projects.

The Center’s constant contact with the key people at these associations, and with leaders at the professional schools, orchestras, and theaters, serves as the backbone for the Center’s evaluation of project needs and as resource for consultation on their design.

Impact on China

The results of the Center’s programs in China over the past ten years have been both deep and broad. A new wave of composers, playwrights, and visual artists, most of whom have had contact with the Center, has emerged with lightning speed over the past three years. These artists have fundamentally changed the profile of their disciplines in China, while attracting considerable international attention.

During its initial years, the Center carried out an ambitious program to make contemporary music scores, recordings, and publications, as well as materials in other disciplines, broadly available in China. All visiting performers and teachers sent by the Center were asked to emphasize contemporary and American music.

In playwriting [sic], the Chinese production of “Death of a Salesman” in the spring of 1983, directed by Arthur Miller himself, was doubtless the catalyst for the sudden emergence of a contemporary spoken theater. In the year following this production, which was characterized in China as “the most significant cultural event to take place since the Cultural Revolution,” over 150 new plays were written… As in the case of musical compositions, once the artistic floodgates were raised, there was no turning back.

The same can be said of the visual artists… Intensive exploration eventually culminated in a provocative exhibit in 1987 of recent oil and ink paintings from centers of visual arts activity — Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hangzhou — entitled “Beyond the Open Door.”

In the performing arts… the Center’s emphasis has been on presentation and management. For example, the Center was deeply involved for several years in the modernization of the two leading orchestras [Central Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing and Shanghai Symphony] in China.

As an outcome of the years of exchange in arts education, some principal policy-makers in China became convinced of the significance of arts in general education, and impressed with the achievement in this area of American scholars and art teachers.

The Center’s concern with arts education grew out of its realization that exclusive commitment to professional artists and their public would eventually prove to be short-sighted. Children are our future — in life and in the arts. Arts education must be aimed at future generations. This conviction also led to cooperation with Jacques d’Amboise and the National Dance Institute… After jointly designing the project, the Center was able to quickly convince China to send abroad, for the very first time, a delegation of some fifty-six children — dancers and musicians aged 8 to 13 — to perform with about 1500 American children [in d’Amboise’s “Event of the Year” at the Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum] on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the National Dance Institute in 1986.

The impact of the Center’s projects on individuals in China is not limited to artists, scholars, teachers, and students, but widespread among the people. In addition to concerts and exhibits, Center-sponsored productions, such as the Balanchine ballets “Serenade” and “La Valse,” musicals, such as “Music Man” and “The Fantasticks,” and dramatic productions by the National Theatre of the Deaf, were seen by the Chinese public for the very first time.

Impact on the United States

In the United States, the effect on institutions and individuals who have participated in the Center’s projects is equally fundamental, not infrequently leading to fresh inquiries and re-evaluation of convictions and theories.

The reaction on the part of the American public toward exchange projects is harder to gauge than that of the Chinese, whose response is usually immediate. “Distant Harmony: Pavarotti in China,” filmed with the assistance of the Center, documents the instantaneous impact on the Chinese made by the visit of a great Western artist… Similarly, nearly everyone in China has had the opportunity to see a televised version of… “Death of a Salesman” and the influence has been tremendous. However, the popularity of “Death of a Salesman” in China has been matched in the West by the film “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.” A film made possible by the Center, “From Mao to Mozart” won an Oscar award and is still shown all over the world.

The Center’s goal in China is to have a long-term impact on the arts.

Organizational Factors in Project Design

The U.S.-China experience has indicated that the effectiveness of structured exchange efforts depends on a diversity of factors — some organizational and some conceptual. The following are examples of organizational factors:

1. Breadth and depth of knowledge in both cultures on the part of cultural planners and project designers

2. Scope of consultation for information and advice
What needs to be achieved in China is a fundamental cultural change. Consultation with individuals is much less of a problem than with politicians, social leaders, and government officials. The inaccessibility of the latter group simply reflects the society’s philosophy toward culture… The Center long ago learned that one of its prime tasks for reaching its goals is education — education of leaders and bureaucrats, as well as the public.

3. Evaluation of project needs
The Center has the conviction that it must take an “advocacy” role in seeking out projects of significance and urgency, or of long-term impact. Its policy is not to wait for or invite proposals, nor to rely on an evaluation panel of a small number of specialists.

4. Project initiative and design
Once the need for, and feasibility of, a project are ascertained… the project, depending on its nature and scope, may be carried out in one of the following four modes: a. simply and swiftly by the Center alone; b. through a lengthy and complex process, involving extensive institutional and individual consultations, conferences, research, and field work [e.g., “Two Cities, a Comparative Environmental Study on Innovation and Tradition”]; c. in a staged manner, over a period of time. [When the Center] decided to focus on the future of the arts by bringing a delegation [from China in 1980], this project called for an initial exchange of delegations of project leaders for field study and selection of sites and participants. Three pairs of study teams were then exchanged over a period of two years. A wrap-up conference [Arts Education Conference] was held in July 1987 with the participation of most of the project leaders and participants. The fourth mode of design d. relies largely on a network of individuals. [When the Center] was invited by the Ministry of Culture in 1987 to send a delegation of distinguished Americans… to assess the reality of China’s cultural climate and such relevant issues as the cultural and social context of the arts in China, the relationship between the intellectual and the state, and the current creative environment. It was decided that the most productive method for arranging conversations with artists and intellectuals, as well as social observers in China, was to organize informal gatherings through an expanded network of individuals with whom the Center maintained an ongoing relationship.

5. Assessment and interpretation of project results
Inasmuch as the Center cannot expect most of its participants to be knowledgeable about the arts or the cultural history of the other society, the process of briefing and debriefing have taken on great importance.

6. Project benefits
Cultural interaction is the key to international understanding, the foundation for diplomatic and trade relations, and, above all, the ballast for stability in the world.

7. Cost effectiveness
Cost effectiveness is consequently not only a matter of managerial prudence but also what might be called a moral issue. Should the achievement of projects involving participants that are for-profit or have high overhead be weighed against that of projects with volunteers or low compensation? Should the choice of a high-profile but extravagant project be made on the basis of what accumulated impact the same funding might produce with a large number of less costly projects?

Conceptual Factors in Project Design

The following are some conceptual factors that influence the outcome of exchange designs:

1. “Cultural exchange” defined as “Intercultural” or “Intracultural,” or both
To effect intercultural exchanges, it becomes necessary now and then to initiate intracultural exchanges. For example, to understand changes in Chinese music, whether in the preservation of tradition or the development of contemporary creative efforts, studies may have to be made of such divergent regions with Chinese heritage as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other parts of Asia. [The conference] on “Tradition and the Future of Chinese Music” …organized in response to a request from Taiwan composers, and subsequently enthusiastically supported by mainland composers… was hailed on both the mainland and Taiwan as an “historic” event.

2. Comprehension of the meaning of “Tradition” or “Heritage” in the context of exchange projects
Even on the mainland alone, artists and intellectuals speak of many different traditions — often depending on whether one looks at them historically, geographically, culturally, or politically… While this pluralism is to be expected, in view of China’s history, the quest for an indigenous equivalent to a modern Western tradition; or the idolization of what is regarded as “uncultivated” ideas from the “minority nationalities,” even though these nationalities represent only about 6% of the population; or even the glorification of regional differences, coincides with the sharp decline, over the past half century, of the literati tradition of the Han Chinese.

3. Artistic development vs. cultural context
The Center’s experience with young Chinese creative artists highlights the superficiality of embracing modern ideas from the West without an understanding of their cultural context, or of merely grafting characteristics of their own culture to the theory and practice of the West… On the other side of the coin is the danger in the West of continuing to skim ideas from other cultures, only to sterilize them afterwards with perceptions conditioned by Western tradition. Of equal concern is the continued practice… of offering only Eurocentric instruction on the creative arts to young artists actively recruited from the rest of the world. To guard against the susceptibility to “cultural colonization” — whether on the giving or receiving end — must be fundamental to all intercultural planning.

4. Awareness of the creative and intellectual climate
Convinced that most journalists and political analysts on both sides of the Pacific are currently not trained in intercultural understanding, the Center has always conducted an independent evaluation of the conditions in China for exchanges, through regular consultation with its network of individual contacts. Because of its belief that the evolving climate for change in China depends more on the forces of culture than ideology, the Center has not been distracted by frequent contradictory prediction in the U.S. press.

In December 1986, demonstrations in Shanghai by students demanding swifter reform and broader freedom… subsequently brought about a sequence of major political struggles in China that caused some of the most intense condemnation in the American press of Chinese policies on personal freedom and artistic expression. Recognizing the potential damage to the climate for cultural exchange, the Center proposed to the Chinese leadership… that they send to the U.S. a person[s]… to effect a dialogue with American artists, writers, and journalists. The Chinese, countered by inviting the Center to send a delegation to China to study the climate for intellectuals and to draw its own conclusions.

During the visit of the delegation to China in November 1987… the Center was greatly impressed with the widespread ferment among young Chinese intellectuals seeking cultural change as well as “roots” discarded decades ago. The Center, however, was even more impressed with the overwhelming need for modernizing the individual Chinese mind, while China as a nation pursues accelerated material modernization.

Contrary to the prevalent opinion among China watchers in the U.S., the Center holds that the impediments to the success of modernization and liberalization in China do not come solely from ideology or political struggles. Thousand of years of uninterrupted heritage have ensured the accumulation of formidable baggage.

But there are also new traditions fostered by socialism that cannot be eradicated overnight without causing the society to disintegrate. In short, what is needed is a “modern” Chinese culture — a fruit that only grows out of intercultural cross-fertilization.

5. Cultural exchange as a tool for nurturing change
Change is taking place. But where is it leading? …After a decade of exchange work, the Center is convinced that: a. it is not feasible for China to achieve a “modern mentality” in science and technology …without first of all developing a “modern” Chinese culture; and b. for the U.S., political and economic analysis of conditions in China, as well as journalistic speculations on China’s future development, cannot be reliable until there is true knowledge of Chinese culture, in the sense of how it continues to influence the Chinese mind, and until there is an understanding of what Chinese cultural aspirations will be.

The need today for a discipline in “intercultural relations,” for the promotion of understanding and cooperation in cultural development, is as acute as was the need for “international relations,” for mutual political and economic benefits, only a few decades ago. This points to a need, also, for a philosophy that will serve as the theoretical and analytical underpinning for the practice of intercultural exchange.

Over and above strictly cultural concerns, active participation in cultural change, with full knowledge of the resources, causes, and expected outcome of such change, is a prerequisite for maintaining stability in the world and for planning for the future. Five hundred years ago cultural change seized Western Europe. This change was fed, in part, by ideas and events from beyond its geographical boundaries. The rest of the world was unaware, unable to actively participate, and consequently suffered the predictable fate of not being able to influence the change or to escape from being a helpless victim of that cultural change.

Today, when every society in the world could choose to be an active partner in cultural change, are we willing? Are we prepared? Today, China is undergoing fundamental cultural change — perhaps similar, in degree, to that which took place in the centuries preceding the Tang dynasty. With glasnost the U.S.S.R. has admitted that a closed society of any kind can no longer exist. Hungary has started experimentation on both economic and cultural fronts at once. Despite her economic ascendancy, Japan’s role in the world will probably depend more on the emergence of her cultural identity than her business acumen. Similarly, one might ask, can the hoped-for-prosperity of the European Community be accomplished with impunity to cultural change?

All of these examples are symptoms of worldwide change in culture — or the need of it. One then wonders whether now is the moment to acknowledge that the West — Western Europe as well as the United States — is also facing challenges, both from within and without, that will inevitably lead to fundamental changes in culture? Wouldn’t it be wise, then, to share experiences and join in cooperation? Might it be the time, now, to develop a discipline to make such a sharing productive? On the eve of the year 2000, the eve of a worldwide renaissance, are there not thinkers who could be distracted from their interest in the universe, the ions, the genes, and the marketplace, to ponder on the meaning of culture — culture that can no longer be defined geographically, but that nonetheless continues to prescribe and re-prescribe the ambiance of the environment in which we live?

By Chou Wen-chung

Site Credits

Spiralis Music Trust

Design — Concentric, Development — Igicom

Kimberly M. Wang, Eardog Productions, the Spiralis Music Trust and public domain.