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 January 9, 2012
Humanities
U.S. Artists Visit China to Promote Understanding

By Lauren Schiffman

In November 2011, a group of American artists and cultural figures traveled to China for the four-day U.S.-China Forum on Arts and Culture. Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, came up with the idea for the event.

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Schell is an expert on China and has spent most of his career writing about the country and creating reports to help direct the U.S. government's policy toward China. But policy change is slow going. Schell says that when dealing with China, U.S. policy makers have trouble: “They’re broke, they’re preoccupied, paralyzed and ... dispirited.”

In today’s world, however, the importance of the relationship between the U.S. and China can’t be overlooked. The countries are two of the world’s biggest players when it comes to issues like global economic stability and climate change. In 2010, China was the third-largest market for U.S. exports. And China, like the United States, has a huge influence on the environment. For example, in 2007, China overtook the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to climate change.

But why put on a cultural festival when policy talks are at a standstill? Schell says, “You have to be able to relate in ways other than over the ... issues that divide you.” His idea was to create a forum in which people could exchange ideas and have fun. He simply wanted to “increase each side’s exposure to the other.” And from there, he hopes that people from the two nations can begin to understand one another better.

To that end, the festival featured events meant to spur discussion and collaboration. The festivities started off with a banquet organized by American chef Alice Waters in partnership with Chinese organic farmers. Events included a screening of the film True Grit. This was followed by one of the filmmakers, Joel Coen, participating in a discussion with a Chinese filmmaker. Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed a concert with Chinese musicians. The festival also featured a class on organic cooking and a panel discussion on media censorship. Visiting artists included actress Meryl Streep and author Amy Tan.

Schell says, “Our intention was to be spontaneous and somewhat risk taking.” He feels that this approach was “unsettling” at first to the Chinese government, which is known to attempt to censor information and manage the development of the arts and culture in the country.

But just weeks before the event, Chinese president Hu Jintao had announced a new government focus on “cultural reform.” China is looking to spread its art and culture as a way to improve its image and gain more influence around the world. In light of this goal, this firsthand exposure to the American approach to the arts and culture -- an approach based on keeping an open mind and being receptive to new ideas -- was an interesting model for the Chinese. Schell points out that a key to China welcoming the festival was that “we were all friends having fun.” The event wasn’t intended to be a “political concoction.”

And by all accounts, the forum was a great success. The official Chinese media praised the festival. A high-ranking member of the Communist party embraced the event. The expectation is that a group of Chinese cultural figures will visit the United States in 2012. And event organizers are already talking about a return visit for American artists.

Other countries -- such as Spain, Germany, France, and Britain -- have cultural centers in Beijing, China’s capital city. The United States, however, does not. Because the U.S. government doesn’t invest much in cultural programs in China, Schell hopes that private organizations can fill this gap and offer an “American cultural presence” there.

Sources: “A Transcendent, If Rare, American Outreach,” Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 21, 2011 (online); “U.S.-China Building Diplomacy Via Arts and Culture,” The World, National Public Radio, November 18, 2011; “Big Names in U.S. Culture Take ‘Class Trip’ to China,” Josh Chin, Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2011 (online); Asia Society website, U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture page, November 15, 2011; U.S. Department of State website, Background Note: China page, September 6, 2011; “‘No More Important Relationship’ Than U.S.-China, Biden Says in Beijing,” Reuters, msnbc.com, August 18, 2011 (online)

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