Euro vision

Updated: 2010-12-31 11:26

By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily European Weekly)

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 Euro vision

Chen Ping, director of the division for west European Affairs at China's Ministry of Culture, has spent a major part of his adult life living in Europe, especially in Germany. Provided to China Daily

Administrator works with Europe's top artists to show off Chinese contemporary culture

A DJ stands high on a stage behind his turntable pumping out beats and rhythms and sending a swaying crowd of young Belgians into a frenzy of dance. The vibrant music connects the Chinese artist, who can only speak Mandarin, with his European audience and breaks down all language barriers.

During the music festival, 15 more young musical combos - DJs, rock and pop bands - follow and the locals are very impressed. The young Europeans were aware of China's priceless porcelain, famous ink paintings, acrobats and kungfu but had never been personally exposed to China's modern music culture. They walked away from the concerts with a new way of looking at modern Chinese culture.

"Mission accomplished," says Chen Ping, director of the division for west European Affairs at China's Ministry of Culture.

Since 2001, Chen's department has been working with different nations to stage major festivals and exhibitions across Europe with the aim of raising awareness of both China's long rich history and its dynamic contemporary culture scene.

In 2001, the modern Chinese culture stage was set in Berlin. In 2003, the Chinese Cultural Year was held in France, in 2005 it was Venice's turn, and in 2009 China was the featured nation in Brussels' famed Europalia festival, an event which has been operating continuously for 40 years.

A few months ago this movable feast of art and cultural works moved to Italy and will travel through the major European cities all next year. Chen says the 2001 German event, which featured 29 artists, was a milestone in exporting China's contemporary culture to the world - the same year China was accepted into the World Trade Organization.

"Many people in Europe had heard about China's underground art scene but it was the first time that the Chinese government supported a contemporary Chinese art exhibition which had been held abroad. It was a beginning," says Chen, who speaks fluent German and English.

And this bold beginning was a literal head turner for Berliners.

A giant screen was set up in a public place in the German capital and stunning images of the seven Chinese artists were displayed on screen over two weeks. There were also exhibitions featuring historical favorites, such as the terracotta warriors, treasures from former emperors, kunqu opera and Buddhist statues. But alongside these artefacts were modern works, such as the famous director Lin Zhaohua's Chinese version of Shakespeare's Richard III.

"Contemporary culture is very important now in China. We have a very long history but over the past 30 years there has been major economic progress and we have seen that progress in the arts", Chen says. "European people knew about old China, and our old art, but only a few people knew about the contemporary scene and our work helps more Europeans understand what's happening now.

"On the one hand, our cultural traditions are very important for us and on the other, there is this new creation, and this can be seen through a new generation of artists, composers, architects and designers.

"We have always been a nation of creation."

Chen has personally seen his nation's major changes as dramatically as one the experimental stage plays performed at his European festivals.

He was born in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, and as a boy, lived through the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) in which only eight operas were allowed to be performed. Chen says he knew the words of each one by heart.

During that turbulent period of Chinese history, students were divided into two groups - those who had an aptitude toward science and those who favored the arts.

Chen was in the latter group and had natural talent for languages. After middle school he applied to study German at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He sat the entrance exam in English but in 1981 found himself in a class of 14 students learning German.

"I liked German because it is a very precise language," Chen says. "When I was at middle school I tried reading Goethe's Faust but didn't have a clue what he was on about. Four years later after university, I could understand, speak and read German, and picked up Faust again.

"But it still was a mystery to me," Chen laughs.

After graduation in 1985, Chen secured a government job within a ministry, a much vied for position at the time. In the mid-1980s, he says, all the top graduates scored government jobs, while the lesser students were directed to Bank of China or State-run companies.

Chen says that work trend changed as China's economy took off and government positions, such as his, were not as popular.

"In the early 1990s we had a joke in southern China about this," Chen says smiling. "A mother was trying to calm her crying baby boy and warns him that if he doesn't stop crying a tiger will come. That doesn't work, so she says a crazy, wild man will come. That still doesn't work, so she tells her boy that if he keeps bawling, he will grow up to become a government official. The baby stops crying immediately."

Chen's career began in the mid-1980s in the protocol department, where he says his eyes were opened to the world.

From 1986 he served three years at the Chinese embassy in Switzerland and later moved to Bonn in Germany, which became his home for the most part of eight years.

This first-hand understanding of the European psyche and cultural values has been invaluable for Chen when staging cultural festivals and sharing China with the international community.

"Every nation is unique and presenting Chinese culture in Europe is different to presenting it in Africa or Asia," he says. "Europe, like China, has a very long tradition and we need to cater to our audiences.

"The key to our success has been cooperating closely with European institutions and having good relationships with the organizers of the festivals.

"We have to be patient, open to new ideas and always ready to discuss our projects with our European partners.

"After all, they know European audiences much better than we do."