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Getting to know China as the Chinese know the West

By Qingshun Zou | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2021-12-03 10:35

Lin Xiaolian teaches English at Beili elementary school in Xuwen county, South China's Guangdong province on Sept 1, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

So much has happened in the international economic and geopolitical spheres in the last few years! And we are all living in a time of turmoil and uncertainty. China is in the news every day, and many Western economic and political leaders willingly share their visions and predictions about China. But their statements, frequently wrong, often provoke feelings of frustration and misunderstanding in me. I realized that the Western world, in which I live and whose culture has fascinated me for three decades, must urgently address the backwardness that impedes its attempts to understand China, its people and culture—for its own benefit as well as for China and the world.

When I arrived in Europe nearly 30 years ago, I was instantly attracted to its culture which has continuously enriched my life's journey. I mainly read works in French and English; French writers such as Marc Levy, Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt and François Cheng have become my idols. I have also developed an interest in French cinema, especially the finesse of its humor and sensitivity.

The discovery of psychology was another highlight of my life: Freud and Jung gave me a new understanding of our human condition, while the neurologist, psychiatrist and writer Boris Cyrulnik became my reference in the field of human science. When a friend introduced me to the works of Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Sephardi descent, I realized that there were many similarities between his approach and that of the Chinese philosopher Lao Zi. Interested in religions, I browsed through the Bible, where many parables are identical to the accounts found in Chinese philosophies. Amazed by Western art, I was initiated into classical music by learning to play an instrument. My list of interests in Western culture is indeed long. They led me to become a board member of the Geneva International Music Competition.

The differences and similarities between Western and Chinese culture are certainly striking. But I disagree with the assertions of some Western political leaders that China does not share their values. While following different paths, China, the West and the rest of world pursue the same values: love, peace, justice and freedom.

The French missionary Joseph-Marie Amiot introduced The Art of War to the West in the 18th century. It seems that these strategies inspired Napoleon to win his battles and to conquer Europe. Would it be inspiring Western leaders one more time today to find solutions pulling their people out of social, economic and political chaos?

Sun Tzu's thinking certainly plays an important role in Chinese political and economic strategies. It was applied in almost all Chinese enterprises and was part of the Chinese government's strategies to reactivate economic development 40 years ago, aiming to lift its people out of poverty through strong economic growth. Aware of the economic gap with developed countries, China immediately implemented policies that encouraged its people to get to know other nations and to be inspired by Western countries.

In order to communicate better with the outside world, it was essential to master foreign languages. China has placed great emphasis on education. As soon as the reform of the education system was announced in 1978, English language and European and American history were gradually imposed as the main and compulsory subjects in all secondary schools. English was very quickly integrated into elementary school. Today, the majority of students already start learning English in kindergarten. Increasing numbers of schools, especially private schools, offer French and German as complementary courses. These schools use them as their marketing campaign arguments. As a result, English language and European and American history form part of the Gāokǎo, the annual national exam allowing college students to enter Chinese universities. The number of Gāokǎo participants reached a historical high of 10 million in 2019.

China's thirst for Western culture does not stop at language and history. Learning Western classical music has become a real phenomenon, constituting a promising and prosperous industry in recent decades. Today, more than 50 million Chinese study the piano in China and this figure is rapidly increasing. Many children dream of playing the piano. For some families, it is even a privilege to have a piano displayed in the living room, even if no one plays it. The number of orchestras and concert halls has exploded with the active support of the Chinese government.

In the business world, many Chinese entrepreneurs often admire Western culture. The founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, is passionate about Western architecture. The company's Ox Horn Campus, located at Songshan Lake in the city of Shenzhen, is its research and development center and home to 25,000 employees. Covering 1.4 million square meters, the center comprises 108 buildings divided into 12 themes. Each group of buildings pays tribute to a European city or region: Paris (France), Verona (Italy), Césky Krumlov (Czech Republic), Freiburg (Switzerland), Heidelberg (Germany), Burgundy (France), Bologna (Italy), Windermere (UK), Luxembourg (Luxembourg), Bruges (Belgium), Oxford (UK) and Granada (Spain). The leaders of this Chinese corporate giant believe in the edifying virtues of these references and hope that they will stimulate the creativity of their employees.

To get to know others also means moving beyond the limits of your borders. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Chinese students going abroad to study was constantly increasing. In 2019, about 700,000 students left China to study abroad, including 370,000 that went to the United States. According to the latest data from Open Doors' report on international education, the United States hosted more than one million international students in the 2019–2020 academic year. And the U.S. Department of Commerce announced a turnover of $44 billion realized on this number of students, which means that Chinese households have invested more than $16 billion to send their children to the United States to study and immerse themselves in Western and American culture.

Examples like these are countless. At present, how many European and American people learn Chinese? How many of them have notions about Chinese history, Chinese music and Chinese city names?

China's renaissance is certain. The West will need to find a sustainable way to cohabit with China on the planet. Getting to know China as the Chinese know the West becomes obvious and imperative.

Qingshun Zou is a professional in international business development. She is the author of Master Chinese Business Culture – Becoming a China expert, published in May 2021. Inspired by Western culture, Zou has been an amateur musician for 15 years. She is a board member of the prestigious Geneva International Music Competition, founded in 1939.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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