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China Daily Website

Show the good, the bad and the ugly

Updated: 2012-07-17 16:43
By Zhang ZhouXiang ( chinadaily.com.cn)

"Image building" has become a popular topic of discussion these days.

The Ministry of Culture issued a plan in May calling for the establishment of 25 to 30 overseas cultural centers by the end of 2015 to project a new cultural image for China.

But what good does such work do? Michael Kahn Ackermann, former President of the Goethe Institute in China and now a senior consultant to the Confucius Institute, says a state's image cannot be built artificially, especially when it concerns culture.

Countries naturally want to show their best side to the public, but Ackermann does not think there is any excuse for forming a "perfect" image that hides deficiencies.

"No matter how perfect an image is, the truth behind that artificial image will always be revealed," he says, adding that the revelation will only hurt the credibility of the country trying to project the image.

A typical example can be seen in a recent documentary series about Chinese food, A Bite of China. The expensive series was widely criticized for being essentially an advertisement and for turning a blind eye to China's frequent food safety scandals. According to the China Economic Herald, the series showed something that was "familiar but faraway".

When the Goethe Institute was first established in the 1950s, it had tried to show foreigners "a light, beautiful Germany", but soon found such propaganda to be ineffective.

"It was only when we began to express our pain, our contradictions, that other people trusted us," Ackermann says. "We found that the only way of winning long-term trust lies in telling the truth."

Often directed by official power, China's attempts at image building tend to inspire skepticism and alienate those they are directed at.

"If China tries to give the world the impression there are no contradictions, it will only make people feel threatened," says Ackermann.

Instead of trying to "show the world a good China", it should "show the world the true China".

Ackermann arrived in China in 1975 and became one of the first Westerners to study in the country in recent times. Aside for a break of 12 years, he has lived here ever since, witnessing China's rapid development.

Recalling how things were 30 years ago, he thinks the greatest difference between then and today is noticeable in the fact that "China is now a country of multiple voices and debates, one that is trying to understand itself".

That is the reality China should show the world.

That requires the media to more clearly recognize their role. Ackermann says the media should "open a window, not make a painting".

"The media should try to make China more transparent by faithfully recording what they see, so that foreigners can have a better understanding of a country they long to understand."

He says an even better way for the country to achieve its goals would be to organize more unofficial cultural exchanges, which would allow foreigners to learn more about the daily lives of ordinary people.

"Actually, Chinese culture has long been spread to and welcomed by other parts of the world through non-official channels, instead of official centers," he says.

To Ackermann, language is of paramount importance.

"Language is the key to a nation's history and culture. Learning the language reveals the true charm of a country."

In the 1960s, the 23-year-old Ackermann began his life-long love affair with China when he started studying Mandarin at Munich University.

That's why he accepted the Confucius Institute's invitation. He hopes that learning the Chinese language will help people gain a better understanding of China.

To prevent misunderstandings, such as a recent incident in which the US government originally said Confucius Institute teachers with a certain type of visa could not teach in US primary and secondary schools and then changed its mind, Ackermann expects the institutes to place a priority on teaching Chinese.

He hopes China will be able to express itself better and more completely in the future, both for the benefit of the country and the world.

Wang Qian contributed to this story