Culture Brings Us Closer
2014/07/08

By Cui Tiankai

It is sadly ironic that much attention of late has focused on disagreements between China and the United States when, despite those disagreements, our relationship is strong. Our economic and commercial relationship, which includes a record of more than $520 billion in trade last year, is well known. Yet the ties that bind the United States and China are not just economic. In fact, cultural exchange is leading the way to a greater understanding between our two peoples.

The recent participation by China as a theme country in the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall was a statement about the importance of culture in bringing our nations closer together and of our commitment to continue that exchange. More than 1 million visitors attended the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and I am especially proud that some 120 master folk artists from China are a part of this major international cultural event. The brilliant potters, textile artists, musicians and kite makers who came to Washington brought with them the pride of art and craftsmanship and a diversity that represents the best of what we are as a people. And it all took place on that green strip of ground between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument that contains a stone from China , a gift from the Qing government.

Events like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival make it possible for Americans and Chinese to meet and learn about each other. We believe that such people-to-people exchanges help us rise above any differences in history, culture and social systems and bring about understanding and respect. Besides events like the Folklife Festival, there is a much bigger and even more important phenomenon drawing us closer every day - the exchange of cultural wisdom by ordinary citizens while they work and study together. Today, there are more than 230,000 Chinese students studying in the United States and about 24,000 American students studying in China . They are learning far more than the material in their coursework, but also absorbing the best of the host country's culture and will disseminate some very positive cultural traits from their home country.

We are two peoples that value education. Confucius said more than 2,000 years ago that "everyone should have the opportunity to be educated regardless of social standing." And Benjamin Franklin said, "Genius without education is like silver in the mine." In fact, it is through educational and cultural exchange that not only we will learn each other's histories and cultures, but where we will learn together to solve mutual problems. The relationships formed in these exchanges endure and grow, and we have many examples of Chinese who studied in the United States and Americans who studied in China with their important contributions to both cultures.

One that stands out represents the Smithsonian Freer and Sackler galleries and the Shanghai Museum of Art. In 2013, one of the curators of the Shanghai Museum , Ling Lizhong, came to the Smithsonian to study and research some 400 Chinese paintings from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. He worked with Stephen D. Allee, the Smithsonian's associate curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy.

They hit it off immediately, in large part because, in 1979, Allee was among the first eight American graduate students to study in the People's Republic of China , at the birth of the people-to-people exchanges between our two countries. Allee and Ling were reviewing what had been considered a minor work from the Yuan dynasty. What they discovered, however, was a rare ink painting by the Chinese artist Wang Yuan. It was a masterpiece nearly 700 years old.

We are on a course that leads us inexorably closer. The sixth China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue is set for July 9 and 10 in Beijing . Participants include U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew along with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Immediately after that, we will focus on another Chinese-American dialogue - the fifth annual Consultation on People-to-People Exchange.

Cultural and educational exchange programs between our two great nations are great but are really still in the development stages. We exchange cultural values, information and wisdom every day through our business relationships, our classrooms, and even tourism, and we need to do more. We are finding out more and more about each other, and events like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the mall are an important part of and modest beginning to what can grow out of such cooperation and understanding. Who can say what marvelous advancements in education, medicine, science and technology are incubating right now because we are developing meaningful people-to-people understanding and sharing educational advancements.

(This is an Op-Ed article published on US News and World Report on July 8, 2014)

 

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