Between China and Britain

Source:Xinhua Published: 2015-10-21 16:50:38

Britain may be more than 9,000 kilometers from China, with a time difference of seven to eight hours. But for many people, the two countries seem much closer; bridged by the power of literature.

"Among all countries, Britain's literature perhaps has the greatest influence on the Chinese," said Zhang Hua, a professor with the Institute of Comparative Literature and Culture Studies with the Beijing Language and Culture University.

As President Xi Jinping makes his first official visit to the UK since taking office, the closeness of the two cultures is being discussed world wide.

Chinese who have never visited have glimpsed life in Britain through literature, whether its the countryside houses from Pride and Prejudice; old London in the time of Great Expectations; the conspiracies riddling Richard III's court or British school-life in Harry Potter.

Zhang, 49, has been deeply influenced by British literature since childhood.

"When I was at school, we had excerpts of many British writers' works in our textbooks. The poetry collections published in our time usually start with a piece from a British poet," he said, showing two Chinese collections from the early 80s that open with sonnets by William Shakespeare.

Growing up, he yearned to visit the far-away land - a wish that was first fulfilled in 2002 when he visited Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon.

British literature affected 35-year-old Li Tianxing so much that the English major went to study in London after graduation and later made several trips to the UK.

"When arriving in London, I felt like 'going back home'," she said. "Everything seemed so familiar."

She had a photo at the doorstep of 221b Baker Street, residence of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, and travelled to the Lake District where poet William Wordsworth lived. She even went to Torquay in southwest England, hometown of crime novelist Agatha Christie

"English language is the most popular foreign language in China and people of all ages from all walks of life know something about British literature," said Yang Qingxiang, associate professor with the School of Literary Studies of the Renmin University.

On the other side of the world, there's also a smaller group of British people fascinated with Chinese culture and books.

Kathy Carver, 27, teaches English in a primary school in north China's Hebei province. She told Xinhua that her first impression about China was from a sentence she read as a teenager in the Analects of Confucius: "if remoter people are not submissive, all the influences of civil culture and virtue are to be cultivated to attract them to be so."

"I found this way of thinking quite original," she said. It made her wonder why a country wouldn't use power to make another submissive, instead of relying on culture and virtue in order to win them over. "Then I realized that China was a mild country."

Carver admitted that her knowledge about Chinese literature was limited to the ancient times. "Confucius is an icon of Chinese culture, and his philosophy still influences people," she said.

She was also versed in the classic novels A Journey to the West and A Dream in the Red Mansions. She's read books by American-Chinese writer Amy Tan.

However, Carver believes Chinese people know more about British literature than Chinese. "I was really surprised to see so many people knowing about Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. At least they could say something about their works."

But Zhang Hua said he sees Chinese books gaining popularity in the UK.

In 2006, when visiting London, he saw posters for Chinese writer Jung Chang's book Mao: the Unknown Story everywhere. "On the plane I met a man reading that book," Zhang said. "He told me that reading books like that was a way for them to understand China."

After Chinese writer Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, more people looked for his books in libraries. Chinese President's book Xi Jinping: The Governance of China could be found in Waterstone's bookstores in London, along with novelist Lao She's fiction Cat Country.

"It's another important step towards the understanding between our countries, but it's much more than that. It's a global level,"John Prescott, who was the British deputy prime minister between 1997 and 2007, said during a book fair in London earlier this year.

Exchanges between China and Britain are increasing.

Britain now has the largest Chinese population of any country in Europe, with 500,000 out of a total 64 million. During Spring Festival every year, the grand celebration at Trafalgar Square in London attracts locals to join in.

The number of Britons learning the Chinese language has grown hugely, albeit from a tiny base. Mandarin has become the fourth most popular language at Advanced Level for pupils.

Chen Tongdu, a representative of the Confucius Institute Headquarters for the UK observed the change of participants in the worldwide Chinese Bridge competition. "In the past, most of the participants here were descendants from Asian countries," he said. "Now I see more native participants, some of whom even got awards in the final in Beijing."

"Although we come from different culture, I can see similarities between British and Chinese people," said Carver. "We both are polite, reserved and love literature." Most of all, both countries have a glorious history and are making efforts to restore glory, she added.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is on a trip to Britain.

Yang Qingxiang hoped that the visit could boost exchanges between two countries in cultural industry. "Britain could offer some experiences for Chinese," he said.

While it was Li Tianxing's hope to see more British people attracted by Chinese literature. "Maybe in the future, they could come to China to look for former residence of a certain author like we did in the UK," she said.
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Posted in: Diplomacy, Xi visits UK 2015

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