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Axis of Friendship

JUN . 12 2010

Peking University, June 11, 2010: This Friday, June 11, 35-year-old Iranian anthropology student Adel Khani will go to Shanghai with up to 200 other Iranians to attend the Shanghai Expo's Iranian day. It's fitting that the former cultural officer for China will be in attendance at the Expo on the day it celebrates Iranian culture.


Khani, who's studied at Peking University since 2007, is a self-confessed Chinese culture lover.



Adel Khani (Global Times)



He's no longer used, he says, to speaking languages other than Chinese, not even his native Persian.


"I asked my wife to speak Chinese with me," says Khani. Adel Khani and his wife Mehrnaz met in Iranian capital Tehran when he was preparing to come to study in China. Khani told his friends and family of his determination to study in China in 2004. His family, fearful he wouldn't return, asked him to wed before his departure. Mehrnaz, an elementary school teacher back in Tehran, now teaches herself Chinese at home and raises their 18-month daughter Lili.


"My dream is to see the cultural connections between China and Iran get better day by day. Iran and China's relation in politics is best; in economics, good; in culture, just so so," says Khani. "In some cases, you see the relations between the two countries are very fragile, and that's because of culture," he adds.



Knowledge vacuum


After graduating in sociology from Tehran University, Khani worked at the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, a government body. The institute's responsibility is to make cultural connections with other countries, and Khani was assigned to work in its China office, laying out cultural ties with the rising oriental empire.


"In our office and the whole organization, nobody can really speak Chinese," says Khani. He turned to academia looking for inspiration, but just found a vacuum.


"I found all the Persian books about Chinese culture are based on research conducted in languages like English and French, not Chinese," he says.  


Although there are growing political and economic relations between the two nations, Khani finds a contradiction in the pair's cultural relations: He feels partly because both have gone through revolutions, mutual understanding is still at a primitive stage.


"In Iran, people still say China is a communist society, [but] communism is not culture, it's a party," says Khani. He accounts for the slow development of cultural ties as due to the language barrier and a scarcity of talent. "There are Iranian speaking Chinese in political and economic sections, but not cultural sections. In China, [there's a] similar situation."



Learning Chinese


When in 2004, Khani was invited to attend a symposium in Kunming, the visit of which was to have a profound effect on his life. What he saw revolutionized the cultural official's perception of the country.


"Back home, people thought China is a place where Iranians [would] have to struggle to live, but I enjoyed a great time here," he says. "In my home people think Iranians cannot eat Chinese food, not because of the Islamic eating and drinking code though. Iranian cuisine has around 30 dishes, but here I enter any restaurant, and there are always dozens if not hundreds of options. "


Returning to Tehran, Khani told his office that he wanted to study in China, but had to wait three years for a scholarship to sponsor his studies.


"I chose China as there hasn't been any Iranian who studied Chinese people, society and culture at an advanced PhD level," he says. The day Khani left Tehran, his sister and mother cried, fearful of what life would be like for him, despite Khani having described what the country was really like.


Going back to Tehran, Khani is still frequently greeted by surprise that he lives in a "communist society."  


"I say China is a Confucius society, [for] Chinese culture and society are both influenced by Confucianism and Taoism. Communism has been around 100 years or so, but Confucianism has been in existence for more than 2,000 years. This is the big misunderstanding," says Khani.



Persian origins


When he arrived at Peking University in summer 2007, the secretary told him that he was admitted to the English program master's degree course.


"I told them that I had to study in Chinese. If I do my course in English, how can I really learn Chinese culture?" says Khani. "Chinese language is not a normal language. There's no alphabet. Each character shows an element of Chinese culture, and to learn the culture [one] should start from the language."


While he's definitely interested in modern Chinese culture, Khani's particular interest is related to researching minority culture, especially that which is related to historical Persian influences.


It is perhaps only recently that the long history of cultural exchange between Iran and China has been forgotten. The Hui, a Muslim minority widely spread in China numbering almost 10 million, can trace their origins to Persian and Arabic merchants in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Today the Hui still use some Persian when they pray in mosques and recite the Koran.


But the decline in recent years may be accelerating, not improving. On the Chinese side, the scale of Persian language teaching is dropping. The School of Foreign Languages in Peking University has now shrunk to a Persian language program that enrolls 10 students every four years.


In Iran, though, the Chinese population has been increasing, estimated today at around 3,000. The majority are construction workers, engineers and businessmen who neither have desire nor chance to learn about Iranian culture and assimilate into Iranian society. There are roughly 100 Chinese students studying in Iran, and Chinese courses are given in only two Iranian universities. As for Khani, he is the first Iranian student to do a PhD in China in his field.



Cultural scapegoat


Khani's dream is to see increasing personal cultural exchange between Iran and China. Most exchanges are currently between businessmen, engineers and politicians.


Khani feels that people haven't paid enough attention to the importance of cultural connections, and worse, ignorant politicians often use culture as scapegoat.


"People who don't know culture are using the name of culture. They claim this culture is good and that culture is bad. But you cannot say culture is bad, [and] we have to respect any culture. This is the first law of my major. There are bad things in politics, but never in culture," he says. Though the majority of people see political and economic relations as more important, Khani wants to reverse this view.


"We can find in some cases that relationships very easily become bad, because of culture," says Khani. "If you solve your problems in cultural section, you solve all problems. If you use culture power, you can control the whole world without any fighting with anyone."


Khani's belief in the strength of culture found its echo in Confucianism and Chinese government's recent emphasis on exporting Chinese culture. In 2010, six years after the first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul, the first Confucius Institute in Iran opened in Tehran University.


"I hope Iranian teachers will come to Chinese classrooms to teach about Iranian society and culture, and Chinese teachers will come to Iran and teach Iranian students about Chinese culture and society," says Khani. "This is my big responsibility, letting Chinese people go to Iran, see the reality, good and bad, and getting Iranian people to come to China."





Reported by: Liu Xuan 

Edited by: Jacques 

Source: Global Times