East, West, and How to Meet
Peking University, Oct. 31, 2010: It is no longer a time when “the twain” shall never meet, but still, East is not West, and vice versa, at least for Rudyard Kipling.
And as well in the eyes of Raymond Zhou. On Oct. 29, the eminent columnist, cultural critic, and executive editor-in-chief of Chinadaily.com.cn visited Peking University with a lecture on “bump between Chinese and Western cultures.”
It was also the inaugural speech of the “Lecture Series of Peking University News,” which aims at in-depth dialogue between college students and people from mediasphere.
“Braving the cultural differences, China should get the Chinese message out,” said Zhou, a seasoned go-between of the two cultures. “But the key, however, is to make it appeal to overseas audience.”
Lost, and regained, in translation?
People have been accustomed to differences between cultures, like the cliché of “chopsticks v. knives and forks,” and the placing of postal address on an envelope. “They are superficial as all these practices could be learned and known to each other. What are more important – and more difficult to handle – are the deep differences, including cultural phenomena that do not have any equivalent in the others.”
It is hard to imagine “Milan Kundela” (Milan Kundera) would be translated into “Fyodor Dostoyevsky” – hardly would any dictionary or thesaurus in the world in any case, literally or figuratively. However, one “reference book” named “culture” has thus carried it out.
“Director Ang Lee recalled in his autobiography that once a figure in one of his movies aiming at the Chinese market mentioned a book by Kundera, in order to present the ‘bourgeois lifestyle‘ of that figure. When adapting it for the American audience, its playwright changed the scene with a book of Dostoyevsky’s – because in the US, that sort of lifestyle belongs to Fyodor’s fans,” Zhou took an example.
“Only through grasping both the traditional Chinese culture and modern American culture could one, like Chinese bilingual writer Lin Yutang, manage to find out the link and linkage between them, rather than word-to-word translation.”
Cultural integration, cultural background, and mindset
To show how to deal with existing differences, Raymond Zhou firstly came up with his model for one culture to absorb its relatively advanced counterparts. The three stages are: first, the foreign cultures would be promoted in a high-profile manner for the people at home; second, the introduced elements would be incorporated into the original mainstreams, sometimes with an exaggeration in order for publicity; third, the marked “foreignness” would gradually fade away to a degree that people couldn’t tell that it originated from abroad.
One example is the potential influence of the American movie Titanic. When the ship was about to sink, all those aboard stuck to the principle that women and children should get on the lifeboats first, which was played up by the 1997 blockbuster.
Two years later, a similar disaster struck the Chinese. During the Dashun shipwreck, one called for “women and children first” – and all men followed it.
That is largely attributed to the publicity of the Hollywood movie – and its cultural significance – in China, according to Zhou, whereas the traditional Chinese hierarchy favors just the opposite.
When a big fire broke out in an auditorium in Karamay, Xinjiang in 1994, the young students present were ordered “let leaders go” – causing shocking casualties, most of who were little children. In fact, despite hierarchical politics, the word “leader” here is changeable with “senior citizens” or “old men,” revealing an emphasis on the seniority, and order of generation (beifen).
The “generation gap” of social hierarchy is one glimpse at the panorama of cross-cultural “bump.” The two attitudes have nothing to do with the judgment of right and wrong. “In fact, it is not a bad thing, for sometimes it is the difference that gives rise to the reflection of one’s own culture.”
Zhou explained in a story of his trip to the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park (then named “Racist Park”) with an American culture specialist. “When the guest saw the park, he told me that it was impossible for such a park to appear in the US, for it would be regarded as a symbol of racial discrimination. Surprise took me at that moment.”
But soon, Zhou came to himself. “I realized that there was something inappropriate in the publicity of works on ethnic minorities. The authorities have tried to emphasize their important status to show the equality and harmony between China’s 56 ethnic groups. However, this overstress, on the contrary, reflects de facto inequalities, or at least a lack of confidence of their status quo.”
Imitating Zhou’s model for cultural absorption, the less emphasis, the better the integration, and the more effective the international image-building. “If it wasn’t for that specialist, I would never realize this problem. The differences between diverse cultures help us in turn to observe our own from another perspective, which gives us opportunity to make improvements.”
How to better “meet”
As one of the media industry, Raymond Zhou’s duty is to “introduce China to the world in English.” He shared his experience with the audience of how to present China at the global stage properly and effectively.
“The most important principle is to stay objective,” he said. “Overstatement is the often-made mistake, showing a kind of anxiety longing for a good impression on others.” But usually, it will bring about the opposite effect. “For China, its work is actually going on a step-by-step advancement.”
The second principle is to be comprehensive in international communications. “If we kept telling others that all the Chinese were 100% good and there are no criminals in China, no one that is reasonably educated would believe it; and once they find out something sort of ‘ugly,’ which is inevitable, they would question the credibility of the media and even lose trust of the country.”
Zhao Qizheng, former head of China’s State Council Information Office, once recognized that China is “70% fresh flowers, and 30% cattle dung.” “Merely focusing on either part is inappropriate,” said Zhou. It is not possible for all overseas audience to wear “colored glasses” towards one country; rather, more are quite objective even towards the dungy part. What China needs to uncover – and also what readers both at home and abroad are interested in – should be “what the people concerned are doing towards the dung,” “whether the dungs are being cleaned,” “if not, why,” “how long will it take to complete the mission,” etc.
“That is the ideal method how our audience see our problems – and progress,” said Zhou.
The last principle is that the media should use the language that could be understood by foreigners, not only including words, but also the logic, technique, and method of writing and speaking.
In illustrating the importance of mots justes and their arrangement when promoting the Chinese culture, Raymond Zhou gave the example of a confusing introduction to Confucius, an official translated version in English. Although there were no grammatical errors, the article was nothing reader-friendly: the first paragraph of the introduction was full of ancient names of Chinese people and places such as “Lu” (the state Confucius came from) and “Kong He” (his father), which were translated totally word-by-word. Such obscure and intense introduction would definitely arouse the “respect” of foreigners towards the sophisticated Chinese culture, but at the same time, derive them of their interest and self-confidence to further explore Chinese culture, and it would finally scare them away.
Therefore, a writer – more than a translator – should keep considering the audience and making appropriate modifications in cross-cultural exchange, e.g. intersperse the intense information into several paragraphs, and delete the “over-characterized” pieces in the Chinese text.
Zhou also exemplified the flexibility in practical news writing that aims at English-language audience. “If there is certain boring information that is to be included, I will cope with it like this: put those pieces of information at the middle part towards the end, and then concluding the article with a ‘good’ winding-up material – both attractive to readers, and correlated with the beginning.”
“Rains of spring moisten the world softly, without sound”
After the speech, Zhou had a dialogue with the audience, answering questions ranging from cult movie to China’s “national image film,” from the opera today to the jingju and Noh drama of the future, from “fictional” script to non-fiction writing, and from comparative education to universal value of journalism.
Rachel Chan, a student from Peking University, echoed with Zhou on the mission to “change and influence unobtrusively and imperceptibly” for the targeted audience. “I will study more about the styles that are different from our own, especially when communicating with non-Chinese friends,” Chan told PKU News reporters after the lecture.
However, Chan expressed her doubt on the criteria of “flower” and “dung” – in terms of culture and tradition – in international communications. “Some flowers in one culture turn out to be ‘dungs’ in another, and vice versa, according to Raymond’s interpretation of varied differences between the East and West.”
“We must be aware of the behavior in which anything that is not wanted would be tagged the ‘30% of foreign dung,’ which is deliberately used as an excuse to hold back cross-cultural exchange. Above all, both the East and the West should communicate, and communicate effectively, and we promote ourselves scientifically,” said Chan.
“As a Chinese saying goes, ‘rains of spring moisten the world softly, without sound.’”
Extended Reading: Raymond Zhou to Inaugurate Lecture Series of Peking University News
Reported by: Cao Yixing
Edited by: Jacques