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The cultural CPEC

A performance by visiting Chinese artists called “Spirit of the New Silk Route” revealed the gap between Pakistan and China in terms of cultural understanding

The cultural CPEC

A few days back a Chinese music group performed in Pakistan to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relationship between the two countries, and a few weeks ago a high-level conference on CPEC was held in which a thirty-member Baoji Art Theatre Company staged the “Spirit of the New Silk Route”. It did not focus exclusively on the economic, strategic and political aspects of the project nor was it pointed to any specific end, but was a general display of Chinese culture.

Both seemed steps in the right direction of building a more wholesome relationship between the two countries.

Despite all the noises and intent, Pakistanis and Chinese are totally alien to each other. There is very little that we know of each other and there is much to know and explore. If we look at our past we have always been westward looking. And one is not talking about the European encounter that lasted about two hundred years, and its continuity carried on by the American following the European slippage but before that as well. It was the Central Asians and the Arabs and the Persians that caught our fancy in the many centuries that preceded the European intercession. And one wonders what the East has meant to us – the terror and destruction that the Mongols unleashed on those who were conquered and decimated by them, or at least this has been the narrative of those who lost out to the Golden Hordes.

The performance on the CPEC conference was titled “Reliving the Glory of the Tang Dynasty” and it comprised the Song and Dance of the Tang Dynasty. What was the Tang Dynasty, when did it rule, what was its significance and why is it being celebrated as the golden period of Chinese culture or history is a question we do not know the answer to. We know so little about Chinese history compared to what we know about the Europeans, Persians, Arabs and the Americans.

Peoples Republic of China too like the Soviets was uncomfortable with its history and its cultural achievements because it meant celebrating the Imperial past, the empire, the monarchy and the feudal centuries that were castigated by the revolutionary cadres as reflective of an era that was extortionist, exploitative and oppressive. Its extreme expression was the Cultural Revolution when systematically the entire communist party and the government that it ruled went about dismantling the cultural edifice that was an ugly reminder of that ignominious past. But all that changed with Deng Tao Ping taking over, and the past being packaged as a cumulative consolidated expression of the great Chinese civilization. It seems there is now no stigma attached to referring back to the various Imperial dynasties and the sophistication that these achieved in various forms.

Despite all the noises and intent, Pakistanis and Chinese are totally alien to each other. There is very little that we know of each other and there is much to know and explore.

Even till the recent past on the cultural level the exchange between the two countries has been stunted – with the visits of the various groups and dance troupes being much closer to gymnastics than dance as understood in its more conventional sense, and then there have been visits by the ethnic musicians and acrobats wearing the traditional costumes of the ethnic minorities especially those in western China, even of regions bordering Pakistan. What was very apparent till now is that these visits have been very stage-managed and lifeless encounters that left very little to the imagination and did not arouse much curiosity. It has always left an impression that much more should happen when the artistes of both the countries visit and meet each other. More sparks should fly as a result of some fruitful exchange.

Similarly in the past many visits of writers and poets have taken place and many of our writers and poets have visited China over the decades and have come back with some impressions which have been partial also because of the great language barrier. In the days of the revolutionary fervor, Revolutionary Music and the eight model dramas (6 operas and 2) were promoted while traditional operas were banned. Notable examples were The Legend of the Red Lantern, Red Detachment of Women, and The White Haired Girl. The more widely known political songs were Military Anthem of the Peoples Liberation army, The East is Red and the Internationale.

These days in the world “class’ as understood in Marxism for an analytical framework has been replaced by ethnicity, race, religion and gender with equal ferocity harbouring deeper shades of extremism. Though China is far away from the fervour of the Cultural Revolution and is stridently advancing on its own model of economic development based on freedom to do business in the private sector duly aided by the state apparatus, the level of freedom in the political and cultural sphere is not correspondingly matched. Actually, it may be non-existent which makes it difficult for people to travel freely in China and also to get to be more aware of the well-rounded aspects of life there. Since everything is strictly controlled the opportunity of exploring on one’s own diminishes a great deal.

But in the period when the relationship between the two countries has become cemented since the early nineteen sixties the exchange has largely revolved round strategic interests and then investments, financial and technical interactions in the public sectors of the two countries.

Chinese music that we know so little about is said to be seven thousand years old and its classical tradition sits at its very top. It was a pleasure to be exposed to Wang Yaping playing pipa “a traditional instrument, Dong Baokank playing the guzheng, the Chinese zither, Li Xianoju playing the Chinese flute,  Yuan Shuai singing “the sigh at parting with you”, Chen Yi /Wang Wen “the love of eternity” and a solo number by Hu Ge.  Feather Dress Dance, Meditation and Rhythmic Dancing were also part of the show.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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