Long march ahead

by Terence MacNamee

In a recent article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Swiss-based Chinese journalist Wei Zhang discusses what she calls “the long march westwards”, meaning the recent Chinese discovery of Europe. To be sure, we are getting used to seeing more and more Chinese tourists in Switzerland.

Wei Zhang relates that, decades ago, young Chinese students were very interested in Europe, but they had no chance to go there, and so found it hard to situate what they read about the history of European art or European literatures in a real geographical and historical context. The Cultural Revolution made things even more difficult.

“That is now history”, she says, “for Europe, which the Chinese knew for so long only from reading, is today their major travel destination. From the Eiffel Tower through the Alps and on to Venice, they experience in two weeks what the older generation took years to learn out of books. Of course a question still arises: whether that is the real Europe.”

It is a valid question. Europe is so open to tourism that it gives an uneasy feeling even to me as a European when I travel around other European countries: have these beautiful sites and places anything to do with the lives of the people who live there, or is Europe on its way to becoming a giant theme park or Disneyland? Indeed, American tourists seem to regard it as such; so why not the Chinese? Americans come to Europe to find what they are missing at home: history. The Chinese come to Europe, not because they are missing history – they have plenty of it themselves – but just like Americans, they must find it hard to get a real sense of Europe as a place where large numbers of people actually live and work.

I don’t know how the Chinese feel if they go to North America (many of them do), but they must notice that Europe is more like China. It has been long inhabited, and densely, too. The history of Europe is China without the Emperor: a collection of “warring states” that somehow managed to have cultural exchanges too over the centuries – literature, art, philosophy, science, and so on.

When the Chinese come to Europe, they can know little about it except what is in the guide-book. But Europeans going to China – as they have started to do in recent years – know no more than that either. It’s hard to sort out all those dynasties; and what’s the use of knowing the names of authors and artists, when you can’t remember how to pronounce their names (in Pinyin), let alone when they lived? And what does that have to do with the lives of the Chinese passing by in the street?

How both sides must long for someone with great patience to take them by the hand and explain everything to them in a way that they can understand, and at an educated level. Europeans who speak Chinese (at least Mandarin) and know China, and can explain Europe to the Chinese? Chinese who have been to Europe and know a European language (at least English), and can explain China to Europeans? What a gap to fill! But so needed!