In 1793 the British sent their first trade delegation to Imperial China. They were 700 strong but only one of them, Thomas, the 12 year old son of Sir George Staunton, could speak Chinese: he had taken the trouble to learn it during the outward voyage.
Two hundred years on, the Chinese have the upper hand commercially and the tables are turned. They have established centres within our universities in order to promote their language and culture under the auspices of The Confucius Institute. Some regard this as the exercise of “soft power” - and the same has been said of the British Council: in any case, it is better to be engaged with the competition than to ignore it.
And so I accepted an invitation to attend a gala performance, staged by The Confucius Institute, to celebrate the advent of the Year of the Dragon - the year of good luck. Red (also for good luck) was the colour used to decorate the theatre with bunting and lanterns. I can’t imagine how everyone in the world will have good luck this year but I didn’t challenge my hosts on the subject. Instead I studied the programme, a visually clumsy mix of elegant Chinese characters and ill-matched English typefaces - an indication of what was follow. The acts were to include a traditional dance routine; demonstrations of Kung Fu, Tai Chi and calligraphy; the singing of folk songs and the performance of National Minority dances which “reflect the happy lives of people in different ethnic minorities”.
The spectacle of foreign culture can be at once dazzling and perplexing. I was enthralled by the way the girl dancers conjured sensuality out of modesty with their flowing silk costumes and graceful movements; yet I was disconcerted by their rigidly fixed smiles. During the martial arts demonstrations I admired the elegant outfits and fluid physicality but was disturbed by the fierce facial expressions and the aggressive posturing – as terrifying as a Maori Haka executed by an All-Blacks’ first fifteen. A ‘folk song’, powerfully delivered by a tiny young woman, surprised me with its complex, soaring melody and its similarity to the operatic arias of Verdi.
Cultural style-clashes, as prefigured by the typeface crisis, were inevitable: the show was compered by a bright young double act – he in a shiny stage suit and bow tie, she in a flared red dress and gold high-heels – like clichéd hosts from a European TV talent show; and they were especially pleased to introduce the penultimate act, a rendition of ‘Greensleeves’, sung as a duet. It was a polished performance and the hands-across-the-sea gesture was much appreciated but the modern singing style and schmaltzy, mock-orchestral backing highlighted a superficial knowledge of this ‘folk song’s’ significance within our history.
Later in the week, taking advantage of the clear but cold, blue skies over Cumbria, I took a solo hike on the fells above Eskdale where, in five hours of walking, I saw no other person. I had gone there to see the ancient stone circles that were built about 5,000 years ago. They are not on the same scale as Stonehenge, or even Castlerigg, but they possess the same kind of power to invoke a feeling for the pre-history of the place. On such a clear day, in such a desolate location, gazing at the diminished but still impressive remains of an ancient culture, it was easy to connect with the past by imagining; and it was easy to see how its mystery could induce feelings of spirituality.
There may be a limit to what we will ever know for certain about our ancestors but the deep roots of their history, real or imagined, surely nurture our generations and imbue them with a sense of time and place which cultural exchanges will never be able to convey.