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Effective communication key to mutual understanding

2006-09-03

Each Chinese character carries one or more meanings.For instance, means peace and harmony.
How to achieve peace and harmony? The pictograph itself offers a way. As Cai Wu, minister of the State Council Information Office elaborated on Thursday, it comes about when there is enough food (, denoting grain) to eat (, meaning mouth). Harmony is a salient value in Chinese culture and tradition, and that is why China advocates building a harmonious world while emphasizing peaceful development and trying to make a harmonious society for its own people. But China has to get its ideas and aspirations across to the people in other countries. And that needs talk and communication (again ), Cai said. He spoke at the opening of the 2006 Cross-Culture Communication Forum, which drew several keynote speakers, who have accumulated rich experiences in bilateral or multi-lateral political, business and cultural exchanges as diplomats, business representatives, university professors, journalists, and government officials. They all expressed their sense of urgency for expanding communications and understanding between the Chinese and people of the rest of the world. That sense is shared by people from other countries. Shirley Young, a former vice-president of US-based General Motors Corporation who is now governor of the Committee of 100, said her organization conducted a survey to learn about American attitudes toward China. The survey shows that many Americans want to learn about China's culture, history, its people, landscape, tradition, and arts as well as business opportunities, economic development and growth potential. In general, American public's attitudes towards China were fairly positive at 59 per cent some 10 points higher than in 1994 when a similar study was conducted, Young said. "The Chinese are well recognized and admired for cultural characteristics such as their work ethic and discipline, commitment to education and their history, arts and food," she said. Obstacles in communication However, misconceptions and misunderstandings about China and the Chinese people still abound. Some people talk about China's rapid economic development as "the China threat" to the rest of the world. In the survey of American attitudes towards China, Young and her team discovered that only 19 per cent of congressional staffers, a good surrogate for Congress's views, were favourable towards China, with 79 per cent unfavourable, despite the fact that 40 per cent of them had visited China. There are obviously barriers that prevent the Chinese and their overseas peers from getting to know each other, the speakers pointed out. There is the time element, as extensive cross-cultural communication between China and the rest of the world started only in the late 1970s. "Strangers cannot become friends over night," said Zhao Qizheng, known for years as the top public relations representative of the People's Republic of China and currently dean of the School of Communication of Renmin University. Language, on which culture and thoughts are based, is an important medium of communication. However, the Chinese language, both written and spoken, has evolved over 3,000 years into a unique one that it is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world, Zhao said. Over centuries, Chinese have also nurtured their own philosophy, tradition, customs, beliefs, and so on, which are all very different from those of Western countries. When we exchange gifts, it is customary for the Chinese to decline with a polite "don't," while their international guests may immediately open up the package with warm thanks to show their appreciation. Ye Xiaowen, director-general of State Administration of Religious Affairs, said that many Westerners, especially Americans, could not understand why most Chinese do not believe in God. There is no lack of eagerness among the Chinese to correct the misconceptions that result from these differences, but the speakers believe Chinese have yet to find good ways to get their ideas across. "We Chinese often think and talk in principle and abstract terms," Zhao said, adding that some Chinese were too indulgent in professional or political jargon with little concrete meaning to get their ideas across even to the common Chinese, let alone their overseas guests or partners. Yu Qiuyu, a scholar well-known for his cultural exploration linking China with the rest of the world, echoed Zhao's remarks and said he discovered that a lot of Chinese on their official missions overseas tended to use some ancient expressions that showed the grandeur of their locale. "Their words were so ostentatious that they could only baffle their audiences," Yu said. Yu said that he went to two international expos, held in Hanover, Germany, and Aichi, Japan. He said he was disappointed with the China Hall. "The Great Wall, the Peking Opera facial masks or ancient relief sculptures were too common but static symbols of China that failed to pull the heart-strings of the visitors," he said. Yang Lan, a renowned television programme host and chairperson of the board of Sun TV, said a lot of leading film directors followed in the steps of Ang Lee and turned to kung fu films after "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film. "These directors were wrong in believing that it was the beautiful kung fu that won the film acclaim," said Yang Lan, "They didn't realize the film actually told of the universally shared human emotion, value for chivalry and women's obsession with their men, from the stories of common Chinese men and women," Yang said. "That is why some of the later films cannot sell." Ways to better understanding The scholars and experts also suggested ways to lower or even remove the barriers. These ranged from learning to use the same language and forms of expression as other peoples to establishing partnerships overseas. Shirley Young cited the successful Festival of China, which went on for a month in Washington DC last year, as an example of good partnerships between the Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts and its Chinese counterparts. Ye Xiaowen, the religious affairs chief, also believes that China should try to tell a full story of its history and tradition. For instance, over the past 20-some years, the most printed book in China is the Bible, with 40 million copies. A recent Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church of China in the United States is one good example and helped a lot of Americans understand another aspect of Chinese life. Zhao Qiguang, professor of the Chinese Department of Asian Languages and Literature at Carleton College in Minnesota, the United States, opened the first Chinese language course at Carleton more than 20 years ago. "Many people doubted if there were interested students," he recalled. But "words are better than swords" and today, more and more Americans want to learn the Chinese language, he said, adding that he believed the Confucius Institute abroad would serve as a good bridge for communication. Yang Lan, who served as the image ambassador in 2001 for China's 2008 Olympic bid, said the 2008 Olympic Games will provide a good opportunity for the Chinese to help the world understand them better. Most speakers also noted that the Chinese should start to review and re-examine Chinese history, philosophy, tradition, customs, arts and literature so as to be able to explain what Chinese culture is. Meanwhile, Chinese must also work harder to learn about the rest of the world. How to view the cultural differences between China and the rest of the world, especially those Western countries? Yu Qiuyu believes that it is the differences that have made the world wonderful. However, Cai Wu said, while recognizing the differences, the Chinese and people of the rest of the world should also try and seek what they share in common. "Science, democracy and human rights are universal values that people of the world now pursue," he said. "Although the ways to realize those values vary from country to country, people of different countries should be able to respect each other and learn from each other." And that, too, requires cross-cultural communication.

(Source:China Daily , 2006-09-03)