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Mark "Dashan" Rowswell is arguably the most famous foreigner in China. He has star status among people and attracts huge crowds where ever he goes. JASON PAYNE / PNG
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February 25, 2017

by Stephen Hume, Vancouver sun

Stephen Hume: Soft power, cultural diplomacy and all that jazz

The cultural relationship between Canada and China predates both countries.

Canada is 150 years old. The People’s Republic of China, in its modern manifestation, barely 67. But known cultural connections between the two societies begin 158 years ago for British Columbia, when many emigrated from China, first to the Fraser River gold rush and then to build railways, work in the coal mines and build merchant empires.

Cumberland on Vancouver Island once supported both a large Chinese theatre and an impressive opera house. The latter imported shows from China and maintained a repertory troupe that also performed in Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo. 

So, when Simon Fraser University’s Community Summit — which begins Monday, Feb. 27, and continues to March 8 — features a panel of performers to celebrate and discuss how artists shape Canada’s relationship with China and what role culture plays in building better understanding, it will be a case of old is new and new is old.

Other historic connections date from 1788 when Capt. John Meares brought Chinese craftsmen to Nootka Sound — then abandoned them. And before that from 1778, when Capt. James Cook’s crew traded 300 sea otter pelts to Chinese magnates for what were then astronomical sums, triggering a fur rush to the Northwest Coast.

The sea otter trade linked Asia, North America and Europe in global commerce. Metal tools, weapons and cloth from Europe were traded to First Nations for sea otter pelts which were traded to China for tea, silks, porcelain and other exotic goods which were then backhauled for sale in Europe and the United States.

Later, clippers like Victoria’s Thermopylae — so fast it could outrun a steamship — raced tea and oranges across the Pacific. The Silk Train, a special Canadian Pacific Railway express, would speed high-value cargoes of raw silk from Vancouver to merchants in Montreal and New York. Cars were airtight. Armed guards were the only passengers. Silk Trains took priority over all other rail traffic. Even royalty was shunted onto sidings when the Silk Train went through.

Not all connections were benign. Going the other way was opium manufactured in factories on Victoria’s waterfront, a cruel mirror image of today’s fentanyl traffic inbound from China.

Then there’s the unknown. The very first cultural connections between what’s now B.C. and China extend back, as they say, to time immemorial. They are the irrefutable — if confounding — genetic footprints whose trail leads from First Nations here back into Asia. Sort of.

Different analyses lead to contradictory conclusions. Some studies point to First Nations origins in East Asia, others in Western Eurasia, yet others in both. Some point to a single migratory wave no earlier than 23,000 years ago, others to sequential migrations. In any event, the very first connections between what’s now British Columbia and China remain convincing if still unclear.

But after that, it’s down to tantalizing entries in subsequently transcribed records which enthusiasts inflate into evidence of a Chinese expedition in 499 A.D., a notion still popular although it had been debunked pretty thoroughly by historians by 1914. And, more recently, best-selling assertions that North America was mapped by Chinese admiral Zheng He, a theory that’s also been widely refuted by scholars in China, Europe and North America yet simmers on in the popular imagination. Legends of lost shipwrecks, mysterious coin hoards, buried stone images and “obvious” Chinese characters carved into California rock faces all abound as “proofs” of China’s presence.  

These durable mythologies are proof all right, but of something else entirely. They remind us that states may come and go, empires rise and fall, trade may wax and wane along with cultural stereotypes — the term “Chinaman,” now offensive, began as praise for a European who traded with far off Cathay — but the actual connections between peoples are flexible, durable, and desired more often than not. Commonality, not difference, rules over the long term.

The unloading of silk boat in Vancouver Harbour in the 1920s. VANCOUVER PUBLIC LIBRARY / PNG

Headlining SFU’s evening event on March 1 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is Mark Rowswell, perhaps the most famous Canadian artist who’s least famous here. He’s also billed as “the most famous foreigner in China,” where he’s known as Dashan and has a show that’s a household word across a TV audience that peaked in the hundreds of millions.

Here, he’ll do a show in Mandarin for students only. Then he appears on a public panel with Chan Hon Goh, a prima ballerina with the National Ballet of Canada; another dancer, Wen Wei Wang; Hank Bull, whose work with contemporary Asian art includes visual and media arts, telecommunications and collaborative social projects; visual artist, critic and Asian art curator Zheng Shentian and moderator Jan Walls, a literary translator and Asian studies professor at SFU. Other sessions will feature pollster Nick Nanos on the rise of populism and the politics of anger; British journalist Robert Fisk on decoding the Middle East; a panel discussing Canada’s role in the world; and a session on the role of Metro Vancouver as cities become transnational players in global geopolitical economics.

But given China’s growing exertion of economic strength in Canada from Alberta’s oil reserves to Metro’s real estate markets, the lure of its own vast markets, and accompanying tensions with neighbours and trading partners, the Summit highlight promises to be Rowswell and the panel’s discussion of the nature, role and definition of cultural diplomacy and how it can affect international relations and government policy, particularly with China.

Once again, it seems a case of old is new. 

In 1955, in the chilliest depths of the Cold War — U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower had just confirmed that the use of nuclear weapons was part of American war-fighting strategy and Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev had just inked the Warsaw Pact, a counter-threat to NATO — writer Truman Capote published in The New Yorker Magazine an ironic, amusing and mischievous account of a tour of the Soviet Union by a musical theatre troupe.

A total of 94 performers, stage hands, fixers and promoters had been assembled for a briefing by U.S. State Department bureaucrats, then dispatched to the Soviet Union to perform the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, about the harsh life of poor blacks in a Charleston, South Carolina, ghetto in 1912.

It was the first American theatre group to perform in Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the czar in 1917. The cast was all black. And it was to stage shows behind the Iron Curtain, a subtle demonstration that America’s strength was its ability to acknowledge its failings. An even more subtle exercise in soft power aimed to introduce to the disciples of centralized state where art required official approval, a musical form based on freedom to innovate and break rules — jazz.

Astonished analysts later advanced the idea that jazz, then broadcast into the Eastern Bloc without tedious accompanying propaganda, was among America’s most effective tools in the undermining the authority of communism.

Both Soviet and American governments had also quietly realized that cultural diplomacy offered a convenient back door for easing tensions between the two nuclear powers without either losing face. Indeed, Robert Breen, director of the American National Theater and Academy, had quietly bypassed the cumbersome government bureaucracies to negotiate the tour.

So, not only was there an official backchannel cultural diplomacy, there was unofficial back-of-the-backchannel diplomacy, too.

This kind of unendorsed cultural initiative goes on today as artists quietly try to speak to the common humanity of peoples, Rowswell says.

Jazz great Dizzy Gillespie during an unknown appearance in Vancouver. RALPH BOWER / VANCOUVER SUN

“We’re not doing it on behalf of governments,” he said in a telephone interview, “although politicians will try to use it for their own national and political purposes.”

“National pride is a healthy thing,” he said. “It’s healthy for the Chinese, for example, to take pride in their strengths and accomplishments. But states everywhere are relying more on their national identities and those identities are invented — they are invented identities based in nation-building myths.”

For him, the rise of nationalist identity politics exemplified by populist politicians like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom and even Kellie Leitch in Canada, is troubling.

He’s often asked, he said, if appearing on state media in China doesn’t legitimize the Communist Party. But he counters that all media in China is state media. Doing a show based on classical Chinese stand-up comedy routines that involve tongue-twisters — how does that legitimize what’s already one of the most power political institutions on the planet, a political party with 80 million members?

It’s a fair point. Does a Chinese juggler appearing on the BBC legitimize the monarchy?

“Our (Canadians’) perspective of China tends to be highly politicized because we hear it almost entirely through the media,” Rowswell said. And the media, of course, tends to focus on highly politicized events and issues from official corruption to authoritarian repression.

But there’s this whole other China, just as there is this whole other Russia, United States, United Kingdom, Syria, or Canada — a reality of people as individuals, in families, in communities, at work and at play, a whole series of layers of identity that lie beneath the institutional myths of national, racial, social or religious identities and stereotypes created and deployed by the state.

Rowswell points that he’s male but his maleness doesn’t define or determine every point of view that he expresses. Sometimes it does because it’s important; most of the time it doesn’t. Being white, being male, being a “foreigner” in China — these are all just layers upon the core identity of simply being human, the condition we all share.

“I don’t do what I do because I’m a foreigner (in China),” he said. “It’s much more about finding commonality.”

Rowswell has had plenty of opportunity to achieve his insights. He began studying Chinese at the University of Toronto more than 30 years ago, continued his studies in Beijing and became fascinated by a form of traditional comedic dialogue in China called xiangsheng.

He started performing it, was soon appearing on national television under the name Dashan and then grew an audience in the hundreds of millions. Now he’s a star in comedy, dramatic acting and as a host of cultural, diplomatic and commercial programs and live events.

He’s acted as an all-round cultural ambassador between China and the West, has even been named such by both Conservative and Liberal governments. Yet perhaps ambassador is the wrong term, although one can see why governments prefer it. He’s more portal than emissary.

Capote, who was bemused by the whole process of taking Porgy and Bess to the Politburo, wrote a lengthy essay which he entitled The Muses are Heard.

He wrote about people not policy; about attempted liaisons; about jazz musicians taking over a dreary Russian bar and bringing it to toe-tapping life; about black singers displacing the dour Sunday service of the Baptist Evangelical Church in Leningrad with gospel music; of awestruck newly-cropped country-boy soldiers and equally awestruck American musicians crowding together to see a peacock display and hear a rooster crow in the Winter Palace: “Man and art, for a moment alive together, immune to old mortality.”

 Mark Slonim, a writer about Russian literature, observed in a New York Times piece in 1958 that a Soviet interpreter from the Ministry of Culture expanded on Capote’s title phrase The Muses are Heard: “When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent; when the cannons are silent, the muses are heard,” the apparatchik kept repeating.

“Apparently, the arrival of ‘Porgy and Bess’ was interpreted by the Russians as the end of the Cold War and of the cannon era,” Slonim noted wryly. A few black singers with a gripping tale of human passions had more effective traction than threats and bomber squadrons. Soft power on public display.

 A year later, the U.S. State department sent black jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie on a world tour, a deployment observed by history scholar Pierangelo Castagneto, that marked “a critical episode in U.S. public diplomacy history … in order to culturally contain communism, the Eisenhower administration turned to an unconventional weapon: jazz music.”

Soft power. Cultural diplomacy. Jazz. It was, one music critic later remarked, “America’s secret weapon No. 1.”

This article was published originally on Vancouver Sun on February 25, 2017.

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