Sunday, November 30, 2008

Belgian Cultural Festival in China

Almost a month ago now I was in China, to lecture at an event that was billed as the “First Belgian Cultural Festival in China”. Apparently this puts me among the “most renowned and diverse art forms, artists and academics” that Belgium has to offer. I’m pretty sure I’m not renowned, nor an art form, nor an artist, so I must be a diverse academic. There were perhaps a dozen of us: three academics, a comic book artist, a film-maker, two trios of musicians.

It was quite an intense few days, with as undoubted high-point one of the trios performing 18th-century music in Beijing North Cathedral, followed by the Cathedral Choir giving a rendition of two 17th-century sacred songs: Italian polyphonic chant with Chinese words, as sung by Chinese converts almost 400 years ago. Eerily beautiful music, beautifully performed, and with the added touch that it was in the the ideal setting: the oldest church in Beijing. It quite brought tears to my eyes. Afterwards, we were taken to a hot pot restaurant by a former student who now edits the lifestyle section of a business magazine (she’s also a former teacher, having done some Chinese tutoring after graduation: I’m not sure what that does to our relationship in Confucian terms, but I’m older so perhaps that settles things).

Chatting to a journalist after one of the lectures, I was asked what my “most profound impression of Beijing food” might be. My answer (“I really like the dumplings”) was plainly not profound enough for my interlocutor, whose smile took on a frozen look. What was I supposed to say?

Most of the event was hosted at Peking University, which (I discovered on our final day there) must be a front-runner for the title of most beautiful campus in the world.

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