I first visited the People’s Republic of China in March 1993. I was the Orchestra Manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was preparing for our upcoming tour to Beijing and Shanghai. The Philadelphians had been the first American orchestra to perform in China in 1973. Veteran orchestra members, who had been regaling me with stories about that first visit, were eager to see how the country had developed since Reform and Opening Up. My own first visit made an indelible impression, and now, just 16 years later, the changes are almost unimaginable.
Back in 1993, it was still necessary for individual foreigners to have official invitations from Chinese entities to visit. During my visit I was escorted constantly by my Chinese host, and even if I had wanted to explore evening activities, there didn’t seem to be much activity after dark. Most Chinese were unfamiliar with Western-style life and business practices, and very few people spoke English. Of course one could feel China’s warmth and hospitality, but it was very difficult to communicate directly with anyone, and it was very difficult to make our touring arrangements. Both Beijing and Shanghai were gray, gray cities, and bicycles were everywhere.
Sixteen years later, in the cultural industry, it is hard to imagine that so much change has been possible. My colleagues and I travel to and from China easily, with visas, yes, but no special invitations necessary. While in China, we conduct our business on our own. China is busy building its own independent cultural industries, with Chinese artists and performers enjoying international superstar status.
It is hard to keep up with the many cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries, and international collaborations producing new work are increasingly common. While tours of foreign performances, including Broadway theater, stream constantly through China’s major cities, and China’s current Five Year Plan puts a priority on developing a more vigorous cultural export sector. New theaters are opening everywhere, and Chinese audiences are growing and enthusiastic.
China’s Ministry of Culture is energetically investing in educating its young and promising leaders in public administration at elite institutions such as Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. More and more professionals and young people speak English, and many young Americans are studying Chinese. Alas, fewer bicycles and more traffic, but color, energy and confidence everywhere.
I will close with a story of an incident that happened to me a few years ago. My daughter and I were visiting Taiyuan, and went for a walk after dinner. A young boy and his parents rushed up to us. The boy asked politely, and in perfect English, whether he could ask me some questions. Surprised and delighted, I assented. After some conversation, I said, “Now it’s my turn to ask you some questions.” I found out he was 9 years old and a student at Taiyuan No. 1 Elementary School. I asked him whether he had any interest in visiting the United States. He said, again in perfect English, “Oh yes, as a matter of fact, I would like to attend university in the United States. And I would like to attend Harvard, since I’ve heard that it is the best school.” You can imagine my amazement that someone so young and in such a small interior city not only spoke such beautiful English but also knew where he wanted to attend college. You can imagine his astonishment when he found out that I was in fact a Harvard College graduate. This conversation could never have happened 16 years ago.
By Cathy Barbash
Editor: Wen Yi