China and West confused by cultural complexities

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“Modern” China is still disconnected from the West by confusing and complex cultural exchanges that prevent each from understanding the other, academics will suggest at a Cambridge University conference this week.

In the first event of its kind, scholars from Britain, China and the US will attempt to explain how ideas are transmitted between the two cultures, amid concerns that the very process of translation both shapes and misshapes mutual understanding.

Focussing on ideas about modernism and modernity, experts in Chinese studies, literature and linguistics will argue that despite the perceived westernisation of Chinese culture, western concepts are in fact being reinterpreted and transformed in a uniquely Chinese way.

The result, they will suggest, has been a surge of exciting new ideas and forms in Chinese culture, society and art . Failure to break through that translation barrier and “unthink” our own western cultural systems, however, potentially limits the relationship between countries like Britain and America, and the world’s biggest emerging superpower.

“The rise of China as a major force in the age of globalisation makes it more urgent than ever to ask what processes of transmission mediate cultural exchanges between China and the West,” said Professor Mary Jacobus, from Cambridge University and convener of the conference.

“It’s very easy to assume, in light of events such as the Beijing Olympics or the appearance of branches of McDonald’s in major Chinese cities, that Chinese modernity is interacting with the west in a seamless way, rather than effecting transformations.

“In fact there is still a need to understand its culture more deeply, and in particular to understand how not just words, but ideas and metaphors are crossing the East-West divide and producing new and different concepts of modernity.”

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