Building bridges

August 20, 2023

There is a need to strengthen cultural, educational ties under the CPEC

Building bridges


eremonies to mark 10 years of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor were recently organized in Pakistan. However, the impact of these celebrations was rather limited. The delegates met and celebrated with speeches, congratulated one another and lauded the achievements. However, it all stayed behind closed doors, restricted to the privileged.

This is not to say that the impact of the CPEC has been minimal or that the common man is not affected by it, but that the wholesome impact of the CPEC has not been felt because it does not resonate with the people of the country.

Although education is a major part of the CPEC plan its impact will only be felt fully once its cultural aspects unfold. It has been argued earlier that the perception of the CPEC as only an engineering intervention or at best some industrial initiative will only trickle down to the grassroots level when it is laced with a cultural narrative.

China has been the closest country to Pakistan. The two have stood together through thick and thin but ask any Pakistani and you find out there is very little knowledge about Chinese history and culture. There seems to be a wall higher than built by nature through the Karakorum and Himalaya that separates the two societies. No effort has been made to surmount or scale it.

Many Pakistani students are now enrolled in the Chinese universities and some have already graduated but the sharing of knowledge may be limited to content. The overall impression that percolates down to the people’s perception is missing. So much is known in Pakistan about so many other countries and cultures that happen to be not that close in the sense of friendship. A lot less is known about our closest ally – China.

China has been the closest country to Pakistan. The two have stood together through thick and thin but ask any Pakistani and you find out that there is very little knowledge about Chinese history and culture. A wall higher than the Karakorum and Himalaya seems to separate the two societies.

It is understandable that the cultural links with some other societies have stretched over generations but all of those started somewhere and the openness must have been an important factor. There can be barriers of language and other practices but is it too much to expect the introduction and constant exposure to the forms of Chinese art practices? There is hardly any knowledge in Pakistan about the latest Chinese literature and drama. We know that the Chinese films have evolved and have been having an impact on the international cine world, but in Pakistan there is a deafening silence about it. The various visual arts that the Chinese may be exhibiting and experimenting with are hidden away from the eyes of the Pakistani audience and viewers. Very little is known about Chinese music. The Peking Opera and the Red Lantern is where it all stopped? What about the infusion of the Chinese Opera nurtured in Shanghai under the influence of the 19th Century interaction between the West and China? Has there been a break in the tradition? Not long ago, many writers would visit China from Pakistan on a regular basis and though these visits were controlled and supervised, these yielded some positive results.

The Chinese have built a huge facility in the federal capital that is perhaps sparingly used and even more sparingly for cultural activities. It was hoped when it was inaugurated that it would become the nucleus of a great artistic exchange between the two cultures and generate frequent meetings. However, that promise has yet to be realised. The Centre is perhaps loaned to others as physical space for staging their programmes.

During the 1960s and 1970s, one saw many Chinese magazines at bookstalls in Pakistan. Even though the intention was mainly propaganda, it was a window to the Chinese society and way of political thinking. However, while have grown to cover other areas over the years, the blossoming of cultural exchanges is still awaited.

Calligraphy it is said to have evolved in China as an artistic expression. Miniature too travelled from there to the Central Asian regions to Iran and then the subcontinent. In the past, many countries set up their cultural centres not only in the federal capital but also in the provincial cities, where most exchanges took place. There is a need for a genial understanding and empathy between the two cultures. China’s soft power will have a huge impact on Pakistani society and may make us think of another way to develop than the only always advanced by the West.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Building bridges