Mohsen Fargani, has notched an award of distinction set up by the Chinese cultural authorities for foreigners who promote Chinese culture abroad. It is a distinction that’s bound to consolidate the dialogue between Arab and Chinese civilizations and familiarize the Arab world with Chinese culture.

by Ahmed Kafafi

Of all countries, China has become known worldwide as an economic tycoon that is flooding the world with productions that range from the Ramadan lantern to heavy vehicles and huge construction facilities. Deeply rooted in history, China is also a big country that’s sweeping away other developed nations with stamina for work and a high production rate rarely to be rivaled by any other industrial entity. 

This is the face of China in modern times, a country with a population of 1.3 billion that accounts for 20% of world population. Those bright economic and developmental aspects of China might have overshadowed its cultural character so much that, many of us would know little about Chinese cinema, literature or art. This information dearth could perhaps be attributed to the desire of the Chinese governments over decades of communist rule to remain protected against liberal values. 

But that has changed a great deal as the Chinese nation started to acquire a reputation worldwide as an industrial heavyweight that’s fast invading Western markets. China is now keener than ever before to spotlight and spread its traditions and modern cultural trends to break its isolation and integrate into a global world. For that purpose the Chinese cultural authorities have created an award of distinction to be offered to every non-Chinese who would promote its culture overseas.

Egyptian Dr Mohsen Fargani, lecturer at Ain Shams University’s El Alsun College, has carried off last August this award for his contributions in promoting Chinese literature through translation. He has translated a number of Chinese classics as well as (The Bull) and (The Dream and Vagabonds), two significant novels by Chinese Nobel-laureate Mo Yan. The Egyptian scholar has also represented Egypt in several scientific conferences and literary seminars in China, two of which were devoted to the cultural dialogue between the Arab and Chinese civilizations. He is the first Arab national to win this award that was set up in 2005 for publishers, writers and translators who would disseminate Chinese culture outside China.

Taking pride in receiving the award at the (Great Hall of the People) in Peking, an honor that even every Chinese would aspire to, Fargani considers that the distinction is one of the biggest consolidations for the Arab-Chinese relations that go back to time immemorial. Learning a language as different in nature from oriental and western languages is in itself an effort that not so many are capable of. “But this is beside the point,” Fargani tells Community Times. “Even after you master the language and delve deep into the traditions, one remains ignorant of so many things about the diverse and extensive aspects of Chinese culture,” he remarks.  “I have to say that, immersed in the Confucian tradition of ancient China, the classics are written in a language that the modern Chinese don’t understand. Only specialists are capable of unraveling its mysteries. I am a translator more than a specialist. I rendered the classics into Arabic from their modern versions which appear in today’s Chinese, but to specialize in the ancient language and heritage requires several years of devoted study,” explains Fargani.

He adds: “How can anyone exhaust a heritage with such rich cultural dimensions! China isn’t a country as much as it is a world by itself, where different cultures thrive and intertwine. While there is so much affinity with Japanese culture in the east, the west, home to the Tibet, is a meeting point with Indian civilization. In the north there is a considerable identification with Mongolian heritage and lifestyle. In the south which is located on the sea there is a diversity acquired as a result of mixing with other people who arrive in the country.” Continues Fargani, “There are some 56 cultures that range from Korean to Islamic, which all revolve around the Han, China’s original culture. As a melting-pot China began to interest the intellectual groups only 120 years ago, a time when the local cultural heritage began to be translated into modern Chinese.”

In that reality, Fargani spots a fusion of genuine traditions and the magical realism of Latin American writers like Marqiz. That kind of realism is what has made the bulk of Latin American fiction appeal to the Arab readership. He thought Mo Yan wouldn’t be different, for he also mixed that kind of nostalgia found in Chinese heritage that resembles our (One Thousand and One Night) with magical realism. This is a trend in modern Chinese literature started by many before Mo Yan like Sola, Honven, Shein and others who consecrated their writings to the (search for roots) principle. They have all crusaded for the primitive power in man, exposing the fraud that permeates modern culture. Says Fargani, “Chinese fiction wouldn’t have assumed that distinction had it not cited ancient myths, a task that has been undertaken by the 1980s generation of writers. It was a time when the cultural scene got entangled in a search for a kind of certainty that was lost as a result of the Cultural Revolution.”

Mo Yan started writing in 1985 after the Chinese culture set itself free from the monopoly of the political machinery. His was a generation that sought freedom of expression and integration into the modern world. “But this doesn’t mean that China highlighted an impoverished cultural scene during the communist rule,” remarks Fargani. “Many members of the communist rule were poets and men of letters, but they were all staunch to Chinese nationalism and the party that ruled the country.”

But do Egyptian and Chinese fiction have any common features? “They revolve around a similar essence,” answers Fargani. He goes on to explain, “The nature of society is different including the size of population, the geographical features and values. However, there is a human element that unites both cultures. Mo Yan’s works relate to the simple man who hails from the countryside at the time of the Cultural Revolution to confront the social, economic and political upheavals. Those posed as challenges that pushed the simple villagers to go in search of fresh channels of expression.” He also wrote about the city, where he portrayed a conflict which focused on the dilemma of having to choose between belonging to one’s home town in rural areas or the city with its different values.”

Since there is much affinity between Egypt and China, what’s the Chinese stand with regard to the Arab Spring? “There is the impression that China is always wary of images of revolution due to the fact that it is a communist society that remains in need of liberal vallues,” says Fargani. “But this is controversial, because a country with a population like China has always been impervious to fast and sudden changes that transpired in neighboring countries. Since imperial and communist rules, there has always been the feeling that the rulers are the mother that bring all Chinese people under one umbrella. The ordinary citizen is not interested in a liberal society as much as he is keen to open up to the world. China has experienced liberal rule in the beginning of the 20th century, but this tore the country apart and resulted in handing power in to communists.”

China was also swept away by the Cultural Revolution, which unfolded between 1966-76. This was a turning point in its modern history, for this was a socio-political movement led by Moa Zedong, the Chinese communist leader. Its stated goal was to enforce communism in the country by removing capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society and to impose Maoist orthodoxy within the Party. The revolution marked the return of Mao Zedong to a position of power after the failed Great Leap Forward. The movement paralyzed China politically and significantly affected the country economically and socially. “China is still the tycoon that developed in spite of all difficulties, and it is difficult to predict its future,” says Fargani. “However, I think if there is any change, this is bound to happen slowly and culture as well as cultural interaction will certainly play a part in it. We live in a global world and we can’t rule out the influence of culture anywhere.”