Why don’t We learn about Chinese Art in European Schools?

Can Chinese calligraphy be a way of finding inner peace and balance?

March 05th, 2020
Sara Michael, News from Berlin
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Calligraphy Exhibition

The non-profit organization Yishuge promotes exchange between different cultures throughout their teaching programs, international exchange, and cultural activities such as exhibitions. The organization has all kinds of participants: children, adults, artists, professors - you name it! Yushi Jiang, the project manager of Yishuge, met with me for an interview regarding their work.

Yushi Jiang: as the project manager responsible for international exchange affairs at Yishuge, could you give us an introduction to your work?

The non-profit organization, Yishuge, was founded in 2017 in Berlin. We have three main parts of our business.

The first part, also the core one, is teaching. Since we’re a non-profit organization, we are teaching for free for our local schools. We provide Chinese art to local students at primary and middle schools.

The second part of our business is the international exchange, also an important part. In this area we have two big programs: ICAN and Ink Pal.

We have a program facilitating international exchange for children called ICAN: International Community Art Network. Under ICAN we have several smaller projects, in which the core project is the one called flaschenpost [postal bottle]. In ICAN we organize children around the world to paint a picture and send the postcard together with the picture to their peers in China. We organize exchanges between children in China and in other countries. The Yishuge team collects the pictures from both sides and handles the exchange. The exchange itself can be very random. Meaning, the children have no idea where their pictures are going and they have no idea who is going to receive their own pictures. It’s just a one time exchange, but the children are so excited about this program. They receive a picture from a complete random person on the other side of the world, and this is a very valuable project.

The other project under our international exchange part is one called Ink Pal, which is designed for adults. Ink Pal is the project that I’m leading and it started in 2019. In the beginning we tried to do collaborations with Chinese schools in Europe, because we wanted to spread Chinese art around the world. In the beginning we thought it would be easier to start collaborations with Chinese schools because their students might have good conditions for learning calligraphy and perhaps help them to learn the Chinese language. We have established a kind of cooperation with 20 Chinese schools within Europe and then most of them had given us the feedback that it’s difficult for them to start Chinese art courses since it’s difficult for them to find teachers. It’s especially difficult for small towns. Not many people know how to teach Chinese art calligraphy and another difficulty is that the materials are unique, which makes it difficult to buy Chinese ink and rice paper here in Europe. Therefore, we offer these things by providing an online course where we send the needed materials from Berlin. They are designed start up packages where you use environmental friendly tools to do Chinese art. We are able to purchase the materials from China and send it to the collaborating partners here in Europe.

This sounds like really interesting and fun projects! Who can participate in this Ink Pal online course? Do you have to be part of an institution?

You don’t have to be a professional, but those who are interested can register on our website. You can for example organize events with students, do workshops, informal gatherings and so on, where they can practice together with these packages. This is our Ink Pal program. The registered partners are not necessarily institutions; they don’t have to be a Chinese school. They could be any kind of person or institution. There are all kinds of people in this network group: we have scholars, artists, universities, and we even have technology companies that are participating in this program.

What a great way of spreading and establishing different art forms in varying networks. Does it work well with the collaborating partners? 

Yes, we have established a deeper cooperation with some of them, for example with some psychology professors. We have already published a book that’s coming out in March and published two scientific research papers in scientific journals. Yishuge also invited some artists to our exhibitions last year, so we’re doing deeper co-operations with our partners.

That’s very impressive, I hope we hear from you once the book is published. You said you had three main parts of your business: teaching, international exchange and what’s the third one?

The third parts are relatively large scaled art activities, with lower frequency (once a year) but with more audiences. We organize and participate in all kinds of art activities, like art exhibitions, art festivals and so on. We also have workshops called Ink Brush. Ink Brush is a workshop that we have regularly, but we classify that under our “teaching” part. That’s the only thing that we charge a price for.

So all the other activities that the Yishuge team organize are for free?

Yes, our art activities are all free of charge.

That sounds reasonable. Could you perhaps give us an example of what this third part of your business could look like?

We were for example invited twice to participate in the KinderKulturMonat, which is a one-month festival for children. They invited us twice. We participated in 2018 and 2019, and they even asked us whether we could expand the number of participants because there were so many people who were interested. That’s basically the three main parts of our projects.

I’m very intrigued by your different events and projects and it seems to be going great for Yishuge but have you possibly faced obstacles with the concept of exchanging German-Chinese culture and if so, what kind of resistance have you encountered?

Yes, we have Germans teaching Chinese arts and ink painting. In the beginning we had Chinese teachers, but it turned out that the language is a big difficulty. Therefore, we later found it easier to hire German teachers who are very good in Chinese arts. We soon realized that, other than advantages in language, a German teacher has better understanding of what the local students are curious abou. It could be something that Chinese teachers thought one should naturally know (such as how to moisten the brush).

Your non-profit organisation aims to arouse curiosity about Chinese cultures. I read on your website that you also want to promote inner peace balance, concentration and artistic expressiveness and I became very intrigued by that. How do you promote these things?

From my own experience, we had to learn about Western culture in school, but here in Europe no one is teaching about Chinese art and artists in schools, which makes it imbalanced. This imbalance is something that we could help with. In Chinese art there are so many things that could be helpful to children, adolescence and even for grownups. For example calligraphy helps people to calm down, especially children, if they’re hyperactive it helps them to sit down and concentrate in peace. We think these kinds of things are valuable, and we think we have these resources and, therefore, responsibilities to introduce this to Western children. We have already seen the effect of learning Chinese art: it helps the students to have progress in their learning. Even teachers who do not teach arts in the schools tell a difference among the children after they have learned Chinese arts.

Would you like to share your vision and/or definition of “cultural diplomacy”? There are so many varying ideas of what culture and cultural interchange actually is. What’s your take on it?

Okay, an example: about two weeks ago, we talked with one of our Ink Pal partners who studied medicine in France. He said that he was an expert in Chinese culture. Even though he’s French, he understands more than most Chinese people. His major is traditional Chinese medicine but other than that he studies a lot about Chinese tea, Chinese calligraphy, Chinese paintings and so on; basically almost every aspect of Chinese culture. We were intrigued why he studies so many aspects of Chinese culture. He told us something very inspiring; the core of the culture is not that you concentrate on one aspect of that; you have to learn every aspect of the culture in order to get to the core. These different aspects are connected and that’s why, if you want to understand a culture, you have to try your best to understand different forms of this  specific culture. If you do that, you will get to the core and finally see that it will help if you know one aspect, you’ll easier understand the other aspects. That’s why, when he does Chinese calligraphy, it helps to understand Chinese medicine. Culture helps us to understand the philosophy, so if you understand the philosophy of this culture at the core, it automatically helps you in every aspect and therefore, helps you to improve.

That’s a very interesting way of viewing culture as a whole. What you’re doing at your organization would be the ideal example of cultural diplomacy based on what I’m learning in my internship.  It would be very inspiring to attend your events and see your working space since it seems very inspiring based on what I’ve heard. Lastly, is there anything you would like to add?

We’re painting pictures with emotions. I believe that this kind of positive experience is going to push people in the future to look for cultural exchange and open up more, to look in different areas of the world. This is the value of doing international exchange at the early stage of people's’ lives.


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