US-China Building Diplomacy Via Arts and Culture

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Remember ping pong diplomacy? Well, if sports helped improve relations between the US and China in the 1970s, why not try the same thing now with culture and ideas? A high profile American cultural delegation is visiting China right now. The group includes several prominent figures, Cellist Yo Yo Ma and author Amy Tan, filmmaker Joel Coen and actress Meryl Streep. The World's Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad is covering their visit. Who's behind this event, Mary Kay, and what is the overall goal?

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Well, it's being sponsored by the Asia Society and the Aspen Institute. If there's one person who really came up with this idea, it's Orville Shull at the Asia Society. He said, "Look, for most of my career, I've been writing, I've been putting together policy papers more recently, and it doesn't matter how smart they are, they land on someone's desk and no one reads them. They don't have much impact. I figured let's try doing something really different. People like coming together around movies, around books, around ideas. Let's have a festival where we bring a lot of these things together, and people can have fun, and around the edges, they can start talking about other things. Hopefully, this will be a stop toward helping us understand each other better.

WERMAN: You spoke with filmmaker Joel Coen, whose last film, True Grit, was screened during the visit to China, and you had a chance to screen a movie by a Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou called A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop, which is a remake of sorts of Coen's film, the 1984 thriller, Blood Simple. Tell us about that.

MAGISTAD: Joel Coen was speaking on a panel, and he said that in fact he liked this remake a lot, but he did also have another reaction to it.

JOEL COEN: I think it may have been the single weirdest viewing experience of my life watching it for the first time because there were aspects of it where I thought why did Zhang Yimou even bother to ask us permission to do this, it's so different. In other parts of it, where I thought, "Oh, okay, there is the story." Certain parts of it seemed very close of what we were doing. That is a really good example of why this kind of contact is really important because what he was doing with that is exactly what we do all the time. We're constantly watching things, and it all goes in, and it gets spit back out in some form of influence. What he did was he took whatever he wanted to take from that movie, and he made it completely his own.

WERMAN: Mary Kay, I have to ask you, that's Joel Coen speaking in English to, presumably, a lot of Chinese in the room. These have to be fairly well-to-do elite Chinese, I'd imagine.

MAGISTAD: Quite a few of the Chinese who came are in some way in the realm of culture. They're writers, filmmakers, aspiring filmmakers or people who just love film and culture. There were also quite a few Americans in the room as well. The point he was making, which is where does creativity come from, it's keeping your mind open, it's being able to connect dots you didn't ever expect to connect, I think is a very resonate message for a Chinese audience. It's also an important one because in China, where a lot of information is censored, where people are told they shouldn't be thinking certain kinds of thoughts, it does tend to limit creativity.

WERMAN: From what you've seen, Mary Kay, from this visit, will culture be the thing to improve relations between the US and China?

MAGISTAD: I think it never hurts. Certainly, in terms of the exchange of films and books and other ideas through other means, there's a lot of interchange already between the US and China. I think one issue for China as it reaches for more soft power, as it likes to refer to it, which is more influence in the world, more of a power of attraction, more of others outside of China wanting to be like China, they see what the US has and they want it. They don't know how to get there. Part of the reason is the government's almost trying to do this by fiat. It's trying to do by saying, "Okay, we will now move to be more creative." The Americans are coming in this conversation and saying, "Hey, just open up your minds and think about things differently. Think about how else things can be, and interesting things might happen."

WERMAN: Mary Kay, I have a stargazer question for you. Is Meryl Streep, who is on this visit, is she big in China?

MAGISTAD: Very, very big. In fact, there was a fan club in the audience today, 20 young women who had flown in from all over China. They were wearing identical yellow hoodies that said Meryl Streep across the front, they had their scrapbook, and they had all sorts of memorabilia of Meryl Streep. I think in general, she's a very well respected actress in China and quite well-known.

WERMAN: What's her hit movie there?

MAGISTAD: People knew many of her movies. At one point when she was speaking on the panel, she said, "I was in this movie, Out of Africa, and I don't know if you've seen it," and everyone's like, "Yes!"

WERMAN: A big growth of applause, standing ovation.

MAGISTAD: Yes, absolutely. There was one really nice moment at an evening performance with Meryl Streep and Yo Yo Ma. Meryl Streep was reading poetry while Yo Yo Ma was playing cello, and at the end, they obviously have great respect for each other, he bowed to her, she bowed to him, he bowed more deeply, she bowed more deeply. He got down on his knees and bowed, and she did the same. Then, she prostrated herself flat on the ground. At which point, he looked around and did the same thing.

WERMAN: Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing. Thank you for speaking with us.

MAGISTAD: Thank you, Marco. It was a pleasure.