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A celebration of civilizations

French writer and curator in Beijing joins a salon with a Chinese cellist trained in France to discuss how art, literature and music translate beyond the cliche of 'universal languages' to traverse intercultural intersections, Erik Nilsson reports.

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-07 05:33
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You need to get lost to find culture. This was an insight French writer and exhibition curator Christine Cayol shared at a recent Embracing Cultures salon China Daily hosted at the Yishu 8 Beijing Art Center, which Cayol founded.

Her counterpart, Chinese cellist Chu Yibing, who was the first student from the Chinese mainland admitted to the Paris Conservatory, agreed.

"I think getting lost is, specifically speaking, part of the French spirit," Chu says. "Because always knowing where you're going is boring. Getting lost and being happy — that's very French."

It was one of many meanderings toward the philosophical and metaphorical during their discussion about synergies between Chinese and French culture. It was, in this case, inspired by a cohost pointing out both countries' capitals are built on a central axis.

"In Beijing, just like in Paris, you have this very vertical and straight way to organize the city," Cayol says.

"But most of the time, we have very complicated, narrow streets. When you get lost, most of the time, you don't know the direction. And so you have both this idea of clear order of the space and, at the same time, a sort of disorder, and you easily get lost."

Chu points out he gets lost in Paris but never in Beijing's hutong (traditional alleyways), while Cayol says she often gets lost in even the small hutong in which she lives. "It's like a small labyrinth," she says.

Cellist Chu Yibing, who was the first student from the Chinese mainland to enroll in the Paris Conservatory, performs at the recent Embracing Cultures salon in Beijing. He was joined by French writer and art curator Christine Cayol (second from left) and China Daily cohosts. [Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]

From that point, their conversation itself took an unexpected turn from urban planning to how "getting lost" in another country is literally and figuratively a way to stumble upon intercultural intersections.

"Getting lost is a key part of embracing a culture," Cayol says.

"If you want to make everything for sure and certain, and control everybody and everything in your (own) country, well, you don't need to go abroad. If you go abroad, you have to in some way feel a little bit uncomfortable because everything is so new, so strange, that you have this getting lost feeling. If you don't, that means you're not abroad."

Moments before, Chu, who became one of the first Chinese to study classical music in Europe four decades ago, politely interrupted a host when she was introducing him as someone "familiar with both cultures" to interject: "No! No, no. I am still studying."

Learning about learning what the two cultures have learned from each other was precisely the point of the salon, which took place as the two countries are this year celebrating the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations, following centuries of contact. Among more expectable themes, such as music, food and art as "universal languages", were less predictable motifs, such as synesthesia, listening and time. And the conversation unfolded from lighthearted banter about favorite foods and funny mishaps to deeper discourses tackling abstract theoretical contemplations on humanity.

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