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City helps spur lifelong passion of Sinologist in promoting bonds

By ZHENG WANYIN in Milan | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-06-25 10:10
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For Alessandra Lavagnino, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Milan, those years in Shanghai during the 1970s shaped her career of devotion to China studies.

She first arrived in China in 1974, when she was selected as an exchange teacher to teach Italian at the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute, later renamed Shanghai International Studies University. She was also the first Italian foreign teacher the institute had ever received.

Her love affair with China was influenced by her father who visited the country in 1957 to film a documentary. At the age of 8, her curiosity and imagination were sparked, resulting in what she described as a "dream come true" moment.

Her father's fascination with China's architecture, art, sounds and people appealed to the entire family. "So, it was quite natural for me to choose to study Chinese when I went to the university in Italy because I had so many insights to discover," she said.

Alessandra Lavagnino

From February 1974 until the end of 1975, the Italian in her mid-20s taught her first group of 18 students, who were roughly the same age as her, and sharing countless sweet, sour and bitter experiences of youth drew them closer and closer.

"I remembered living with four girls in a peasant's home for one month, where we shared simple and strict daily routines in the countryside. We did farm work every day, and we had Italian classes in the afternoon. I told them about Italy, its beauty, my family's stories, and my learning experiences. They shared with me their family stories, their dreams, and their past," she recalled.

"We still message each other almost every day. They ask me about the situation in Italy, and I send them my articles about China. We share both friendship and academic exchanges," she said.

"Saying that we are friends is not enough. We are family."

The first term of office provided Lavagnino with valuable friendships, while the second term, in the same position at the same institute from 1977 to 1979, enhanced her academic life by allowing her to focus more on research in classical Chinese texts.

It was during that period that she began studying and translating Wenxin Diaolong, or The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, a book on Chinese literary aesthetics by Liu Xie, a literary critic who lived during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581).

Scholarly career

Wenxin Diaolong was a constant presence in Lavagnino's scholarly career, and it took her 16 years to translate this classical Chinese work — which she considered similar to Aristotle's Poetics — into Italian.

"My years in Shanghai contributed very much to my life, my understanding of China, and my belief in the importance of understanding other cultures and recognizing that my civilization is not the only right one in the world," Lavagnino said.

China's global influence continued to grow following the reform and opening-up, and in this context, the vibrancy and openness of Milan were notably apparent, Lavagnino said.

In 1979, Milan and Shanghai established a sister-city friendship. In 1985, Milan opened the first Chinese consulate in Italy. During the 1980s, the University of Milan introduced Chinese language courses, pioneering the initiative in the Lombardy region.

The Confucius Institute at the University of Milan also continues to play a pivotal role in facilitating exchanges between Shanghai and Milan, as well as between China and Italy.

Milan, one of the most developed and lively cities in Italy, needs to have a Confucius Institute, she said.

"In this complex period, we must manage to keep all possible channels open to build a concrete intercultural dialogue. We must learn to know each other, without prejudice or preconceptions, and this means accepting differences, recognizing different roots, and realizing that there may be another way of doing things," she said.

"My experiences enable me to build a bridge, and this bridge must be built. Otherwise, we will have no future. We have to find a common path forward."

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