Liu Hongwu: Africa Needs Cultural Rejuvenation
It is important for African countries to rejuvenate their social values and cultural systems.
“An Egyptian saying dating back two millennia goes that those who drink the water of the Nile always come back,” declares Liu Hongwu. “American writer Ernest Hemingway said that before he left Africa, he had already begun to miss it. I think these two thoughts mirror my attachment to Africa.”
Professor Liu’s Wechat account is “returnhometown@africa.” Considering Africa his second homeland, Liu maintains great affection for the continent. Born in 1958 in Xishuangbanna in China’s Yunnan Province, Liu didn’t leave the mountainous city until he was admitted to Wuhan University in 1979. In the 1990s, Liu studied in Africa as one of the first batch of Chinese scholars to study on the continent. In 2007, he founded the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University, which has become one of China’s most reputed research institutions and think tanks for African studies. And Liu himself has become a Chinese forerunner in studying Africa.
China Pictorial (CP): Before your first visit to Africa, what did you think it was like? And what changed your perception there?
Liu: Initially, my knowledge about Africa was similar to other Chinese people: I thought it poor, backward and plagued by wars and diseases. But when I stepped on the land of Africa, studied there and began traveling back and forth between China and Africa, my understanding about the continent was continuously corrected, upgraded and expanded.
Africa has more than 50 countries with contrasting development levels. Most countries are stable and some enjoy moderate economic prosperity. At least one-third of African countries have per capita incomes close to or higher than that of China. Like China and other regions in the world, Africa is also the birthplace of some ancient civilizations like the Nile civilization. As for climate and ecology, along with rainforests and deserts, one-third of the continent (about 10 million square kilometers) is agreeable and cool like my hometown in Yunnan. And Africa also has many of the world’s top scholars.
All in all, Africa is a continent full of potential and vitality.
CP: You even contracted malaria in Nigeria. Was it worth all your studying gains there?
Liu: Yes, of course. That experience helped me better understand Africa while evolving my attitude and methods on studying the continent over the next three decades. During my early years of field work in Nigeria, the conditions were hard, and I contracted malaria. After several bed-ridden days with a high fever, I recovered and rose out of bed to take in the rainforest under the scorching sun. I recalled a classic line from a film: “Only after you’ve had malaria can you understand Africa.”
Africa’s culture, music and living habits are closely related to its environment. For example, African people don’t live in rainforests, but on dry highlands because lush forests breed mosquitoes which spread malaria. So contrasting Asia’s river civilizations, Africa’s civilizations mostly emerged on highlands like the Cameroon Highlands or on savannas at the edge of deserts. So only by being there and living there can understand the land more profoundly.
CP: What connects China and Africa that are so far apart from each other geographically?
Liu: In 2003 when I went to
study in Africa the second time, I visited Zanzibar Island in Tanzania, where I saw a navigation map from Zheng He (1371-1433), a Chinese navigator, in an imperial palace. The six-century-old map clearly marks the Cape of Good Hope and Mount Kilimanjaro, evidencing that so long ago, Chinese people already knew about landforms in Africa. I also saw ancient Chinese ceramics, books and coins in other places on the continent.
In modern times, China and Africa both suffered from Western invasion and colonial rule and gained independence and freedom only after heroic and painstaking efforts. So, China and Africa forged a tight-knit friendship in the 20th century, despite their geographical distance.
Today, China and Africa both still need to develop, so they have become reliable friends in the course of pursuing national revival. Despite their starkly contrasting cultures, the two sides share similar spiritual beliefs based on nature and rooted in land, with respect for nature and desire to live in harmony with nature.
CP: What made you decide to establish the Institute of African Studies? What do you think is the goal of studying Africa?
Liu: One year, I went to study at the University of Dar es Salaam in East Africa. I visited local ancient towns dubbed “stone towns” or “spice towns.” Walking on the stone slab streets there reminded me of visiting Lijiang Town as a child. Swahili culture in East Africa is a typical fruit of Asian and African cultures. In these towns, I realized that long before European expansion, there was a long-standing
cultural circle around the Indian Ocean linking Africa, the Middle East and East Asia’s China.
But you hardly get such knowledge in history textbooks, which are filled with information about history dominated by Europe and the United States over the past four centuries. The world is now facing increasingly complicated problems. But we usually apply Western knowledge to solve local problems and consider it universal methodology. Obviously, this doesn’t always work. So we need to establish a disciplinary system covering every region in the world, compiling the wisdom of all nations and forming a knowledge system shared by all mankind. Certainly, African wisdom and experience offer an important piece for the jigsaw puzzle.
CP: You argue that in addition to economic cooperation, China and Africa need more cultural exchange. Why?
Liu: Culture is so comprehensive that it covers all aspects of daily life including food, clothes, housing and transportation. I liken cultural exchange to water, economic cooperation to fish and mutual trust to a fishpond. When the fishpond is built, growth of the fish requires sound water. Moreover, one hindrance for Africa’s development is a lack of cultural identity. Centuries of Western colonization and the slave trade devastated the traditional cultures of Africa. Although African countries gained independence, they still have not escaped the shadow cast by Western colonization completely. It is important for African countries to reestablish their own social values and cultural systems. Doing so requires both investment and cultural revival as well. So, the cultural exchange between China and Africa is very important.
2018: Professor Liu Hongwu visits a desert in Namibia.
2012: Professor Liu Hongwu poses for a picture with students from the University of Nyala in South Darfur, Sudan.
2018: Professor Liu Hongwu leads a group of Chinese scholars to visit Hausa Cultural Center in northern Nigeria after participating in the Sino-african Relationship Seminar in the country.
2009: Professor Liu Hongwu poses for a picture before China’s first African Museum he set up at Zhejiang Normal University, in hopes of spreading African culture among the Chinese public.
2015: Professor Liu Hongwu with local children at Lalibela World Cultural Center in northern Ethiopia.