Liu Hongwu: Africa Needs Cul­tural Re­ju­ve­na­tion

It is im­por­tant for African coun­tries to re­ju­ve­nate their so­cial val­ues and cul­tural sys­tems.

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Yin Xing

“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.

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