Ole! A Spaniard's fascination with China fosters cross-cultural appreciation
Authors Miguel de Cervantes and Cao Xueqin. Classic artworks "Las Meninas" and "Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival."
This confluence of Chinese and Spanish cultural icons graces the Miguel de Cervantes Library in Shanghai, whose director Inma González Puy has been serving a bridge of bilateral heritage for nearly 40 years.
Born and raised in Barcelona, Puy could be called a "China hand." She speaks fluent Chinese and has settled down with a Chinese partner. Her fascination with Chinese culture began when she was a teenager.
As director of the cultural section of the Consulate-General of Spain in Shanghai, Puy is now busy preparing a series of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of China-Spain diplomatic relations on March 9. Her experience with China and its people stands as a tribute to bilateral relations.
"I realized a long time ago that my position should be in China rather than Spain, so I decided to stay," Puy told Shanghai Daily, speaking in Chinese.
Puy first came to Beijing in 1979, just after China began its economic reform and opening-up policies. She brought with her a longstanding interest in Chinese literature, traditional opera and martial arts. She read extensively about China, including the works of American author Pearl Buck (1892-1973), but she couldn't find a place to learn Chinese in Spain at that time.
"So I applied for a short-term study program in Beijing," Puy said. "And then I came to China for several months every year for four years."
Back then, China remained both curious and cautious about foreigners. Puy was required to live in restricted quarters for international students but was able to mingle with Chinese people on the streets, where she was often asked to pose for photos.
The study experience gave her a sense of belonging. In 1983, when she finished university in Spain, she decided to move to Beijing and became a cultural specialist at the Spanish Embassy.
Puy managed to enjoy a first wave of cultural renaissance in China, amid modern poetry, rock music, jazz, live shows and art exhibitions. To her, it was the era of the golden 80s.
"At that time apartments of many expats in Beijing, including my own quarters, became cultural salons," Puy recalled.
Not long after Puy settled in Beijing, she fell in love with Liu Xiaosong, now one of the most influential drummers in the country. She helped Liu with a study program in Spain, and a strong and enduring bond came to link them.
Puy moved to Shanghai in 2020 to work with the Spanish Consulate-General.
"Shanghai is very vibrant and open," she said. "If you want some Western food, you can find it in almost every corner of the city."
One of her favorite parts of the city is the area around the Miguel de Cervantes Library in Xuhui District – its old Western-style villas and plane trees reminding her of her hometown Barcelona.
"These areas are very walkable, and even today, I still find new attractions, such as beautiful buildings," she said.
Since coming to Shanghai, Puy has spent much of her energy on promoting Spain and Spanish-language culture to Shanghai people. The library itself serves as a cross-cultural venue. Its exhibition hall displays modern artistic works from both countries, and a reading room contains more than 9,000 books, many of which are translations of Chinese and Spanish works.
Puy said she has been amazed by the number of hidden Spanish gems in Shanghai.
One of them is architect Abelardo Lafuente (1871-1931), who spent his last years in Shanghai and died here. He introduced the Mozarab and Moorish styles from Spain into Chinese architecture. Many of his designs remain, among them the Ramos House in Hongkou District.
In 2021, the library held an exhibition focused on Lafuente and the still-obscure stories of other contemporary Spanish Shanghai residents, called "The Spanish Chinese Dream." A guide to Lafuente's works was also published and a tour to his buildings was organized.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Chinese-Spanish diplomatic relations, more events are planned in coming months, including a series of art exhibitions and literature lectures.
Puy said she believes there is still a lot of work to be done in promoting cross-cultural ties.
For example, when Chinese tourists go to Spain, their trips may be limited to Madrid and Barcelona when there are so many other interesting places to see, such as Granada, Balearic and Canary Islands or the Cervantes' Don Quixote literary routes.
"The friendship between Spain and China dates all the way back to the 16th century," she said. "As early as 1592, a Chinese book entitled 'Mingxin Baojian' was translated into Spanish and brought back to Spain three years later. It was actually the first Chinese book translated into a Western language."