China's cultural footprint on foreign shores

China's opening up to the outside world has long been a one-way street of foreign ideas flowing into the nation. But the tide has now turned, with Chinese culture flowing overseas.

China’s 40-year-long process of reform and opening up meant foreign influences gaining a foothold in the country. But now the process can also be viewed in reverse. The outside world is opening up as a receptacle for Chinese culture.

Where once it was all a matter of Chinese people fascinated by Hollywood blockbusters or Japanese animations, a new “soft power” trend is taking Chinese pop music, TV series and novels to appreciative audiences abroad.

The channels of change are multiple.

For the past four years, Englishwoman Hollie Sowden and American Nora Wilson, two expats living in the southern city of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, have been doing weekly videos and podcasts about Mandarin, Chinese food, folk culture and tips on daily living.

In their 115 episodes to date of “Two White Chicks in China,” the pair has gained hundreds of followers on Facebook and more than 1,000 subscribers on YouTube. Every month they attract tens of thousands of downloads.

The women have also developed a website called “Written Chinese,” with a Chinese woman named Chamcen Liu. The website provides a dictionary and other Mandarin-learning tools.

Some of the podcast episodes are quite light-hearted. In one, they try spicy dried tofu jerky, or latiao. Others are quite serious. For example, in another, they discuss autism and mental health issues in China. Most of the topics are selected according to audience feedback.

“People leave voice messages on ‘Written Chinese,’ telling us what they want to know about China,” says Wilson. “They send us topics that we would never thought of ourselves.”

Sowden says she came to China with her former boyfriend who got a job in Shenzhen years ago. After they broke up, he returned to the UK but she stayed.

Wilson says she came to China in 2008, after graduating in international business in the United States but failing to find a job because of the global financial crisis. She worked as an English teacher in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, for a year, then moved to Shenzhen, where she met Sowden.

“It’s not that I chose China so much as China chose me,” Sowden says.

China's cultural footprint on foreign shores
Ti Gong

Englishwoman Hollie Sowden (left) and American Nora Wilson, who are living in the southern city of Shenzhen, have been doing videos and podcasts that explain Mandarin, Chinese food and local lifestyles to foreigners.

Both are particularly proud of “Written Chinese.”

“Years ago, I found there weren’t many resources available for foreigners to grasp the written language of China,” Wilson says. “At the beginning, it was just a Facebook page where we posted characters, their meanings and example sentences. That page expanded like crazy. It now has nearly 280,000 followers, and that’s why we decided to develop a dictionary app and then the website.”

The two say they have more ideas about the podcast and the website, but they are still working with only three people on the team.

“We hope to develop our own curriculum, and there will be a textbook coming soon,” Wilson says.

Sowden and Wilson aren’t the only expats eager to tap world interest in China.

Years ago, groups formed in the US to provide English subtitles for popular Chinese TV dramas. They introduced several hits to the outside world, such as “My Fair Princess,” “Soldier, Go!” and “iPartment.”

There are also websites translating Chinese novels, especially fantasy series. Wuxiaworld and Gravity Tales are two examples, with tens of thousands of followers on their Facebook pages.

Chinese music, too, is walking through the open door that once was a one-way street. In the past, English-language hit tunes were heard everywhere in Chinese cities. Now Western toes are tapping to Chinese music.

A student club at the Shanghai International Studies University is trying to spread Chinese pop songs to the world by translating the lyrics into English.

Melody C2E, or Melody Chinese to English, is a club founded by two seniors at the university’s School of Business and Management. It now has around 20 members who work on lyric translation, music production, social media account maintenance and copywriting.

China's cultural footprint on foreign shores
Ti Gong

Melody C2E, a student club at the Shanghai International Studies University, translates lyrics of Chinese pop songs into English.

Lin Hongying, one of the co-founders, says the idea started at a 2016 meeting with Ahmad Alhendawi, UN secretary-general’s envoy for youth.

“One of our co-founders, Pan Jianghao, heard Alhendawi saying, ‘We want to hear more from Chinese young people,’ and Pan thought he could do that,” Lin says. “He believed that translating songs would be a good way, and that led to the founding of Melody C2E.”

The first song the club translated was “Encounter” by singer Stefanie Sun. Lin, Pan and another student finished the translation and invited fellow students to record the translated song in a studio. It was posted on several online platforms, including WeChat, Weibo, YouTube and video website Bilibili.

Lin says she was especially proud of the translation of the song “A Small Blessing” (Xiao Xing Yun) by Taiwan singer Hebe Tien. It was the club’s first work to attract more than 10,000 clicks.

The group members have tried their best to maintain the meanings of original lyrics, while preserving rhyming as much as possible. Sometimes the translations have to resort to free verse. For example, part of the translation of “A Small Blessing” went like this:

“The raindrops are kissing grass, so fresh and green;

I hear, from a school far away, the bells ring;

However, the sound of your voice is missing my name;

No one is calling.”

“Sometimes when it is really impossible to retain all the meanings in rhyme and correct grammar usage, we search the background of how a song is originally written and paraphrase the lyrics based on the information we find,” Lin says.

Lin says the club plans to publish the translated songs to more overseas social networking sites to expand the influence of Chinese songs abroad.

“I don’t think Chinese pop songs are any worse than English ones, but language can be a solid barrier,” she says. “It is unrealistic to expect foreigners to learn Chinese, but it is very possible to spread the songs to a wider world.”

China's cultural footprint on foreign shores
Ti Gong

Melody C2E members regularly meet up to disscus new creations.

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