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Observing China
By LI Dan

Ten years ago, out of curiosity he came to Beijing, the capital of China. During the past ten years, he witnessed the city’s tremendous changes. Meanwhile, he learnt fluent Chinese, fell in love with Chinese cross-talk and became one of China’s well-known foreign comic stars.
Today, as ten years has passed, as a doctoral graduate from Renmin University of China, he shared with us stories about his life in China. He is Maurice GOUNTIN from Benin, a country in Western Africa.

Today, as ten years has passed, as a doctoral graduate from Renmin University of China, he shared with us stories about his life in China. He is Maurice GOUNTIN from Benin, a country in Western Africa.

When Maurice was a child, the concept of China, in his mind, equalled Chinese Kongfu actor Li Xiaolong’s movies or those Chinese goods with “made in China” label. He still remembers that China’s cooling ointment was a household medicine in Benin. He recalled, “When I had a fever or caught a cold, my mum just rubbed some cooling ointment on our body, symphony will be relieved.” At that time, it never occurred to him that he would learn Chinese and come to China one day.

When Maurice was a child, the concept of China, in his mind, equalled Chinese Kongfu actor Li Xiaolong’s movies or those Chinese goods with “made in China” label. He still remembers that China’s cooling ointment was a household medicine in Benin. He recalled, “When I had a fever or caught a cold, my mum just rubbed some cooling ointment on our body, symphony will be relieved.” At that time, it never occurred to him that he would learn Chinese and come to China one day.

In 1996, Maurice became a college student in the National University of Benin where he specialized in English. It was when Maurice started his first year that his college offered a new second-foreign-language course, which was Chinese. Maurice applied for the course of German language, yet out of his curiosity, he was in the class of Chinese as well. Chinese is a remote and unfamiliar language to him since the official language of Benin is French and he chose English as his major. Therefore, Maurice made up a fake name when he registered in the Chinese class. He thought that using a fake name would help disappearing from the class when the complexity of be the language will start.
Maurice said, at the very beginning of his English study, his teacher told them it was quite easy to learn Chinese, since images of many characters resemble those objects from real world, like Chinese character “hill” and “bird”. The vivid pictographic Chinese characters gradually aroused Maurice’s passion in continuing his Chinese study. What’s more, he got the first place in a Chinese examination after learning Chinese for one month which hardened his resolution to learn Chinese. Maurice finally gave up the German course and put his focus on Chinese course.

Maurice was hard-studying in Chinese language. He always ranked among the best. When his second school year ended, Maurice’s Chinese teacher recommended he come to China for further Chinese study to eventually teach Chinese after getting a degree. It would be a bright future for Maurice. Officials from People's Republic of China Embassy in Benin and director in Benin’s Chinese Cultural Centre all contacted Maurice, willing to offer a four-year scholarship for him.

Having weighed all alternatives in his mind, Maurice made the final decision. It was without doubt a difficult one. He decided to come to China and had to give up a bachelor degree which he would obtain after his third year and a master degree at the end of the fourth year (based on French educational system). Beijing Language and Culture University became his first stop in China.

Before Maurice came to China, his understanding of this country was so restricted to Chinese ancient stories, the Revolution of 1911 and China’s influential figures like Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek that he felt Chinese culture was distant and vague.
Maurice said when his Chinese teacher taught in class that China’s Great Wall was more than 6000 thousand kilometers long, nobody believed.

“My classmates yelled “that’s just impossible. We couldn’t buy your story.” The very thought of my ignorance at that time almost makes me laugh.” Maurice said.
It was because of his lack of knowledge of China and fears of Chinese language itself that Maurice thought before his set-out that his journey in China might be no more than three months. He said, “Chinese language is extremely subtle, like magic. I cannot believe people living in the other part of the world communicate in such a way.”

Maurice stepped on the soil of China in 1998. Unexpectedly it was a ten-year stay.

After his arrival in Beijing China, Maurice found what Beijing gifted him was more of a pleasant surprise. Maurice said, “Before I came to Beijing, I thought I would be very lonely there, hard to find people like me and just immersed in an ocean of Chinese people. Beyond my expectation, I saw so many people of all colors around me.”

Maurice put a lot of efforts into Chinese study in at school. He chose to register in a foundation class of Chinese and return to the starting point to solidify his foundations of Chinese. Through his hard work, Maurice still ranked first in Chinese examinations in his new class. His Chinese teacher said to students who was from South Korea and Japan banteringly, “South Korea and Japan are a lot nearer to China and have many similarities in languages. Yet an African guy got the first place. Where have you been hanging out? ”

Since then, in order to keep on with his excellent results, Maurice redoubled his efforts. He made best use of every minute to practice Chinese. As time went on, his Chinese level was raised to a large degree.

On December 8th 2000, together with his schoolmate, an Irishman Richard Doran, Maurice performed a cross talk named “Eating Culture in Chinese” in the Beijing’s Overseas Student Theatrical Festival sponsored by the government. (Cross talk was a traditional Chinese show.)Their performance was highly praised and it also marked a starting point of Maurice’s ties with cross talk. During their rehearsal before their performance, their school teachers invited a famous Chinese cross talk actor Ding Guangquan to tutor them.

Afterwards, Mr. Ding asked whether Maurice and Richard whether will to be his apprentices to learn more cross talk.

At that time, Maurice even didn’t know what he would learn and what it was for. However, he thought to learn cross talk would benefit his Chinese study. Thus he took Mr. Ding’s suggestion and started his cross talk study.

He didn’t realize how hard the cross talk could be at the very beginning. Maurice said, “It is just because of our ignorance of cross talk that makes us get started. Otherwise, we won’t be engaged in it.”

Learning cross talk was a great opportunity for Maurice to improve his Chinese level. He learnt a lot of Chinese idioms and witticism from cross talk which made his expressions more natural, various and humorous.

Maurice often received performance invitations after he started learning cross talk, yet his studies at school weren’t disturbed. For him, studies at school were his mainline, but cross talk was no more than a hobby. Even if sometimes it was hard to refuse some performance invitations, Maurice would try to balance all alternatives to diminish their impact on studies.

During Maurice’s postgraduate studies, he was an all-subject-over-80 student. Before his postgraduate graduation, Maurice decided to give up his original plan to become a Chinese teacher back Benin. And he went on with his further study in the realm of Sino-African relations. He hoped to become a bridge builder to link China and Africa. Through his hard work, Maurice got admission to Remin University of China to pursue a doctoral degree majoring China’s contemporary diplomacy. Moreover, he obtained one of 50 scholarships for outstanding overseas students in China granted by China’s government per year.

In this June, Maurice got his doctoral degree and he delivered a speech on behalf of all overseas students in Remin University of China at graduation ceremony. Maurice said, “The more I’ve learnt, the richer I felt Chinese culture is. Though a doctoral degree is in my hand, I still feel there’s a lot more to learn.”

When it comes to the reason why Maurice chose to study for a doctoral degree, he said that links between Africa and China had been tightened since 2000. And there was still room for improvement in regard to the way of communication between Africa and China. People from Africa and China should deepen the understandings of each other. He hoped to contribute to the development of the bilateral relationship and to become a person whose words carry weight.

Maurice said, at present, a great number of Africans still read translated versions to get knowledge of China. Such books could be distorted or even written by some experts who lacked understandings of China. Maurice thought we were in need of those experts who had deep understandings of both African and Chinese cultures and got experiences of living in two areas. A good grasp of current economic and social trends in Africa and China and a speciality in international relations would add more weight to one’s words.

Maurice said, “You cannot fool me in the field of African and Chinese cultures,I’ve experienced both and also have deep academic knowledge about them.” He was confident that with his academic knowledge and rich experience in Africa and China he would help push forward Sino-African relations.

Maurice added that the image of China became clearer and clearer in eyes of Beninese. There were only 56 students in Maurice’s Chinese class when he was studying in the National University of Benin. However, in these days more than two hundred students chose Chinese as their second language. Apart from the National University of Benin, other schools also set up Chinese courses and more and more people developed their interest in China.

“There’s no enough time for any astonishment since China develops so fast. As China’s international status rises, compared with the year of 1998, African people’s understanding of China is totally another story. Especially after Beijing winning the bid for Olympics and China’s entry into WTO in 2001, China’s success in launching Shenzhou No. 5 manned spaceship in 2003 and the opening of Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006, people from all around the world, especially African people have seen the distance between us shorted.”

Maurice said, “In recent years, China’s aid programs boomed like building stadiums, paving a road and other projects. And more Beninese are familiar with China nowadays.”

In recent years, more and more African art troupes come to China to put on their performance. China also invited art troupes from different countries in the world to perform in Beijing in order to increase each other’s understandings.

Maurice said that China set up a number of cultural centers in Africa which focused on the spread of Chinese traditional culture like traditional Chinese paintings, acrobatics, calligraphies and Beijing Opera.

In Maurice’s viewpoint, highlights of Chinese traditional culture were appreciable for its vitality and profundity. “But Chinese traditional culture is so profound and complex that you feel a liking for it but feel hard to get close,” Maurice said, “If we can start with superficial and common layer of culture and then gradually deepen it, the effect of spreading of culture might better.”

“Beijing Opera troupes once performed in Africa, but most African couldn’t identify themselves with such style of performance. Instead, they thought make-up of Chinese actors was strange. It might produce a reverse effect, widening gaps between Africa and China.”
Maurice added, if Chinese people could perform African’s favorite street dance with Chinese elements, starting from the commonness of two cultures, it could produce a sense of warmth among African people. They could felt we were similar which would break down the Africans’ fearfulness towards Chinese culture.

Maurice also mentioned, large-scale evening party between Africa and China was rare. He thought China could invite famous African and Chinese singers and actors to perform on the same stage to improve our friendship. He had a special liking for the song named “In the Distant Place” sung by Chinese singer Han Hong and African man Hao Ge in 07’ Spring Festival Evening.

On the part of Africa, they should put more efforts in bringing African cultural elements to China. “Africa has more than 50 nations. Most of them have embassies and cultural counselors in China, but we saw few symbol to represent African cultures on the soil of China, according to my knowledge, no symbol at all,” Maurice said, “If African people could run Cultural centers in China including African-flavor restaurants, African art works like woodcarvings to China for exhibition, it would produce good effects to better Chinese people’s understandings of African cultures.”

Maurice thought there was not too much work left for embassies, rather non-governmental communication between Africa and China should been strengthened. “There’s too much to be done.”

When it turned to the topic of “image crisis of China”, Maurice said, “The image of China is in a transitional period. We cannot expect everything to be perfect. As it goes, to make an omelet, you have to first break the egg.”
It was certain that to recast the image is not to completely destroy it but to correct it. The process was painful and critiques or censures were inevitable. Yet it was the only path to go.

Maurice thought those who wanted to make comments on issues in China should have a good knowledge of national conditions of China and have stayed in China for a period of time.

Maurice said, “Though I’ve stayed in China for quite a long time, a lot of problems still confuse me.”

Since 2006, Maurice opened his Blog with the name of “Observing China”. He tried to decipher China from his own perspective and make objective comment on issues in China and Sino-African relations.

In regard to foreign media’s criticism towards China, Maurice didn’t think their opinions would put a negative impact on China’s future development. He said, “Their words couldn’t become a threat. China is a large country and becomes better and better. And there’ll be costs in its process of becoming a strong country. However, pressures from press circles have a positive influence in China’s long-term development.”

As to Maurice’s recent plans, he told me that at least he wouldn’t return Benin before the end of this year, especially during Beijing Olympics. Maurice said that he would be on pins and needles if he would have been back Benin. “What is happening in Beijing? I would think much of it. Even if I don’t go to Olympic venues to watch competitions, as long as I stay in Beijing to enjoy the atmosphere, it’s quite satisfactory whatsoever,” Maurice said.

For more information, please visit Maurice’s blog:






    莫里斯来中国之前,他对中国知之甚少,只是在书本上了读过中国古代故事,在高中世界史课堂上 学过辛亥革命,知道中国的毛泽东、孙中山和蒋介石。但这些有关中国的知识毕竟有限,他仍觉得中国文化遥远而模糊。



























     谈到中国的“对外形象危机”问题,莫里斯认为“中国的国家形象在转型过程中,在转型过程中不要期望一切都很完美,to make an omelet, you have to first break the egg.”






Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2008 22:22

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