Campus kicks off Year of China celebration

While most of Providence was still asleep yesterday morning, people across China were celebrating the arrival of the full moon and the festival it announces with dancing, theater, storytelling and pastries called mooncakes. As the same moon brightened over campus that evening, the University kicked off the Year of China — a series of activities and events that will span this academic year  — with a mid-autumn festival of its own.

The Year of China will feature lectures, conferences and cultural events aimed at increasing awareness of Chinese history and culture. The year-long program is especially timely given China's growing prominence on the global stage, said Chung-I Tan, professor of physics, who was chosen to lead the initiative last fall. Exposing the community to Chinese culture will be useful, he added, now that China has "entered the lives of many" across the globe.

About 20 students, ranging from first-years to doctoral candidates, gathered in a Barus and Holley classroom Friday to meet those who will steer the Year of China.

Though nearly everyone in the room was already involved in some way with Chinese culture, Tan said the Year of China would be a good opportunity for those less familiar to learn about China not only as a nation, but as a culture and a people. Many students, he said, would benefit from a deeper knowledge of China given the increase in global connectedness. "In some sense, China and the U.S. cannot be separated," he said. "Everything is intertwined."

Noah Elbot '14, who spent three months in China last summer, said people in China respect Brown, but the University community does not reciprocate.

"Here I don't feel much of a presence," he said.

But Monday evening, a crowd of students waited in front of Faunce House for the mid-autumn festival to begin. Members of Chinese cultural organizations on campus strung red and white paper lanterns on the Faunce patio. Some milled about in traditional Chinese dress, while others caught up or issued directions in Chinese.

One person stepped up to a drum, and the crowd pulled back to make room for four lion dancers. The lions danced, fought, acted intoxicated, recovered and nibbled at the students circled around them. A masked character fed the lions lettuce from a cafeteria to-go box, which they regurgitated onto their audience before turning the stage over to the student performers who retold the traditional story behind the mid-autumn festival.

"It's a very beautiful love story," said Shumin Yao GS, president of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association, before the event. She explained that the love story reflects the mid-autumn festival's significance as a time for families to come together. Because more and more students are coming from China to the University, she said it is important not only to foster respect for Chinese culture here on campus, but also to give these students the connection they need with their home country.

After a modern retelling of the traditional love story, students devoured mooncakes, the primary reason a number of the students said they had come to the festival. But Zaixing Mao GS said the reverence surrounding the cakes — sweet bean paste in an airy pastry wrapping that symbolizes wholeness and reunion — goes beyond their taste.

"It is really kind of like Thanksgiving," Mao said, referring to the festival. "But right now we're abroad, so we can't gather with our family."

The Year of China will officially launch Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, where artist Cai Guo-Qiang's exhibit "Move Along, Nothing to See Here" will open.

-Jake Comer

The original article appeared in the Brown Daily Herald on September 12, 2011

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