Universities told to further embed Chinese culture

Universities across China have been told to further integrate Chinese traditional culture into their courses and award students credits for studying ethnic music, arts and crafts in a new government plan to boost cultural confidence and awareness in higher education.

According to the notice, the move is expected to strengthen the country’s cultural confidence and awareness, and “instil new vitality” to Chinese traditional culture. It is seen as a move to counter the growing popularity among young people of music, drama and other cultural imports from the West and Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.

“Around 100 ‘cultural heritage’ bases will be set up at higher learning institutions nationwide by 2020 and 50 by the end of the year to advance education, protection, innovation and exchanges of Chinese traditional culture,” according to a notice issued by the Ministry of Education on 26 May.

The government will provide support for ethnic and folk music, arts, dance, theatre, opera, traditional handicrafts and sports while “giving full play to the role and strengths of universities in cultural promotion”, the ministry says.

Under the new formulation, universities are also encouraged to hire folk artists and “inheritors of intangible cultural heritage as visiting professors”, or pay for services from practitioners of Chinese traditional culture.

While the new courses will be optional, students can also earn extra credits for enrolling in and completing them, the ministry says.

Pushback against the West

While the latest move serves to protect, revive and cultivate the country’s historical heritage and culture – much of it destroyed in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution in China against ‘old thinking’ and old artefacts – it has also been controversial with critics saying it is driving a surge in Chinese nationalist sentiments and hostility against the West.

Some say that by outlining the areas of art and culture to be promoted in schools and universities, the regime is creating a divide between government-sanctioned arts, that serve the Communist Party’s nationalistic goals, and non-sanctioned arts.

This has sometimes lead to over-zealous interpretations. In December last year, for example, Shenyang Pharmaceutical University in China’s north-east publicly banned the celebration of Christmas on campus, to help students resist what it called the “corrosion of Western religious culture”.

The university’s Communist Youth League said the ban would build cultural confidence among those members of the younger generation “blindly excited” about Western holidays.

Cultural powerhouse

Promoting arts and culture has been high on the government agenda in recent years as part of China’s soft power expansion, but gained renewed prominence under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who has called on the nation to be “culturally confident” and develop its cultural sector into a pillar of the Chinese economy by 2020.

China is also aiming to catch up with developed economies such as Europe and the United States where cultural and creative industries contribute as much as 18% of gross domestic product, experts say.

To realise such an ambition, the Chinese youth in particular should “inherit Chinese culture, have national pride and cultural confidence, and closely link their ideals to the future of the nation”, Xi said ahead of last month’s 120th anniversary of the founding of Peking University in Beijing.