Christine Ni is a writer, translator and speaker on Chinese traditional and pop culture. Born in Guangzhou, she moved to London in 1993 when she was 11 years old. Now she lives between the two worlds and describes Chinese culture as “both very different and very similar to your own.”
Since 2008, she has been giving talks on Chinese tea culture, animation, punk music, classical literature and cuisine at festivals around the UK. She is currently working on a collection of manhua, a form of Chinese comic book.
Her blog “Snow Pavilion” (a literal translation of her Chinese name) covers developments in Chinese arts and sets out her intent of creating understanding between China and the West.
Promoting Chinese culture
Having studied English at Queen Mary’s University London and classical Chinese literature as a post-graduate at Beijing’s Central University of Nationalities, Ni would habitually attend pop culture conventions, usually around music or animation. At these conventions, she seldom saw her own culture being represented.
“I would hear a talk about Osamu Tezuka, godfather of Japanese manga, with absolutely no mention that he found so much inspiration from Wan Laiming,” Ni told The Nanfang. Wan Laiming (1900-1997) was the director of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. He was one of the most important pioneers of animation of the 20th century but is barely known in the West.
“There are a lot of bad new stories about China and on the whole we’re not so good at promoting the good things that are happening, or even understanding what the good things are,” Ni added. With support from her friends, she decided to devote her free time to promoting little known areas of contemporary Chinese culture, such as its punk music scene. “My Peking Into Punk Talk is always very well attended and I’m currently working with a film maker on a documentary on China’s underground music.”
“Yes, as China becomes more successful, the West will become increasingly less dismissive. I think the desire to understand China, not just to fear it, will grow.”
Attachment to the PRD
As well as it being the place of her birth, Ni cites two main reasons why the PRD is an interesting place. “Firstly, it is the area that the West first encountered and secondly, it is relatively free from government control,” she told The Nanfang.
Although the first reason explains why Cantonese culture has informed how the West views China, Ni thinks that internally, it is not quite recognised how distinct Cantonese culture is. “Whilst northern Han culture is seen as the main high culture, and the Miao, Zhuang and Yi are held up to show our internal ethnic diversity, I think Cantonese culture sort of gets lost in the middle.”
Ni talks with fondness about her time in Guangzhou. When asked what her favourite location in the city is, she couldn’t decide between the Yuexiu park district and the area around Haizhu Square.
Her best memories of growing up in Guangzhou include the flower market (which is going on right now), and meandering through the streets of the old city. The worst memory? “One Spring Festival when leaving Guangzhou, we decided to take the ferry back to Hong Kong. I was detained at length by the borders guards who took away my passport. Whilst everything was in order, but they simply couldn’t believe that somebody who had “made it out” would still want to travel by boat.”
Living between two worlds
Although those border officials described emigrating as “making it out,” she is far from finished with China. “I feel both foreign and at home everywhere. It’s quite upsetting how England is becoming more xenophobic,” she said, citing the “pointed looks” she gets from employees of the UK Border Agency. A YouGov poll a year ago found that only 11 percent of Britons agreed that immigration had been good for the country compared to 67 percent who viewed it as bad.
Supporting herself with a day job in publishing, she gives her time to projects that may otherwise not find support or funding. To her, the most likely art form to have crossover appeal is film. “There’s a reason why Run Run Shaw was given a CBE,” she says.
China also has cultural industries with latent potential. “The Chinese have yet to really take pride in their computer game and animation industries, even though in the West, that is increasingly where the money is,” according to Ni.
But as for publishing, the English Lit graduate thinks there is still a long way to go in Western publishers dealing with Chinese books. “Whilst there are some great Chinese authors, Western publishers tend to only pick very worthy titles.” If you’d like to learn what Chinese fiction and poetry was published in English during 2013, see here.
Another problem is finding translators who are up to the job. “There are very few translators who’ve got a good enough grasp of both cultures to really convey the author’s meaning. Some of the best fiction coming out of China still seems as unpalatable to Western distributors as thousand year old eggs or snake wine,” Ni told The Nanfang.
But who knows, maybe some day there will be enough Christine Nis in the world for there to be a genuine movement.