25/03/2015, by CLAS

Chinese Cultural Impact in Benin

Dr Catherine Gilbert (Research Fellow, Department of French and Francophone Studies)

The future of China-Africa relations will increasingly be determined by the interactions of people on the ground. Cultural presence plays a vital role in sensitising African peoples to the diversity of Chinese culture and dispelling many of the myths that are currently in circulation, and also in healing some of the wounds that have already been inflicted by intense Chinese economic engagement with many African countries. As a Research Fellow on the Building Images project, which seeks to understand Sino-African dynamics from the perspective of cultural exchange and translation, I have had the opportunity to examine the local-level experiences of both Chinese and Africans during a fieldwork trip to Benin in January 2015.

Cultural institutions in Benin

Benin is in fact home to one of the oldest Chinese Cultural Centres in the world (opening its doors in 1988), and its long-established Confucius Institute, which is housed at the Université d’Abomey-Calavi, has more than 200 students studying Chinese. Due to the increasing number of students intent on learning Chinese, the Confucius Institute began offering a Licence profesionnelle (the equivalent of a UK bachelor’s degree) in Chinese Studies in 2013. The enrolment figures for this programme were well above 70 in 2014, and are expected to be much higher this year. The Chinese Cultural Centre also has well over 200 students taking language, kung-fu, calligraphy and a range of other classes.

The challenge of language

One of the major obstacles to the success of the CCC is the issue of communication. With the majority of the Chinese staff unable to speak French, the onus falls on the local staff to facilitate communication through their mastery of the Chinese language. A surprising number of the local staff speak – or are learning to speak – Chinese, and without their efforts, effective communication would be impossible. The CCC’s local public affairs officer, Dr Maurice Gountin, studied in China for more than 10 years, obtaining his PhD at Renmin University of China.

From observation, however, the Chinese who have chosen to establish themselves in Benin do not appear to take much interest in the local culture, and many of them have very little command of French. Through a stilted discussion with a Chinese shop keeper, I discovered that he and his family had been living in Cotonou for more than 20 years, but the only things he could say confidently in French were the prices of the products he was selling.

An unequal balance?

This lack of reciprocity in language learning implies that the cultural relationship is not as balanced and two-way as official discourse suggests. This imbalance can also be seen in the media. For example, the Chinese embassy regularly donates Chinese films and documentaries to be aired on the national television station, ORTB. But the head of public relations at ORTB, Sourou Odjo, regrets that not a single Beninese television series or film has been translated/subtitled in Chinese and shown in China.

Based on his experiences studying in China, Maurice Gountin believes it will take a long time for China to know ‘African’ culture – and will never know ‘Beninese’ culture specifically – as the promotion of African culture in China remains largely absent.

Yet, for those involved in the Chinese cultural institutions in Benin, there is certainly a strong desire to build and strengthen the cultural relations between the two nations. It will be interesting to see which direction these relations will take in the coming years.

Catherine Gilbert

Building Images Project

Posted in French and Francophone Studies