Commentary: Two worlds, one language

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Do you speak Chinese?

I don’t, but I had a great conversation with two non-English-speaking Chinese artists and educators last week.

I was moderating a roundtable discussion at the governor’s residence for Joyce Sommers and the Indianapolis Arts Center. The roundtable kicked off a two-month summer exhibit at the center called “Two Worlds, One Language through Art.” (You can read more about the exhibit on page 37.)

It was my first time as a moderator in a situation requiring the use of an interpreter. Complicating matters was the fact that the group comprised more than a dozen people, the majority of whom were non-Chinese-speakers like me.

My job during the 90-minute session was to make sure each person had a chance to add to the conversation-a task made more difficult by the fact that every word required translation.

For every question, I’d stop after a couple of sentences to allow time for the interpretation and then go on. I tried to make my questions short, but that’s more difficult than you might imagine.

Every answer had to be translated, too, and it was difficult for the American participants (not the Chinese) to get into the habit of temporarily stopping their responses often enough to allow time for translation. Some were better at it than others.

The minutes added up to the point that I was able to ask only about half as many questions as I could have if the session hadn’t required an interpreter. Still, we eventually established a kind of rhythm, albeit a choppy one.

Final conclusion: Awkward, but productive and enjoyable. No doubt some things were lost in translation.

Art in China has always been a big deal, but the West is just now beginning to appreciate it on a grander scale. A couple of signs: At a recent Sotheby’s auction, $53 million worth of Chinese art was sold in one afternoon, and a Manhattan art gallery is in the process of opening a branch in Beijing.

In China itself, an art museum boom is under way, and the government has recognized that art and art education are important drivers of economic development.

One unavoidable conclusion from the discussion was that the Chinese government is far ahead of our own-state and federal-in understanding the importance and value of teaching art and art appreciation.

The Chinese believe the right brain is just as important as the left in developing a whole person, and the government apparently puts enough resources behind the belief to make it a reality in that culture.

The art center’s “Two Worlds, One Language” exhibition is the result of a series of discussions that took place after local artist Becky Fehsenfeld guest-lectured at the Shandong College of Arts.

The Fehsenfeld’s family company, The Heritage Group, has significant operations in Shandong Province, one of China’s richer provinces.

On the east coast of China, Shandong is the second-most populated and has the second-highest GDP among them; its primary products are cotton, wheat, gold and diamonds. It also has extensive petroleum deposits.

A cultural center, it is the home of Confucius and considered the birthplace of China’s tradition of producing pottery, porcelain and silk.

The art coming out of Shandong today is gorgeous. Two of the roundtable participants-deans Mao Daizong and Wang Like-are responsible for four of the paintings in the exhibit.

More than 50 other paintings and a number of free programs will be available to you at the Indianapolis Arts Center though Aug. 24. I highly recommend getting engaged.

As for the paintings, I was struck by the variety of styles and subject matter they represented. As for my first real face-to-face encounter with the Chinese people, it confirmed everything I had always heard about their kindness, sensitivity and humor.

As for the overall experience, it was invaluable for me and illustrated the point of “Two Worlds, One Language … “: Verbal communication can sometimes be difficult, but art is a language that doesn’t need a translator.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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