Chinese culture in the heart of Seoul

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Chinese culture in the heart of Seoul

Korea has been strongly influenced by Chinese culture for thousands of years. Cultural exchanges between the two countries were suspended, however, from the Korean War (1950-1953) until 1992, when the two neighbors resumed diplomatic relations.
Now, Koreans can again have easy access to Chinese culture on their own territory with the opening of a Chinese cultural center in the heart of the capital. This is the fourth center in the world, but the first in Asia, following those in Egypt, Malta and France.
“The contents offered at the cultural center in Korea are richer than those offered in other countries,” said Zhu Ying Jie, 48, the director of the center and counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Korea. “The two countries are not only geographically close to each other, but they also have many things in common in terms of culture.”
The Chinese Cultural Center was inaugurated last month, but a Korean cultural center has been open in Beijing since December 1993.
The center, located in Naeja-dong, central Seoul, occupies a fully renovated seven-story building with a modern facade covered in dark glass. There is no distinguishing feature to indicate the building’s occupant; only the red Chinese national flag waving on the rooftop provides a recognizable sign.
It cost 8 billion won ($7.6 million) to purchase and renovate the building, which is designed to offer a wide range of programs for Sinophiles. Some of the rooms, including a reception room, are decorated with sumptuous Ming Dynasty-style furniture made of Chinese juniper wood, as well as lanterns and wooden screens, which were all made in China.
The first and second floors are used as exhibition halls, while the fourth floor contains a library with 15,000 books and periodicals, as well as audio and video materials, including DVDs of Chinese films. The DVDs have English, Japanese and French subtitles, and visitors can watch them in individual booths.
On the seventh floor are a kitchen and dining room, where Chinese cooking lessons will be given. The third floor contains two language laboratories for advanced Chinese courses.
In the basement is a large room that can be used for film screenings and seminars. The room has more than 100 seats, which can be folded and pulled back to provide space for parties and other events. Chinese films are shown here at 7 p.m. on Fridays, but they do not have Korean or English subtitles.
The cultural center plans to offer instruction in calligraphy, martial arts, painting and oriental medicine as well. All the programs are offered for free, except for the cost of materials and food ingredients used in cooking classes, Mr. Zhu said.
Mr. Zhu was born in Harbin and attended the Shenyang Conservatory of Music. He studied in Pyeongyang on a government scholarship beginning in 1981. After learning the Korean language at Kim Il Sung University for one year, he graduated from the Pyongyang Music and Dance University.
While he was studying in Pyeongyang, Mr. Zhu said he was exposed to different styles of traditional Korean opera-like performing arts, such as pansori and changgeuk.
“Korean traditional music has a unique style,” Mr. Zhu said, speaking of pansori pieces like “Simcheongjeon” and “Chunhyangjeon,” which he studied in Pyeongyang.
In 1982, Mr. Zhu met his wife, a Chinese student studying in the North Korean capital.
Returning to China in 1986, Mr. Zhu began working for the Chinese Ministry of Culture and was responsible for cultural affairs with North Korea.
From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Zhu worked at the Chinese Embassy in the North Korean capital. With the signing of diplomatic agreements between South Korea and China in 1992, Mr. Zhu took charge of cultural affairs for both North and South Korea.
Before he was appointed the first director of the cultural center last June, Mr. Zhu was responsible for cultural exchanges with 27 countries while at the Culture Ministry, and contributed to the signing of the Korea-China Culture Treaty, he said.
While working on cultural exchanges between China and South Korea, Mr. Zhu became friends with people like Park Ge-hyun, the director of the Korea Opera Group. The opera company performed such Korean operas as “Hwangjini” in China, and Ms. Park received a medal from the Chinese ministry for improving relations between the two countries.
At the moment, only the exhibition halls and Chinese film screenings on Friday evenings are available to visitors, but eventually the center will provide all the programs. The current exhibition, titled “Into China,” is a display of photographs of Chinese scenery, which continues to Jan. 28.
Two Chinese language instructors and a Chinese cook who specializes in royal court cuisine have been hired, but they have not yet come to Korea because they want to spend the Lunar New Year holiday with their families, Mr. Zhu said. The holiday, which runs from Feb. 8 to 10 this year, is the biggest holiday in China, he added.
Although the center opened only a month ago, it has already developed a fan base because of its Web site (www.cccseoul.or), which opened in February 2004. The homepage has 5,000 members and 100 volunteer reporters who contribute to the site.

by Limb Jae-un

The Chinese Cultural Center is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There is no admission charge. The center can be reached from exit 7 of Gyeongbokgung station on line No. 3. The library will open to the public next week, and the movie screenings will be moved to 3 p.m. on Saturdays beginning next month. For more information, call 02-733-8307/9.
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