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Connecting East and West through Music: Tan Dun in concert, 28/29 January

30 January 2019

On 28 January, the EU-Asia Centre, in collaboration with the Confucius Institute of the VUB and the Brussels Academy for China Studies, organized a panel discussion on the role of music in promoting connectivity between Europe and Asia. Two separate panel discussions, focusing on public diplomacy and artistic cooperation in promoting intercultural understanding respectively, were accompanied by two splendid musical intermissions from award-winning artists Jean-Francois Maljean (Belgium, piano) and Eldbjørg Hemsing (Norway, violin).tan2

tan8The event was followed by a grand concert on 29 January, jointly organized by the EU-Asia Centre and the Chinese Mission to the EU, where over 600 Chinese and European policymakers and artists viewed a spectacular performance of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra led by Maestro Tan Dun. Joined by award-winning Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat, rising suona star Liu Wenwen and renowned Peking opera artist Lian Wenqing, the orchestra performed a number of European and Chinese pieces, ranging from Igor Stravinsky to Ren Tongxiang. 

Both events were unique in that they brought together policymakers and performing artists to exchange ideas about the role of cultural diplomacy and artistic cooperation in connectivity. The concert showcased the potential of music to bridge gaps in cultural understanding and to forge rapprochement between geographically and culturally remote nations.   

I. Public diplomacy and the interpersonal dimension to connectivity – 28 Jan 2019
Moderated by Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre

Li Silong, Professor in Buddhist Philosophy at Peking University, emphasized that connectivity is not a new concept. Rather, as early as 1500 years ago, Chinese medicine travelled along the Silk Road to arrive in medieval Europe. Today, connectivity has come to encompass more than just trade, as the benefits of strengthening ‘interpersonal’ connections have taken centre stage. 

tan7Ville Varjola, Advisor to the Managing Director for Asia and the Pacific at the European External Action Service, explained that the EU’s recently adopted ‘connectivity strategy’ aims to show the world that Europe’s approach to connectivity works. The rapid integration process that continues to underpin the EU is based on the idea that improving economic connections between its Member States must be sustainable, respectful of the environment, have a clear social benefit, and increase that country’s resilience. In concrete terms, the EU-China Connectivity Platform, though disappointingly having failed to fully deliver on both parties’ expectations, is a clear example of the EU endeavouring to engage with third states in making connectivity sustainable on the global level.

tan3Shada Islam, Director for Europe and Geopolitics at the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe, encouraged stakeholders to internationalize the connectivity discourse. ASEAN’s Connectivity Master Plan and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development all set out global avenues for connectivity that is connectivity and truly strengthens countries’ resilience. Women empowerment and the involvement of civil society are crucial in selling the many connectivity initiatives to the wider audience. 

Monica Urian, Policy Officer for EU-Asia Cultural Relations at DG EAC, European Commission, stated that Europe has a grand track record in investing in people-to-people relations (Erasmus programme; Creative Europe). In all of this, investing in the mobility of students, researchers and tourists has been key. Tourism being a policy area with clear mutual interests to all parties, the EU-China Year of Tourism has given momentum to wider EU-China relations whilst increasing tourist flow both ways.


Participants agreed that the EU could no longer rely on the US as an unquestioned provider of support for the values-based multilateral system - creating possible challenges for the EU’s connectivity. Cooperation with like-minded countries such as Japan, India, Singapore and Australia is necessary to ensure that connectivity is socially and environmentally responsible and fiscally sound. Concurrently, the EU and China can team up on issues of common concern, such as WTO reform.tanfour

The European Commission is teaming up with Member States’ national cultural organizations to increase the number of non-European languages on offer in universities and language centres.

II. Promoting inter-cultural understanding through artistic cooperation – 28 Jan
Moderated by Wei Shen, Vice Chair of the EU-Asia Centre

Maestro Tan Dunshared a personal anecdote: whereas during the Cultural Revolution, he was predominantly preoccupied with Chinese nationalist music, broadening his horizon to also include European classical music has allowed him to build bridges between different (musical) cultures. Critically acclaimed Norwegian violin player Eldbjørg Hemsing shared how, by performing for President Xi Jinping during the heavily anticipated visit of the Norwegian royal couple in 2018, she credits music – a universal language – with the improvement of Sino-Norwegian ties. 

tan5Marianne Løkke Jakobsen, Director of the Music Confucius Institute, Royal Danish Academy of Music explained how under her leadership the Confucius Institute in Copenhagen has become a true cross-cultural meeting point.Xin Xiaoying, news anchor for CCTV, shared how French-German relations improved steadily in the post-war period by means of a jointly produced TV series and show titled ‘le cerf volant’.

The red thread running through the panellists’ contributions was the potential of music to connect people across languages and across cultures – a potential to which the concert by Tan Dun and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra on 29 January was a testimony.

Picture credits: Alohafred - find the official pictures of the event here