URBANA – Chungliang Al Huang describes himself as Chinese-born and American through and through. Immersed in both cultures, he insists that we Americans, as well as the rest of the world, need not fear China.
Rather, we need to understand and accept it in new ways. One of the best, he says, is citizen diplomacy.
Huang, an internationally known author, calligrapher, dancer and tai ji master, saw it at work on his recent journey, with 32 of his Lan Ting Institute seminarians, to Wu Yi Mountain, a stunningly beautiful world cultural and natural heritage site in southern China.
There, they studied Chinese art, culture, philosophy and, every morning before breakfast, tai ji. (Huang introduced tai ji, a form of exercise and meditation, to Western popular culture through his 1973 best-seller "Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain.")
It was at the new Wu Yi University, where he lectured, that he saw citizen diplomacy at work. He had his seminarians, from 10 different countries, meet and talk with Chinese students and faculty.
"It was a great experience," he said. "They loved it. We were well-received."
Huang's students and the Chinese discovered things about each other that they didn't know and, as a result, began to see each other as individuals, Huang said.
"So many of my seminarians thanked me for the experience, saying they now have a totally different take on China," he said. "Suddenly, we're in the country relating to people, person to person."
In that kind of situation, people are willing to talk and trust in what each other has to say. They have far less confidence in what the media or their government tells them, Huang said.
Citizen diplomacy is also powerful, he said, because it shifts the consciousness of people and transcends business dealings and government diplomacy.
Huang, who is 70, considers his leading such exchanges as his destiny and a culmination of his life's work. Much of it has focused on helping people worldwide in the West-meets-East search for enlightenment and mind-body-spirit harmony.
Haung, who has written or co-written a dozen books on that subject and tai ji, said it's time for nations to put away their rivalry and striving to maintain a competitive edge and find ways to cooperate and understand China. The nation has become increasingly open to that, having readily accepted foreign aid after the Sichuan earthquake killed 69,000 people, he said.
The quake hit on May 12, shortly after Huang and his seminarians arrived in China. At Wu Yi, they were far from the danger zone; they felt safe but still connected to the tragedy.
To help out, the seminarians, ranging in age from 37 to 86, including an American-born Chinese on her first trip to China, raised $20,000 among themselves.
They decided to have the money go toward rebuilding schools and supporting teachers and students as they resumed their studies. Huang arranged for the quake-relief money, including that collected by his nonprofit Living Tao Foundation in Urbana, to go directly to an account in China, operated by people he trusts, rather than passing through a bureaucracy.
In addition to raising funds for schools in the hard-hit Sichuan Province, Huang and his seminarians joined the 1.3 billion people of China in the 3 minutes of silence May 19 to mourn the quake victims.
Huang said the entire country came to a standstill.
"It really brought us together as human beings and as one family, transcending national boundaries," he said. "We felt the pain and we felt the power of the entire country coming together. You could feel the whole continent of China as one heart, one mind. Our hair actually stood up and chills went up and down our spines."
Huang will next lead a Lan Ting Institute at Wu Yi Mountain in fall 2010. He plans to continue the exchange with Wu Yi University students and faculty, and hopes to see them coming here as well.
At Wu Yi, Huang's students stay at Lan Ting (Orchid Pavilion), where calligrapher Wang Xi-Zi of the East Jin Dynasty had his celebrated gathering of scholars/poets in spring 353 A.D.
At a museum in Shanghai, Huang bought a 40-foot long scroll that memorializes that moment.
"On that occasion, poetry was created while wine goblets floated on lily pads down the meandering stream," Huang said, describing the closing ceremony for his institute as well. "It was a utopian moment of cultural height in China, eternally celebrated and honored in China. Our Lan Ting Institute at Wu Yi Mountain is modeled after that."