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Tracing the roots

Updated: 2013-05-10 11:04
By Todd Balazovic ( China Daily)

Future for China's relations with Africa is hidden in its past

With all eyes on China's role in the future of African countries, it is easy to forget just how far back the country's relationship with the continent goes.

Businesses and governments inking deals of cooperation and development now dominate headlines almost daily.

But over the past decade, much before China saw its own economic rise, it was scholars dedicated to studying the past that were making history and creating inroads that have allowed relationship to reach the level it is at today.

"Modern China has been having academic exchanges with Africa since the 1950s," says Li Anshan, director of the Center of African Studies at Peking University and vice-president of the Chinese Society of African Historical Studies.

Dividing those involved in China-Africa exchanges into three generations, he says Peking University's involvement began with the exchange of a single scholar from Cairo University in 1956.

"He came and lived in Beijing, teaching classes and giving lectures to students. Later, we translated his teaching materials and documents into Chinese," he says.

Meanwhile in China, historian Zhou Yiliang embarked on a journey to Ghana as the first modern Chinese scholar to travel to Africa, spending time at Ghana University.

These first early exchanges are what Li refers to as the "first generation" of scholars focusing on Africa.

But real efforts to reach out to Africa began a decade later, when in the 1960s the government recognized many African countries were going through similar stages of developmental change.

"In the early 1960s, Chinese leaders realized how badly we needed the knowledge of Asia, Africa and other countries - especially Africa," Liu says.

"Chairman Mao Zedong once said something along the lines of 'I know very little about Africa' so we needed a concise book to introduce Africa's history and how they were liberated from colonialism - things along this line."

The sudden curiosity in Asia and Africa sparked two measures. The first was the foundation of the Institute of Asia-Africa Studies in the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1961.

The second was the foundation of international research centers at three universities - Peking University, Renmin University of China and Fudan University in Shanghai.

The creation of these institutes planted the seeds for the first China-Africa think tanks of modern China.

"So starting from the 1960s there was a warming-up of Africa studies," Li says.

"Unfortunately, this was cut by the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76), so everything stopped."

In the late 1970s, China once again revived efforts to understand Africa and how the two could benefit from each other. It started first with books being translated into Chinese containing basic knowledge of Africa.

"Some of these books were written or translated by distinguished scholars, others by simple book collectors - we used whatever resources we had," he says.

"That was a big push actually. Because at the time we knew very little."

It was in the 1990s that the relationship China now has with Africa began to take shape.

Compiling earlier efforts, a flurry of new books and information on Africa began to appear - including the first comprehensive series of history books produced by Chinese scholars in 1996.

China-Africa think tanks began forming and the approach shifted from one of understanding to one of analysis and cooperation.

Finally, in 2000, the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation cemented the long list of developmental and business activities that have been born out of the last decade.

It may have been just three decades ago that China was scrambling to understand even the basics of African history, but it was the historians themselves that played the biggest role in sculpting the future relations for China and Africa.


(China Daily 05/10/2013 page5)

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