Feature: China, a distant attraction for Maurice

2008-06-05 02:17:58 GMT       2008-06-05 10:17:58 (Beijing Time)       Xinhua English

by Fei Liena & Yu Zhixiao

BEIJING, June 5 (Xinhua) -- "You know what, I was beguiled!" said Maurice Gountin, a solid-built man from Benin in Western Africa, when talking about his first experience of learning Chinese and later coming to China to study.

In China, Maurice is something of a celebrity. He is described by some Chinese media as "an African expert in China and a Chinese expert in Africa," who can listen, speak, read and write fluent Chinese, and knows much about Chinese society, after four years of studying Chinese in Benin and almost 10 years of studying and living in Beijing.

"At first I was not that interested in Chinese or China, because it was so far away from me and I knew so little about it," confessed the 34-year-old, who is better known in China by his first name.

"When my university opened a brand-new second-language course of Chinese in 1996, I thought I would have a little taste of it and then drop out very quickly. I used a fake name to register, so that I could get away with it without being caught," he said in a mischievous tone.

But after one month, Maurice became increasingly fascinated by the "strange-shaped, picture-like" Chinese characters with so many different meanings. More surprisingly, he got the highest score in a Chinese test. "Long after that did I realize that my Chinese teacher set a trap for me," Maurice said, adding that "since I became the top student in my class, I had to work hard to keep that title, and the better I got, the more interest I had in this oriental language, setting myself in a virtuous circle, you know."

That's not the only attraction. In his last year at college, his Chinese teacher secured Maurice a scholarship from the Chinese government. And after a little hesitation, the young Beninese gave up his bachelor's degree and came to China to start over again.

In the next 10 years, Maurice wasted no time learning as much as he could and experiencing China as much as possible. He studied Chinese language, international politics, and contemporary Chinese diplomacy consecutively. In July, Maurice will get his PhD from the prestigious Renmin University.

However, ordinary Chinese have become acquainted with Maurice not for his academic achievements, but for his "not that serious" hobby of performing "Xiangsheng," a traditional Chinese style comic dialog between two more persons which attracts massive audiences in China.

Through Xiangsheng, Maurice has learned much more about the Chinese language, especially different dialects, which are "far more interesting than the one from the books," he said. Xiangsheng also offers him a close look at the daily life of ordinary Chinese people and helps to broaden his view on Chinese history and culture. Besides, it makes Maurice popular.

For years, he has trained with Chinese Xiangsheng mentor Ding Guangquan, along with other foreign students, to perform Xiangsheng or Xiaopin (comic sketch, another popular entertainment art) and has appeared on stage or TV more than 300 times.

"Of the 1.3 billion Chinese, I guess some 300 million have watched my performances," Maurice said.

"China has so many different kinds of arts, Xiangsheng is just one of them," he said. If possible, he would love to learn more forms of Chinese arts, such as Wushu, Beijing Opera, Calligraphy, painting, and acrobatics.

He also likes modern arts such as pop music, street dance, contemporary drama and opera, as well as modern painting, films and novels that prevail in China. He hopes that China will vigorously promote modern arts to African people as a start to attract attention, then gradually "lure" them to learn more about China's traditional culture and history.

"People want to see new things and changes of China, not always the old stuff," said the "African expert," "otherwise our image of China will always remain at Li Xiaolong's (a passed-away Chinese Kungfu star in the U.S.) films, and we'll be bored quickly."

He also wishes to see joint efforts by African countries to setup an African culture center in Beijing to hold regular exhibitions and performances for the Chinese audience, so the Chinese people can gain more knowledge and affection of the far-away continent.

"The exchange of different cultures will shorten the distance between China and Africa, both geographically and psychologically, making Chinese and African people more interested in each other," he said.

"Look at me, I'm the fruit of such exchanges," he said, "I receive Chinese culture and I offer African culture."

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