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Europe's capital studies China

For the next few months Brussels will teem with Chinese art and culture, with a tea house to boot.

Visitors attend the official opening of the exhibition, "Son of Heaven," as part of the Europalia.China festival in Brussels on Oct. 8, 2009. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — This fall and winter, the capital of Europe has taken on a distinctly Asian feel as China takes center stage at what the organizers are touting as the continent’s largest cultural festival.

The festival, Europalia.China, comes on the heels of China’s contentious guest of honor status at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Both are an illustration of Beijing’s ambitions to develop a wider cultural influence to match its global economic and political weight 60 years after the founding of the People’s Republic.

From October to February, Chinese artists, musicians, writers, dancers, filmmakers, acrobats, puppet masters, marital arts maestros and even tea makers will flood into Brussels. More than 50 exhibitions and over 400 concerts, plays and events will showcase Chinese creativity, from the beginnings of civilization though the glories of the Imperial court to the raw experimentation of today’s thriving art scene.

Organizers say the festival seeks to put the rapid rise of China into a cultural context to increase understanding of the assertive new world player. It comes at a time when Brussels diplomats are concerned that Europe’s place in the world could be undermined by the emergence of a “G2” of the United States and China.

“Psychologically, the Chinese dragon has grown too big too fast for us to grasp the scale on which global change is occurring, and the West has difficulty abandoning its grammar of superiority in the world,” said Philippe Pirotte, director of Switzerland’s Kunsthalle Bern, who helped organize the event.

Europalia festivals have been held at irregular intervals in Brussels since 1969, usually focusing on the culture of an invited nation. The Europalia organization, a Belgian non-profit, is run by government and private sector officials. Each festival is organized in partnership with the featured country. At first organizers looked only to Europe, but in 1989, Europalia Japan brought in a record 1.6 million visitors. Organizers hope China will give them another blockbuster for the festival’s 40th anniversary.

The flagship exhibition this year, “Son of Heaven,” brings together more than 250 Imperial masterpieces in silk, porcelain and precious metal from 3000 B.C. to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. There are performances by the Kunqu Opera, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Guangdong Modern Dance Company and experimental Jazz saxophonist Li Tieqiao. There are rickshaws and dancing lions in the streets, and tai chi and calligraphy demonstrations in a reconstructed Beijing tea house.

With European countries eager to court China, senior Belgian officials headed by King Albert II joined Chinese Vice President Xi Jingping for the launch of the festival. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso opened one of its central exhibits — the contemporary art show “The State of Things."

However, like the Frankfurt event, the Chinese focus in Brussels has raised concerns by human rights campaigners.

“Culture and human rights are intimately linked,” said the Belgian branch of Amnesty International. “Criminalizing freedom of expression is an attack on fundamental rights.”
The human rights campaign group called on Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy to raise the case of jailed Tibetan filmmaker Dhrondup Wangchen.