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The U.S.-China Center for Arts Exchange is a not-for-profit organization affiliated with, and headquartered at, Columbia University in New York City.

The Center for United States-China Arts Exchange (the Center) was established in 1978 by Columbia University Professor Chou Wen-chung to promote mutual interest in and understanding of the arts of the United States and China, and to promote creativity in both countries. The Center’s first project, under a formal agreement with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and its project partner, the Central Conservatory of Music, was launched in 1978. It is generally accepted that this initial collaboration served as a crucial catalyst in bringing about the diplomatic normalization between the two countries, which occurred in 1979.
Starting in 1979 and continuing through the 1980s, the Center designed and carried out an unprecedented series of short- and long-term exchanges of specialists in music, visual arts, drama, literature, dance, architecture, and arts education. American specialists visiting China typically offered lectures, demonstrations, and master classes, and were exposed to the country’s major arts institutions. In addition, they sometimes performed, arranged exhibitions, and carried out research. Exchanges to the U.S. from China often included small delegations and individual artists and scholars on fact-finding tours. A six-year (1982-88) arts education exchange program led to the establishment of the cabinet-level State Subcommission on Arts Education in China.

Major projects following the establishment of the Center included Isaac Sterns’s 1979 visit to China which resulted in the Academy Award-winning film, From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China. In 1983, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman played to packed audiences in Beijing. Directed by Miller himself, the production was hailed in China as “the most significant cultural event to take place since the Cultural Revolution,” and spawned an explosive growth in vernacular theater.

The Center gradually evolved into an organization that geographically extended beyond the United States and China and programmatically leaned increasingly towards projects that encompassed broader cultural significance. Following the tragic events of the summer of 1989 at Tiananmen Square, the Center canceled all China exchanges for the remainder of 1989 and 1990. Much of its efforts during that period were devoted to planning the first Pacific Musical Festival and its accompanying conference in Sapporo, Japan, which took place in 1990.

During the 1990s, the Center’s focus shifted to developing a multi-year, multi-faceted project in China’s Yunnan Province for the continuation and development of the arts of minority nationalities. Through its involvement in the Yunnan Nationalities Cultures Project, the Center recognized that the environmental conservation, development and management challenges facing Yunnan were of a global nature and required innovative solutions. As a result, the Center, in collaboration with Chinese partners, organized the 1999 Leadership Conference on Conservancy and Development, which brought more than 180 experts and observers from around the world to Yunnan. The Yunnan Initiative, a comprehensive policy statement, was written as a result of the Conference. Five principles were adopted: Conservation, Inclusion, Education, Tourism and Collaboration. 

The Yunnan Initiative set the stage for a formal partnership between the Center and Yunnan to implement demonstration projects that are guided by these principles. In January 2000, the Governor of Yunnan invited the Center to tour the Southern Silk Road and identify two demonstration projects. Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve and the 600-year-old historic City of Weishan were selected to illustrate the Yunnan Initiative. Since 2000, the Center’s work has focused on sustainable development issues in these two regions.
Professor Chou Wen-chung, an accomplished composer and professor of musical composition, is the only director the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange has known. His compositions, performed throughout the world, as well as his teachings at Columbia University, have focused on the total integration of Eastern and Western concepts and practices in music and the arts. His dedication to undertake crucially needed cultural projects throughout East and Southeast Asia led to the founding of the U.S.-China Arts Exchange Program.

Ken Hao is Associate Research Scholar in charge of the Center’s programs and a sociologist by training. Hao, whose research focuses on the symbolic significance of film and food, joined the Columbia faculty and the Center in 1996. His research on the cinematic representation of food has broadened the scope of film studies. His writing on film has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times. In the early 1990s, Hao developed the curriculum for a fieldwork-based sociological study of food at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey.

The U.S.-China Center for Arts Exchange is a not-for-profit organization affiliated with, and headquartered at, Columbia University in New York City. It was established with support grants from the Ford Foundation and the Rockefellers Brothers Fund, and a research grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. The Center is not a funding organization; it relies on contributions of money, materials and services from foundations, corporations and individuals to carry out its programs.

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  • Fritz Reiner Professor Emeritus of Musical Composition in the Faculty of the Arts, Director, U.S.-China Center for Arts Exchange