Chou Wen-chung established the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University on October 1, 1978, three months before the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China announced the official “normalization” of diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979. It was a moment of enormous satisfaction for the composer and professor who had pursued this idealistic aspiration for years.

A rapprochement between the two countries became riveting international news in 1971 when President Richard Nixon announced his plans to visit Beijing the following year. The United States and China had been engaged in an acrimonious relationship for two decades. In the U.S., this animosity had been intensified by the Korean War and further used to nurture the paranoia of the McCarthy era and the Cold War. In China, the Communist leadership condemned capitalism and warned its people against the threat of American “imperialism and hegemony.”

The United States had never had diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which was founded on October 1, 1949, by Chairman Mao Zedong when the Communist army defeated the Nationalist forces led by General Chiang Kai-shek. The U.S. did not recognize this new regime at the time, honoring instead their commitment to the Nationalist government of the Republic of China. When the defeated Nationalists retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949, the U.S. honored its word and sent the Navy’s Seventh Fleet to patrol the waters of the Taiwan Strait.

In December of 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed the agreement recognizing the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. was also terminating a 50-year pact with the Republic of China on Taiwan. The people of Taiwan condemned this act as a shocking betrayal, which left them feeling abandoned and vulnerable. 

The reconciliation between the U.S. and the P.R.C. was encouraging news, however, for many people in the U.S. and China, who saw a possible route to a peaceful relationship. Before China was torn in two in 1949, the American and the Chinese people had a generally friendly attitude toward one another, despite a few memorable setbacks, among them the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese workers from entry into the United States for sixty years.

There were positive associations too. Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, many Chinese intellectuals had studied in American universities and returned to China as influential leaders who promoted American values of freedom and equal opportunity. In the early twentieth century, a number of universities and hospitals in China had been built with American donations, gestures of generosity that were appreciated by those who benefited.

Most important was the sense of camaraderie that evolved during the two world wars: the Chinese and the Americans had fought and died on the same side. During World War I, the Chinese supported the Allied powers by sending 140,000 workers of the Chinese Labor Corps to France to support the war effort in non-combat manual labor. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States came to China’s rescue in the World War II battle against the Japanese Army, fighting alongside Chinese soldiers until the enemy surrendered in 1945. 

Chou Wen-chung himself had been a refugee from this latter era of brutality and remembered the feelings of triumph and euphoria that the Chinese shared with the American soldiers when the war ended. He was among those who enthusiastically supported the new détente. Chou had come to the U.S. in 1946 and, like most foreign students of that period, had planned to return home to contribute to the rebuilding of his shattered homeland. The Communist victory in 1949 altered the landscape, and Chou dared not return. When China launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, intensifying anti-Western rhetoric, Chou began to despair of the possibility of a reunion with his family. 

The Chou Family Benefits from the Thaw

In late 1972, months after the historic meeting of leaders in Beijing, Chou found himself in Shanghai on an emergency mission. His father-in-law, Chang Hsin-hai, a former diplomat and Harvard-educated scholar, was visiting China with his wife as guests of the Chinese government when he suffered a series of strokes. He was hospitalized and put under the care of the country’s top doctors. Chou managed to arrange a special visa to enter China where he hoped to arrange to bring his in-laws safely back to their home on Long Island. But former Ambassador Chang died several days after Chou’s arrival.

Chou remained in China with his mother-in-law and assisted the family make arrangements that included his mother-in-law’s request to scatter her husband’s ashes in Hangzhou’s West Lake. The family was grateful to the Chinese officials, who showed them respect and endeavored to meet their requests.

Government representatives also accommodated Chou’s request to meet with leaders of the arts community, and he became the first Chinese-American to meet with high-level officials since 1949. They also arranged for him to meet with a small group of influential musicians and educators, a gathering that turned out to be an unexpected reunion of old friends. Several of the participants had been Chou’s schoolmates from St. John’s University and Shanghai Music School, where he had studied violin in 1938.

In the company of fellow musicians and artists, Chou raised the idea of a future exchange program in the arts between the two countries. The response was polite but ambiguous. Only in retrospect did Chou fully realize that he had been discussing dangerous material with artists and intellectuals whose positions in China were extremely precarious at the time. The Cultural Revolution was still in full force and would not end until the “Smashing of the Gang of Four” in 1976.

Like most scholars and visitors from the West, in 1972 Chou was unable to get a full picture of what was happening in China behind the official government veneer. In a pre-internet world, it was possible for the government to control information both inside and outside of the country and generate a positive image for visitors from abroad. Even friends and family were unwilling to reveal the reality to visiting relatives, fearing reprisals should the information be publicized. Many Europeans worked in China during the early 1970’s as diplomats or “foreign experts,” but their daily lives were separated from ordinary Chinese citizens and their movements were carefully restricted. Some of these residents wrote positive articles that were published abroad, only to learn, after 1976, that their observations had been strictly controlled.

Chou’s breakthrough meeting with artists and musicians in 1972 produced no tangible results for several years. Yet in 1973, as a follow-up to Nixon’s discussions in Beijing, the Chinese government opened a Liaison Office in Washington, D.C., headed by former French Ambassador and seasoned diplomat Huang Zhen. Huang, a former artist who possessed a cultural lineage that would suggest open mindedness, was to play a pivotal role in 1977 in opening a trail for Chou that eventually led to the successful establishment of the Center. 

Other than the opening of liaison offices, there was little progress on the official diplomatic front. After Nixon’s meeting with Mao, the leading proponents of détente became preoccupied with problems of their own. In the U.S., Nixon faced political ruin as the Watergate scandal became the focus of American news. In China, both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were suffering from declining health. After a cancer operation, Zhou rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, who had been purged in 1966, and made him Deputy Premier to handle relations with the United States. Yet when President Gerald Ford visited Beijing in 1975, diplomatic discussions with Deng Xiaoping ended with an angry premier accusing Ford of changing the agreement and moving in reverse. Cultural exchange was put on the back burner. 

In the meantime, Chou was busy with his own work at Columbia, taking on new leadership roles in the School of the Arts in 1973. He also became a board member of the National Committee on US-China Relations, an organization founded in 1966 by a coalition of scholars and business leaders who recognized the value of improving relations between the two countries. The National Committee had been behind the warm-up programs of “ping pong diplomacy.” 

Troubles Bring Transformation

The year 1976 was one of tragedy, turmoil and transformation for the People’s Republic of China. January saw the death of Zhou Enlai, the beloved Premier of the people, who had come to represent sanity and hope during the absence of both during the Cultural Revolution. On April 5, which was the Qing Ming traditional day of mourning, massive crowds jammed into Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to the deceased leader. The result was a violent skirmish between mourners and urban militia sent in to clear the square. Deng Xiaoping was blamed for the chaos (called the Tiananmen Incident) and sacked again from his position.

Then, on July 28, the city of Tangshan, located 112 miles east of Beijing in Hebei province, was devastated by the most deadly earthquake of the 20th century, killing more than 250,000 people and generating traditional-style rumors that would ascribe political significance to such a natural disaster.

Fewer than six weeks later, on September 9, Chairman Mao Zedong died of a heart attack. The Chairman’s designated successor and Premier of the State Council, Hua Guofeng, became Chairman of the Communist Party. In less than a month the new leadership arrested the Gang of Four, the group considered to be the architects of the Cultural Revolution under the leadership of Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong. The following August, Hua Guofeng announced that the Cultural Revolution had officially come to an end, and the realities of the Cultural Revolution were revealed to the world. 

Chou recognized opportunity in the political events that ended the chaos of the previous ten years. He moved ahead to lay the groundwork needed to assure the Chinese government that his plan for cultural exchange was solid, feasible and endorsed. It was time to establish a prestigious home base for the Center and identify non-government supporters willing to finance the expenses of an international exchange program.

Establishing the Center

Columbia University’s School of the Arts was Chou’s academic home and the ideal venue for the Center and its high-caliber program combining academic research with the creative work of artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers. Chou had completed a master’s degree at Columbia in 1954 and joined the music faculty ten years later. By 1977 he had distinguished himself as an outstanding educator with an international vision, a discerning administrator and strategist and, unexpectedly, a cultural diplomat. The relationship was mutually beneficial. The university afforded the prestigious image needed for Chou to raise funds, and the university enjoyed the cachet of being the first educational institution to add a unique arts program to its legacy.

Columbia was eager to again attract brilliant minds from China. Eminent sinologist and Provost William Theodore de Bary was among the scholars eager to resurrect the university’s legacy as a hub for Chinese intellectuals. Columbia’s illustrious list of alumni during the first half of the 20th century had included highly influential figures who later exerted a major impact in China. Among them was educational reformer Hu Shih (’17) who had revolutionized the Chinese written language and served as Ambassador to the United States during World War II; Nobel Prize winning physicist Lee Tsung-Dao and literary scholar Liang Shih-chiu (’26) who translated the entire Shakespearean canon into Chinese. The influx of leading scholars from mainland China had temporarily ended in 1949 with the Communist revolution.

Columbia agreed to provide the Center with office space and in-kind funding in the form of administrative services, a commitment that empowered Chou to contact foundations with known China interests. The Center’s initial supporters were the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Ford Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, building on the family’s long history of philanthropy in China, initially donated $60,000 to help launch the Center and became a steadfast donor for many years, eventually funding a highly influential multi-year program in arts education, which the Center organized in collaboration with Harvard University Project Zero. 

The Henry Luce Foundation, which also had early roots in China, showed its initial support for the Center by donating a grant to be used for scholarly research, which was renewed throughout the years on a project-by-project basis.

The Ford Foundation, which began its China program in the 1960’s, donated $60,000 to the Center for seed money and continued funding for years. After opening an office in Beijing in 1988, the Ford Foundation began working on projects in Yunnan Province and became the leading financial force behind the Center’s groundbreaking Yunnan Initiative, a program aimed at the conservation of the cultural traditions of ethnic minorities in the province.

Time to Engage

The end of the Cultural Revolution was celebrated among most of China’s population, eager to hear about developments abroad and good news about the future.

In October 1977, Chou made his second trip to China with a delegation of Board members of the National Committee on US-China Relations. He succeeded in extending his visit for sixteen days and used this time to meet arts leaders and take the next step in winning support for a cultural exchange program. Huang Zhen, former head of the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington, had returned to China to serve as Minister of Culture and was instrumental in paving the way. The pace of progress surpassed Chou’s expectations.

The Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing invited Chou to give a lecture on the state of the arts in the United States for an audience of high-level officials, including Minister Huang Zhen and leaders in the arts. Chou concluded his presentation with a proposal to launch an exchange program based at Columbia University with non-governmental funding. Minister Huang Zhen quickly put Chou in touch with Wang Bingnan, Chairman of the “non-governmental” organization called the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. In the absence of formal diplomatic relations, the program could not involve government-to-government agreements.

For more information:

During the months that followed, Chou exchanged correspondence with Wang Bingnan, and on October 1, 1978, the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange was officially launched in Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Despite years of preparation, it seemed that everything happened overnight. The Center began organizing programs immediately, and in February 1979 sent the first U.S. cultural delegation to visit China since 1949. Programs proliferated in diverse fields of the arts from that moment on. “Exchange” meant that programs were organized in both directions but did not indicate rigid reciprocity within given projects. 

The first year of operation was thrilling as artists from both countries met after thirty years of estrangement. The future seemed particularly bright when, on October 30, 1979, the fourth National Congress of Writers and Artists was held in Beijing. At the meeting, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders voiced support for freedom of artistic expression, an announcement that augured smooth sailing for the newly established Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange. Four decades of groundbreaking exchanges in the performing, literary, and visual arts ensued, involving artists and arts educators both renowned and unknown, on both sides of the Pacific. However, the bold and innovative exchange program did not always proceed smoothly.

After the honeymoon year, political uncertainty—either in China or in diplomatic relations—became the familiar soundtrack of the Center’s work. U.S. government arms sales to Taiwan were a continual source of tension. Anti-Western campaigns in China, such as the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Movement of 1983 and the campaign against Bourgeois Liberalization in 1986, marked the kind of turbulence that would delay exchange program schedules.

Yet nothing affected the Center’s work as profoundly as the tragedy that occurred on June 4, 1989, at Tiananmen Square—the Chinese government’s brutal response to unarmed students who had occupied the Square for weeks in an anti-corruption campaign. As the world watched the violence in horror, ten years of good will toward China was crushed beneath the tanks. The U.S. and other nations imposed economic sanctions, and government exchange programs were halted for three years, reopening officially in 1992. The Center’s programs were also temporarily halted to assess the future and the climate for exchanges.

A New Way Forward: The Yunnan Initiative

Although the devastating developments of 1989 caused a setback for the Center’s exchange programs, an unexpected expansion of geography and programmatic scope also resulted. New areas of need and potential emerged during the period of grief and silent contemplation that followed the shock of the events of June 4.

In 1990, Chou made a trip to the southwestern province of Yunnan at the invitation of the Ford Foundation, one of the Center’s early supporters. The Foundation had been carrying out reforestation and reproductive health programs in Yunnan since 1988, and asked Chou to consider designing a cultural component to complement its work.

Yunnan Province is home to 25 of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups whose rich traditional cultures were threatened by social transformation resulting from rapid modernization. Chou was inspired by the artistic wealth he observed as well as the urgency of a rescue effort. Together with government officials and cultural workers in Yunnan, he launched a program that engaged hundreds of specialists from both countries. The Yunnan Initiative also broke through parameters of previous programs that had been mostly urban-centered and limited to the fine arts. In so doing, the Center expanded the base of American participants to include folk musicians and craftspeople living in rural areas. Specialists from Yunnan visited the U.S. to observe American approaches to cultural presentation among minority groups, including Native Americans and African-Americans, as well as folk traditions ranging from New Orleans jazz to Appalachian white oak basket weaving. Endeavors in Yunnan resulted in the establishment of a new museum of ethnic minority cultures, a department of indigenous arts in the provincial university, mentorship programs in villages and field research by scholars of anthropology and other academic disciplines.

In 2001, the field of environmental preservation was integrated into the programs of cultural conservation, uniting realms that are inseparable elements for indigenous artists. Participating institutions in several large-scale projects included The Field Museum in Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia University, New York University and Openlands in Chicago.

Mission Accomplished

In 2018, forty years after the Center first opened at Columbia University, Director Chou Wen-chung deemed the organization’s mission accomplished. The need for an agency to serve as a cross-cultural intermediary between organizations and individuals no longer had the same urgency that was evident in 1978. During its four decades of intensive programming, the Center had forged solid connections between arts organizations in the two countries and created the underpinnings for direct exchange. Many universities, “sister” cities, orchestras, museums and other institutions and locales had established their own ongoing exchange relationships. China’s rapid modernization, globalization and international advances in technology and communications had made the world smaller and more accessible. Chou Wen-chung set the standards of artistic excellence as well as the tone of mutual respect, which he trusted would be the hallmark of exchanges in the future.

In a fitting final move, the Center’s archives were acquired by Columbia University’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library as part of its Special Collections in 2018. Chou Wen-chung died at the age of 96 in New York City on October 25, 2019.