The Center for US-China Arts Exchange was established by Chou Wen-chung at Columbia University in 1978. For forty years it was the only privately-funded, non-profit organization carrying out systematic exchanges between the two countries solely in the arts.

Playwright Arthur Miller was not stymied by cultural differences when he directed the first Chinese-language performance of “Death of a Salesman” in Beijing in 1983. He was surprised instead by the unexpected commonalities that he encountered and later shared in his published journal, “Salesman in Beijing.” Miller, for example, identified easily with many of the actors who had been imprisoned during China’s recent Cultural Revolution. They had been labeled “intellectuals,” and were condemned as unpatriotic and enemies of socialism. Miller had once been in their shoes, although on the opposite side of the coin. In 1956, during the political hysteria of the McCarthy anti-communist era, Miller had testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was convicted of contempt for refusing to name card-holding communists. He was among three hundred and twenty directors, actors and playwrights who were blacklisted by the government, a stigma that destroyed the careers of many.

Authoritarian contempt for writers and artists was only one of the universal themes that surfaced during this drama collaboration and which overshadowed the differences. The play was about family, fathers and sons, topics that the Chinese would understand regardless of a playwright’s origin. The Beijing production of “Death of a Salesman” was a smashing success, which ran for three months to full houses of weeping audiences. 

Although Miller described this adventure as “The greatest experience of my life,” his journey did not begin with such joy and elation. When Cao Yu, China’s most prominent playwright, invited Miller to direct the play at the Beijing People’s Arts Theatre, Miller was filled with a sense of foreboding and desperate to find a diplomatic exit. He feared the Chinese audience could never relate to the 1940’s salesman Willy Loman, a casualty of a society infected with success fever and business ambition. “China was more than 90% peasant and most living Chinese had been taught proletarian socialist values, the very anti-thesis of those Willy professed,” writes Miller.

In his journal, Miller also revealed that the person who finally convinced him was Chou Wen-chung, a composer who in 1978 had founded the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University. Miller writes: “Born in China, but an American of many years’ standing, Chou insisted that the Chinese would indeed understand Willy…”

Miller never suspected, however, that the genteel professor was also a perennial risk-taker. Or that the conjuring up of the China program at Columbia was his most audacious gamble to date, even after surviving many close-call episodes while growing up in wartime China. He had begun to imagine his dream many years before the two countries normalized diplomatic relations. In the midst of ongoing political turmoil and blatant hostility, he managed to convince major American foundations, the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Columbia University leaders to commit to an idea for a program no one had seen before. 

Chou’s persuasiveness came from the clarity of his vision, his unique combination of cultural knowledge and diplomatic savvy, and the depth of his passion. He saw the re-opening of China after thirty years of isolation as a critical turning point and was convinced that culture and the arts, rather than politics or economics, would be language through which adversaries could rediscover their mutual respect.

The Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange

The Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange was established on October 1, 1978 as a nationwide, non-profit agency privately funded by foundations, corporations and individuals. It was headquartered at Columbia University, which provided office space and administrative services. Initial funding came from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Henry Luce Foundation, all of whom continued to provide funding for specific projects over the years. Later donors were numerous and included the Burke Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, the Starr Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. George D. O’Neill, the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Chou Wen-chung served as the Director of the Center throughout its forty years of existence.

Mission Statement

The Center’s stated mission was to promote mutual interest and understanding in the arts of both countries and to stimulate creativity through people-to-people exchange programs. Chou’s personal vision was more inspired and far-reaching. He believed that profound interaction between artists from vastly contrasting cultures would spark creative development on a planetary scale. 

Curation and Program Design

Essential to his vision was careful curating and program design, which would bring together creative minds and professional of the highest caliber. Beginning in 1979, the organization carried out scores of projects involving individual specialists and groups from all the major cultural institutions in both the U.S. and China. Hundreds of artists, teachers, scholars, arts managers and government administrators took part in short-term visits and long-term research and teaching residencies. Designed in consultation with leading professionals, the programs were led by individuals who had the ability to impact a larger group through education of students or reaching audiences.

While accommodating the enthusiasm of leading figures in the arts, the Center’s goal was to plan and carry out programs that had more ambitious long-term goals. In creating programs for visiting arts professionals from China, the Center would seek to stretch the creative horizons of the individual through exposure to new art forms and activities, and also considered the person’s potential to contribute to capacity building at the home institution. In 1980, the Center organized an exchange of conductors, David Gilbert and Chen Xieyang, each spending twelve months in the other country with the goal of modernizing the presentation and management styles of China’s leading orchestras. For other Center projects, please see Program Overview.  

In 1990, the Center expanded its work to include the southwestern province of Yunnan, which is home to 25 of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups. In so doing, it also broadened the base of American participants by including folk musicians and craftsman who lived in culture-rich Appalachia, Louisiana and far-flung rural communities. Specialists from Yunnan visited the U.S. to observe approaches in the presentation of the minority cultures including Native Americans and African-Americans. The collaboration 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 mission of cultural conservation and the Center entered into partnerships with scientists at leading institutions in both countries.

Mission Accomplished: “Vanishing Mediator”

In 2018, forty years after the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange opened its office at Columbia University, Director Chou Wen-chung pronounced 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 four decades of intensive programming, the Center had forged solid connections between arts organizations in the two countries and created the underpinnings for direct and effective exchange. 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 and the tone of mutual respect, which he trusted would be the hallmark of exchanges in the future.

As an agency whose work has had a transformative effect on the mindset and career trajectories of many influential people, the Center exemplifies the concept of “Vanishing Mediator,” invented by the postmodern philosopher, Fredric Jameson. According to Jameson’s theory, the “Vanishing Mediator” is an individual or organization that exists only long enough to facilitate a challenging interaction between opposing ideas (in this case between former adversaries, China and the United States.) Once the desired transition occurs and the interchange becomes viable, the mediator “vanishes” from the scene and often from memory of the participants, but the impact endures.

A Practice in Search of a Philosophy

Chou Wen-chung’s four-decade experience in cultural exchange work at Columbia University only served to consolidate his conviction in the necessity of the field itself. He believed that the next step would be to improve the administrative capacity of cultural exchange so as to decrease obstacles and increase overall effectiveness. He recommended the creation of a new branch of study within the field of international relations that would provide administrators with the training needed to prepare them for the inevitable challenges, and define “best practices” to ensure that the work was being carried out in the best interests of all involved. Chou outlined his recommendations in a paper written in 1988 and presented in Berlin at the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation.

The Center’s tangible legacy will be preserved for the future in scholarly research. In 2018, Chou donated to the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University the Center’s archives, a large collection of carefully maintained material documenting the history of cultural diplomacy and exchange during an intriguing period of rapprochement between two world powers. These records will be of interest to scholars in a wide range of academic fields including cultural history, Chinese contemporary arts, international relations, political science, architectural preservation, arts education and the emerging field of cultural diplomacy. Observing historical events through the lens of artistic minds provides historians with a unique perspective rarely present in scholarly narratives.