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June 20, 2024

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Literature deepens understanding across different cultures

I always believe that, to know a nation’s soul and spirit, we should gain insight into her history and culture. To know people’s emotions and the social mores of a nation, we should read her literary works.

Although literary writings, especially those recognized as “great,” are to a degree a reflection of the authors’ personal sentiments and preferences, they are also an objective reflection of economic circumstances, social relations, and the historical reality of the times.

Such reflection, whether conscious or not, whether explicit or implicit, is nevertheless a mirror to reality. So in my view, when people are reading literary works, they are having an intimate experience with history, society, thoughts and people’s minds.

Hence my faith that, to foster the friendship between China and Ireland, we should first of all get to know and understand the characteristics of Irish national identity and her history.

Therefore, in addition to reading Irish history, a very important approach is to read Irish literature, especially Irish (Gaelic) poetry, prose, plays and novels, all of which developed from the early Irish (Celtic) tradition that survived invasion by the Norse and Anglo-Normans, and the brutal rule of the Tudor Dynasty of England.

I still remember the day I accompanied Li Zhaoxing, then Foreign Minister of China, to visit the Writers Museum in the city proper of Dublin. When he was about to leave, he said to me that the museum was the most worthwhile place he visited during his stay in Ireland.

Sometimes I think, if a person doesn’t know writers such as Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett or Seamus Heaney — if he has no idea about their works or the thoughts and emotions expressed in their writings — how can he truly know and understand Ireland?

Broadly speaking, if we have no idea about the literary and artistic works of nations during their historical developments, how can we understand the emotion, splendor and greatness in the development of human society? How can we come to know the diversity and commonality of mankind’s civilization? How can we further appreciate the beauty of other civilizations, and allow the beauty of our own and others to be unified and harmonized, so as to build a community with a shared future for humanity?

Think even deeper, it is undoubtedly very important to attach great importance to develop the mutually beneficial cooperation in economy, trade, science and technology, education, sports, and public health, among others. But are they enough? In my personal perspective, all these represent only one aspect. There is another mutually complementary, more important, or to some extent, more fundamental aspect. That is: to boost the face-to-face, eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart cognition, understanding, and trust among peoples and each person of all countries.

To achieve this, in addition to the frequent exchanges and communications, we should read.

Please read each other’s books, which will lead to mutual appreciation and understanding.

To Chinese people, while reading accessible Irish literature (historical and contemporary, in Gaelic, in English and in their Chinese translations), you will understand why Ireland firmly voted for the restoration of the lawful rights of the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations even in the absence of formal diplomatic relations with China; you will understand why the Irish Member of the European Parliament defended China against injustice; you will understand why Ireland officially recognized Palestine as a sovereign and independent state; probably you will also understand why, on issues of human rights, freedom, equality, justice and peace, Ireland is particularly sensitive, persevering, and persistent.

I’d also like to emphasize, in particular, this point: Reading those great Irish literary works, we come to realize how precious and valuable the Chinese traditional culture is. We will cherish and treasure the common spiritual wealth created by human society for thousands of years, gain insight into the common values of all mankind, and understand better the significance of the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilizations Initiative proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Consequently, consciousness of thought and action to build a community with a shared future for mankind will take shape.

Last but not least, when it comes to the influence of literature on people, I’d like to share with you a story.

Fifty-two years ago, in 1972, when I was a middle school student about to graduate, I read a novel titled “The Gadfly.” The hero Arthur (the Gadfly) left me with an indelible impression. It is no exaggeration to claim that this book, to a large extent, defined the path of life I chose ever since. The author, Ethel Lilian Voynich, was an Irish woman, born in the city of Cork.

To host the Academic Symposium on Irish Literature is my long-cherished aspiration. From August 2002 to November 2005, I was privileged to serve as Chinese ambassador to Ireland. Over those years, as the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary representative of China, I was very proud to serve as a witness to, a participant in, and a promoter of the development of friendship between China and Ireland.

My experience in Ireland was one of the most important, unforgettable and meaningful in my whole life.

Though 40 months is by no means long, it was enough for me to deem Ireland my second home. I am keenly aware that, while the official term for an ambassador is time-bound, there is no limit for me to serve as an ambassador for people-to-people friendship.

I will work harder, together with all of you, to further contribute to the friendship and partnership between the Chinese and Irish peoples.


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