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Chinese students discover peace is human, not political


One day after Lee’s lecture, Assistant Professor Zhang (foreground) recommended to his university council that the Department of Foreign Languages offer instruction in the Korean language: “People within Asia need to communicate more, and the most effective way to do that is by learning each others’ languages,” he said.

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May 25, 2007
- by Todd Hanson

SICHUAN, China — While governments of Northeast Asia attempt to overcome their history and build better relations, something similar – but much more organic and dynamic – is happening among everyday people of this densely populated part of the globe.

The governments of China and South Korea have declared 2007 to be “China-Korea Exchange Year,” celebrating fifteen years since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations.

Mennonite Partners in China (MPC, formerly China Educational Exchange) and the Connexus Language Institute (an English teaching ministry of KAC – Korea Anabaptist Centre) recently held an exchange of their own when MPC invited KAC's peace program director, Lee Jae-Young on a speaking tour of Chinese colleges and universities for two weeks in April.

Lee engaged well over one thousand Chinese students in a wide variety of settings: crowded lecture theatres, classrooms, and popular but informal English Corners – planned locations where Chinese English students casually gather to practice English – often with an instructor.

Most of the students had never met a Korean before meeting Lee, and almost certainly none of them had met anyone of any nationality who held degrees from both Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University) and Eastern Mennonite University. When Lee outlined northeast Asian history, he offered a unique Anabaptist perspective on this generation’s possible responses to the lingering animosities of history.

Lee observed that while many students knew little about Korean history, Korean pop culture is fashionable in China. He was startled at how popular Korean soap operas and pop music are – even deep in the Sichuan countryside. He was also surprised at the depth of anti-Japanese sentiment for its past military incursions into China.

“In general, Chinese hate Japanese. I also hate Japanese. When I was young girl, my grandfather told me that Japanese killed many, many Chinese and they robbed Chinese wealth and they burned Chinese homes,” Miss He, said at one session.

When Lee asked his audiences if they hated Japanese, students responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” When Lee asked if he should hate Chinese people because of China’s many past invasions of Korea, students responded with an equally enthusiastic, “No!”

Lee explained the apparent contradiction by looking at the issue on the historical/political level and the personal level. Students agreed that while they dislike “Japan”, they would feel no rancour for a Japanese person. Participants began to understand that peace is not strictly a political issue, but a human issue.

Students were open and deeply interested in other cultures as well as peace education and conflict transformation, said Lee. They readily raised the sensitive topic of China-Japan relations. The current student generation, Lee, added, has the potential to relieve the long-lasting tension in the region.

Mr. Liu, who took in one of Lee’s sessions, observed, “Frankly speaking, we are always told not to talk about political issues with foreigners. But I don’t think it is proper, since communication makes for better understanding. . . . I was inspired that we can talk freely, because communication brings humans together.”

Students frequently expressed their desire to work for peace. “I’m a student here in Sichuan. What can I do?” was a common question for Lee, who noted the sense of purpose in the query.

Lee encouraged students to be peace-builders in tangible ways: with their families, in their dorm rooms, their classrooms, and their schools. He likened peace-building to house-building: “You don’t start at the top, you start at the foundation. Governments don’t begin the peace process, people do.”

Lee was gratified by the response to his lecture tour. “Thank you for your wonderful lecture about peace education. You really gave me a new lesson and introduced me to a brand new world,” said Mr. Yao, participant at one of Lee’s tour stops.

Lee returned home with an increased appreciation of the fragility of the relationships among the countries of northeast Asia. As Christians in the three countries build peace among themselves, they can model healing in relationships, he observed.

When speaking to students, Lee often quoted Brazilian educator and influential education theorist, Paulo Freire: “It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors”.

This will not be the message conveyed by the Chinese and Korean governments during “China-Korea Exchange Year”, but it is the message Chinese students across Sichuan heard from their new Korean friend, Lee Jae-Young.

The KAC and MPC are supported in part by Mennonite Church Canada Witness. The author is a university English teacher with MPC in Nanchong.