Interview: Cynthia Rekdal on “china” watching, Confucius Institutes, and multi-cultural education
By Wen Liu Feb. 12, 2018
Over the past few years, I have seen many event announcements from the Friends of Asian Art Association, all sent by Dr. Cynthia Rekdal, its executive director. Her events, however, are not always about art. Last year, for instance, I noticed that she had an event on Confucius, Communism and China. Recently, her new event on Chinese porcelain also caught my eye. One, it is just in time for the Chinese New Year on Feb. 16, and two, it is a special kind of “china” watching! So I contacted Rekdal. After some exchanges of email, not only did Rekdal invite me to the porcelain event, she also agreed to an interview. So here is Dr. Cynthia Rekdal, talking about her Association, her porcelain event, her views about Confucius, Communism and China, as well as multi-cultural education she has long championed in Washington state.
WCWD: Your Feb. 10 event "The Eight Friends of Pearl Mountain: Porcelain Production in Late Qing China through WWII," with speaker Daniel Herskee, sounds very interesting, as a special kind of "china" watching. Did you plan it for the Chinese New Year, or do you always have an event for the lunar holiday, as celebrated by many Asian cultures?
Cynthia Rekdal: This program came about when a representative of Bonhams contacted me regarding a possible collaboration on a program together. It just happened that the speaker, Daniel Herskee, who lives in San Francisco, was available to come to Seattle at this time. Ordinarily, we will do some features about the lunar new year in our newsletters. But because there are a large number of Asian organizations in the area that hold special programs, events, activities, dinners, etc., we don't usually develop a lunar new year program of our own. Instead, we encourage our members to enjoy those that are readily available in the community.
WCWD: Talk about Asian cultures, I have seen some of Friends of Asian Art Association newsletters or event announcements. Could you tell the readers a little bit about your organization?
Cynthia Rekdal: We are fortunate to have a vibrant and growing Asian population in Seattle, King County, the state and the nation. According to 2010 census data, after Whites (70%), the next largest racial/ethnic group in the city is Asian (14%). Of the Asian group, 4.1% is Chinese, 2.6% Filipino, 2.2% Vietnamese, 1.3% Japanese, 1.1% Korean, 0.8% Indian, 0.3% Cambodian, 0.3% Laotian, 0.2% Pakistanis, 0.2% Indonesian, 0.2% Thai. In King County, after Whites (65%), Asian/Pacific Islanders are the next largest racial/ethnic group (15%). Asians are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in Washington state. Between 2010 and 2012, the state's Asian population increased by 8% and is predicted to continue positive growth. State demographic statistics for 2016 indicate that after Whites (80%) and Hispanic/Latinos (12%), Asians are the third largest minority group (9%). And, according to the 2010 census, Asians are the third largest racial/ethnic group in the nation (5%) after Whites (72%) and Black/African Americans (13%). The rich cultures reflected in Asian populations here are amazingly diverse and are a testament to the multicultural heritage with which we are blessed.
The Friends of Asian Art Association (FA3) was organized as an offshoot of one of the many community council programs of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). I was the president of the Asian Art Council, the largest and most active of the SAM councils at the time the museum made the decision to eliminate all of its council programs. Our council board was determined to remain an active, viable organization and continue to serve the community by forming a non-profit association.
FA3 has sought to broaden the public's concept of Asia beyond the prevailing focus on China, Japan and Korea. There are well over 50 countries that call Asia home. It is the largest continent on Earth and home to the majority of the world's population — over 4.5 billion people. We seek to draw attention to the phenomenal cornucopia of rich arts and cultures represented in the ethnic groups of Asia through examining their cultural heritages, ancestries, origins, histories, myths, religions, rituals, cuisines, dress, languages, etc.
The mission of FA3 is "To promote interest, understanding and support for Asian arts and cultures". We accomplish this by providing programs, activities, materials and resources through our quarterly newsletters and summer supplements, our monthly E-Updates, website, Facebook page, and whenever possible by collaborating with other organizations that share like goals and interests. In 2017, FA3 was a co-sponsor of China's rising modern dance star and choreographer Gu Jiani, who toured the U.S. and performed in Seattle at the Broadway Performance Hall.
FA3 is an all-volunteer organization. We continually seek active individuals who will join our organization as members, volunteers and as part of our two Boards: one, a primarily administrative working body, the other an advisory group. Both provide FA3 with the guidance and skills required to achieve its mission.
WCWD: As a China watching blogger, I of course pay attention to your China events. Last year, for instance, you put together a talk on "Confucius, Communism and China." That was not really art, was it? Why the event, and what about Confucius, the Communist Party, and now a modern China?
Cynthia Rekdal: FA3 not only supports Asian arts, but the cultures from which they emanate. Art is a reflection of a culture; it is, after all, the culture that produces its arts. The program we sponsored last fall on China by U.W. Seattle Professor Emeritus and former chair of its Department of Asian Language and Literature Dr. Frederick Brandauer, is an example of how a particular philosophy, socio-political movement and culture can intersect to create a dynamic environment in which new philosophies, movements and cultural attitudes are born. China after Mao and his descendants has morphed into a much debated contradiction: a socialistic communistic capitalist nation. The effects of the country adopting a capitalistic tenet has transformed China as a nation — including its people, the culture, attitudes, rituals, diet, dress, customs and, not a surprise, its arts. Forbes has predicted that China will be the world's largest art market, eventually surpassing the U.S., bringing changes to the Chinese contemporary art scene here, in the mainland, and abroad. When I recently traveled to Shanghai, the number of new modern art museums, many created by individual art collectors, was quite impressive. More fascinating was the background from which some of these preeminent patrons of the arts originated.
WCWD: Talk about Confucius, what do you think of China's Confucius Institutes in the U.S., with one at the UW, that teach Chinese language and culture, also the controversy around them in regard to Chinese government's influence in America's academic freedom?
Cynthia Rekdal: Confucius, the teacher/philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago, continues his influence today. While I am illiterate in Chinese (I neither speak nor write in the language of my ancestors), Confucian ethics — respect for parents/ancestors, importance of family, self-cultivation/education, compassion — these ritual norms formed my childhood experiences and remain as guides to my behavior and outlook as an adult, although the name Confucius was never mentioned once as I was growing up — ever. Through even the harshest of Communist times in China, Confucian philosophy, thoroughly denounced, managed to survive and thrives as a highly esteemed, innate part of Chinese culture. Now, throughout many parts of the world, China's Confucius Institutes, an educational organization affiliated with China's Ministry of Education that promotes Chinese language and culture in secondary schools and institutions of higher education, have taken root and are flourishing, much to the consternation of some critics.
Charges of loss of academic freedom and fears of undue influence on Americans provided with a selective (some charge " sanitized") view of China have been made. The positioning of Confucius Institutes in the U.S. has raised the hackles and wagging fingers of those who disapprove of this Middle Kingdom invasion. However, an identical finger could be pointed at similar educational programs operating across our country from Japan, Germany, Italy, France, Britain, Brazil, Spain and Portugal. Somewhat overlooked in this divisive diatribe is the fact that K-12 textbooks used across the U.S. are strongly biased with selective views created by just two of our 50 states: Texas and California. Because of the size of their student populations they are empowered by publishers to determine what is and what is not to be taught in our schools. The motive of the publishers is financial: it is simply less costly to publish one "size fits all" text than 50 that are individualized. One would not have to look far to find similar intrusions of influence peddling in other educational arenas (student athletics, anyone?) or home entertainment (can you spell TV?) — even Congress (ever hear of a lobbyist?). Examples of peddling to influence are endless. One would be hard pressed to argue that Confucius Institutes are unique in their mission to promote a biased curriculum with the intent to influence and should subsequently be banned.
WCWD: I understand that you have been involved in multi-cultural education for many years and served as director of the Washington State Association for Multicultural Education. Could you say a few words about multicultural education, including Chinese culture, in Washington or the U.S.?
Cynthia Rekdal: I was a founder and the Executive Director of the Washington State Association for Multicultural Education (WSAME) for almost two decades. The organization worked closely with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, over 25 districts throughout Washington state, and was represented at the national level on the board of the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) for many years. It was a time when multicultural education was a critical voice in matters of diversity, equity, social justice and inclusion. Through conferences, seminars, programs and trainings we sought to address issues of privilege and power, marginalization, glass ceilings, sexism, racism, equal opportunity and ignorance. The ultimate goal was to bring about changes in the curriculum and instruction in K-12 classrooms and higher education and improve society.
WSAME sought to address the needs of students represented by a rapidly changing demographic. Rather than embrace the "melting pot" of assimilation, we chose instead to foster and support awareness, understanding and respect for the pluralistic nature of our society through acknowledging and celebrating the heritage, culture and contribution of each of the individual groups that comprise our nation and world.
As a former Seattle Public Schools administrator who created and implemented the first Chinese and Japanese elementary school language programs for the state's largest school district in the early 90s, I am a fan of teaching world languages and cultures in our public schools — and especially to young children. The research in language acquisition clearly identifies early education as critically important to ensure language mastery and retention. Chinese language instruction, which has continued to gain support in public schools, is one means of providing a mechanism to teach about Chinese culture and history. The curriculum of American schools, beyond a class or two in social studies, world/global history and geography, unfortunately pays scant attention to learning about other countries beyond our borders. What is provided is often limited in time, scope and meaning. While there are organizations, such as the National Council of at the Social Studies, who continue to seek more inclusive curriculum, they battle issues of funding, competing agendas as to what is and should be taught, and the reality of an already overloaded school curriculum.
Local associations and organizations often provide much needed cultural enrichment activities, resources and information to our schools and communities. We, in Washington, are fortunate that there are many such support systems providing a focus on Chinese interests: Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle Asian Art Museum, East Asia Resource Center, Washington State China Relations Council, International Examiner, Chinese Post, Asian Reporter, Organization of Chinese Americans, Chinese Arts and Musical Association, Hong Kong/Taiwan/China Associations — these are just a few of the many groups that enrich our community.
(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)