Chinese culture heads West via expat websites

Published:  21 May at 6 PM
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For almost half a century, foreign influences crept into China’s millennia-old culture through reform–generated trade and commerce, but Chinese culture’s now heading West in a big way thanks to Western expats.

Nowadays, the ancient country’s major cities are home to a hotbed of Western talent, bringing with it all the trappings of Western society. Multiple channels of change have opened due to internet access, and expats in China are sharing their impressions with the world at large via social media, forums and endless podcasts describing the ‘Chinese’ experiences taking place in expatriate life.

American Nora Wilson and Brit Holly Sowden are two female expats living in Shenzhen and sending out weekly podcasts and videos on YouTube and Facebook as well as on their Written Chinese website. So far, they’ve gained hundreds of Facebook followers and over a thousand YouTube subscribers, along with downloads totalling tens of thousands. Topics across their web presence include tools for learning Mandarin, their opinions of various Chinese culinary delights and discussions about mental health and autism issues in China.

Sowden arrived in China some years ago with her then boyfriend, who’d taken a job in Shenzhen. He returned to the UK following the breakup of their relationship, but Sowden decided to stay. Wilson came to China in 2008 after she’d graduated in international business but had been unable to find employment due to the global financial crisis. Initially, she became an English teacher in Chengdu, moving to Shenzhen a year later and meeting up with Sowden.

The pair are especially proud of their Written Chinese website and the speed of its expansion from its start as a Facebook page. With 280,000 followers to date, they’re now working along with a team of three on a dictionary and textbook. Given the challenge of learning one of the world’s most difficult languages and the soaring levels of interest in expatriation to China, it’s no surprise the site’s so popular.

It’s not just language-learning for work-related reasons that’s spurring Western fascination with China, it’s the image of a land with an amazing, millennia-long culture and history which has been closed off to the rest of the world for a century and more. With Chinese novels in full translation now available on the web, Chinese music grabbing the attention of Western ears, ancient sites such as the Terracotta Army, the entire panoply of Chinese culture, Chinese medicine, Chinese Buddhism, Chinese martial arts and the sheer beauty and artistry of historic Chinese works of art, this complex country is finally on the world map.
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