Peking out from behind the Wall

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WHAT are your prejudices about China? Tiananmen Square? Tibet? Reckless free marketeering? If you reel off such a list to Natascha Gentz, she'll hit back with a rapid and effective reply.

"What do you think of when you think about America?" asks the Edinburgh University professor of Chinese studies and director of the Confucius Institute for Scotland. "You'd have a similar list of complaints, but they wouldn't be in the first section of each article."

It's not that Gentz is an apologist for China, just that she knows the reality of such a massive country is considerably more complicated than our snap judgments allow. Just as we can think of the US in terms of both Guantanamo Bay and the Bill of Rights, so we ought to think of China as a place of variety and contradiction. As director of the China Now in Scotland festival, Gentz is not aiming blandly to celebrate the world's most populous country, but to encourage a better understanding of a much misunderstood nation. "We want to give specific information about specific situations: what's actually going on in China, not this broad picture of China either as exotic or an economic miracle," she says. "We want to encourage people to engage with China and to try to understand what is going on, because it will affect us. It's not a question of whether we want to engage, but that we have to."

China Now in Scotland is a year-round programme of events capitalising on the interest sparked by the Beijing Olympics in August. Covering culture, science, business, education and sport, it aims to give higher visibility to Scotland's 20,000 Chinese population, showcase work from both countries and develop links with an increasingly important world economy.

"It's about showing people that China is more accessible than they think," says Frances Christensen, general manager of the Confucius Institute for Scotland who has been drawing together the strands of activity that form the China Now in Scotland programme. "My work is to get the Scottish community aware of what is happening in China and also to ensure that the Chinese community recognises that we want to have more engagement."

Much of the activity will be at a community level, such as the dragon festival in Galashiels in the run-up to the Chinese new year. Other events will have a broader reach. In July and August, Edinburgh's City Art Centre will host a major exhibition of Chinese documentary photography, giving an unusually candid view of a once secretive society. It includes images of everything from pavement manicurists to people in mental institutions.

"It has been curated in a museum in Guangdong that's far from the centre," says Gentz. "It was displayed in several cities in China and the story goes that the closer it moved to the centre, the more pictures they took out. Everything is monitored, but it's always individuals setting how much they interfere. In Guangdong, in the south, they are quite liberal and have lots of conflicts with the central party in Beijing. What was really surprising was that they allowed the exhibition to go abroad. We will probably call it Unseen China, because it's a completely new view, deviating from what documentary photography was before."

Other events include a collaboration between Glasgow's Ricefield Gallery and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum on an afternoon of music, dance and craft on February 10; music with cross-cultural composer Kimho Ip at Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland also on February 10; and China Day with BBC Big Screen and Video Nation as part of the River Festival in Glasgow on July 19. There will also be a presence in the Edinburgh book, film and science festivals, as well as the Scottish Opera staging of Judith Weir's A Night At The Chinese Opera on tour from April. "We want to inform and inspire the people of Scotland, but also to create enduring links," says Christensen.

The centrepiece of the season is Spirit – A Chinese Spring Lantern Festival, taking place in the glasshouses of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, where China-related events will continue over the year. Created by Angus Farquhar of environmental arts charity NVA, whose Half Life event spread across 150 square miles of Argyll countryside last year, the lantern festival is on a rather more modest scale, giving audiences a rare chance to explore the magnificent glasshouses by night.

"The chance to work in the glasshouses is not one you'd take lightly," says Farquhar, who drew on the expertise of staff at the Botanics when he was constructing the Hidden Gardens behind Glasgow's Tramway. "It's a remarkable set of architectural spaces to work in, especially in winter. And I was interested in that history of making links east and west, which has been close to my heart over the last few years."

Entering at 15-minute intervals, audiences of all ages can go at their own speed as they wander through five glasshouses from the monumental temperate palm house – the largest of its kind in the UK – to the intimacy of the ferns and fossil collection. Collaborating with Lin Chau of the Ricefield Gallery, NVA is using the traditional red Chinese lantern as a starting point for highlighting the trees, flowers, shrubs and dried collections in the Botanics. The main temperate room will be light and celebratory with traditional strings of lanterns, while the steamy orchids room will be dark and intimate.

"We're treating every room with a different feel," says designer James Johnson. "The glasshouses at night are incredible. During the day you get all the wonderful smells, but at night you really feel like you've been transported to a different continent. You hear so much of the sounds of the streams, the water dripping from the rooms, the mice and the cockroaches, which you don't hear during the daytime."

Audiences will also hear a set of soundscapes featuring distorted Chinese dulcimer music by Kimho Ip, recordings of Botanics staff and local Cantonese people who have a knowledge of the uses of plants growing there. "Kimho Ip is creating these haunting sound fields," says Farquhar. "We're using the different qualities of the instrument to build different atmospheres in each of the glasshouses."

They are also making use of the garden's collection of spirit jars containing preserved Chinese plants and pods, which they will illuminate from below like laboratory lanterns. Community groups throughout Scotland are contributing around 80 Chinese lanterns that will be suspended from the trees. "We're making the main house glow, almost like a lantern itself," says Johnson. "It's such beautiful architecture. You never see it at night and you never see it lit, so that will be something special in itself."

The installation will draw attention to the strong links between China and the Royal Botanic Garden where the dedicated Chinese hillside garden has an estimated 16,000 plants tended by a team of specialist staff.

"In the Herbarium there are millions of dried samples, each one of which has been individually pressed in the field and brought back over 150 years," says Farquhar. "Lantern festivals worldwide have become very colourful and anything-goes, far beyond the traditional red lantern as you might see in older films. We've attempted to bring some quality into the notion of the illuminated box. It's very specific to the Royal Botanic Garden and its relationship to China."

All this in the year of the Olympics could prove a turning point in the way China is perceived in the world. "People are really impressed with what's going on in China now," says Gentz. "There was a negative view before and stories of what they would do to clean up the streets and so on. But since they've finished the buildings, some parts of it are really nice and I think the Olympics will be a sign of what China can accomplish. They have this potential and a huge amount of people to excel."

Spirit – A Chinese Spring Lantern Festival, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, February 22 – March 9 www.chinanow-inscotland.org.uk

Rat's entertainment – Chinese New Year events

EDINBURGH

&#149 Edinburgh Chinese School offers up a traditional show of Chinese culture and art including traditional Chinese dance, music, lion dance, an acrobatic extravaganza and songs and drama.

Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-529 6000), today, 2pm

&#149 Join storyteller, dancer and musician Marion Kenny and Scotland's leading Chinese musician and composer Kimho Ip for an afternoon of enchanting celebrations for the Chinese Year of the Rat. Free and for all the family.

Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh (0131-556 9579), Saturday, 2.30pm, www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk

GLASGOW

Colourful array of Chinese art and craft workshops – including lantern-making and a performance by Glasgow Oriental Dance Association.

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, February 10, 12pm

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