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Can’t believe it’s taken me a year to write about my beloved Hangzhou institution – the HI (Hangzhou International) Centre. It’s a budding organisation affiliated with Zhejiang University which wants to promote Chinese culture amongst foreigners. Every few weeks they organise little lectures about different aspects of China – be it the characters, traditional music, painting, architecture or beliefs, you name it, they provide it. The lecturers are mostly university professors, so real experts. Sometimes they speak in English, sometimes the talk has to be translated. This can occasionally pose a bit of a problem for non-speakers of Chinese: most of the volunteering students are from the English department and their teacher likes to give them a chance to try their hand at interpreting. They are usually too inexperienced and frightened to do it well – but that’s just a minor detail! All in all, they are doing a really good job and you can see they are making a lot of effort to do it well – plus they’ve created a tiny community of regular listeners, thus making it into a social event as well as a cultural one. Which is why I’ve always felt it to be a pity that so few people actually care to show up… So if any of you finds yourself in Hangzhou with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon, check out their website, go enjoy yourself and say hello from me!

Oh, one more thing: my favourite part was that they always prepared free snacks in the form of cakes and – hooray – coffee (you don’t know what it means to be craving for affordable and drinkable coffee until you’ve lived in China). So there you go: culture is all nice and good, but nothing beats a decent cookie in terms of crowd attractors…

From a presentation about Chinese characters

Lots and lots of old lithographies: some of them are actually stamps taken off huge stone steles the characters on which are claimed to be written by famous calligraphers.

Characters can be written in many widely differing styles and their evolution was/is (still not finished!) a long and complicated process.

From a presentation about Chinese traditional instruments.

This is guzheng – Chinese zither. I recorded some of the performance on my camera but then – go figure – I shrank the file and now it’s useless!

There are many different ways to play the guzheng – about 8 strokes that vary depending on the hand and the way you hold your fingers 

And this is guqin – Chinese lute, the default instrument of a Chinese cultured man. Very similar to guzheng, but smaller and therefore easier to carry around.

Erhu – an instrument that came to China from the nomadic tribes. Because the way of playing it is so different, you actually can’t play the same melodies on erhu as on guzheng and guqin.

Erhu resembles folk violin. The body is traditionally made of python skin.