European culture in Beijing

Our favourite places to soak up European culture in the capital

One nice thing about living in a world capital is the cosmopolitan cultural buzz available to the internationally inclined. In particular, Beijing has long been home to a strong array of national cultural institutions, soft-power generators that work outside official embassy channels to promote mutual understanding, cultural appreciation, and linguistic comprehension between China and their home countries. These institutions are officially known as 'international cultural promotion organisations', and Europe has a strong showing in Beijing. Here are a few of our favourites.


Goethe-Institut

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The Goethe-Institut is a cultural juggernaut, with 159 institutes around the world tasked with promoting German language proficiency and facilitating cultural exchange and understanding. Aptly named after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, both a world-class writer and statesman, Goethe-Institut has the longest history with China of any of the institutions on this list: with its first activities here occurring in 1988, Goethe-Institut was up in China before the Berlin Wall came down. In 2013, they celebrated the 25th anniversary of this cultural linkage with a 'Year of Language' exchange between Germany and China, and a three-day seminar and party in 798. In October 2015, they opened their current flagship location in one of 798's Bauhaus-inspired gallery spaces — itself a sort of relic of exchange, inspired by 1950s East German architecture — and have since put on a strong, rotating programme of art, music, film, and literature events with a focus on creating dialogue between creatives from Germany and China. Walk in to their 798 space on any given day and expect to see an interesting film on loop, and a small crowd casually browsing their curated library of art books.


Institut Francais

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Another heavy hitter on the Beijing culture scene is Institut Francais, who between their Francophonie and Croisements Festivals and various other, one-off Franco-Chinese initiatives seem to be constantly clocking events year-round. Their headquarters in Beijing are located on Gongti Xi Lu, at the south end of a strip of distinctly a-cultural institutions such as LiV, Circle, and Elements. Originally called Culturesfrance, the institution opened its doors here in October 2004, making it the longest-standing international cultural center with a fixed Beijing address. It adopted its current name in 2011. Language teaching duties are split off into a separate but related institution, Alliance Francaise, which has its classrooms on the upper floors of the Gongti space. The first floor is a large médiathèque of reading materials, an auditorium for public talks, a charming cafe, and a gallery hosting revolving exhibitions of art from the Francophone world. A recent favourite of ours was the 2016 exhibit Les Sapeurs de Bacongo, a stunning exhibit of sartorial flair from Brazzaville by Congolese photographer Baudouin Mouanda. Outside of their in-house programme, Institut Francais is arguably the most active organisation on this list, with, as previously mentioned, a near-constant stream of Franco-friendly art, music, film and literature at different venues around the city.


Instituto Cervantes

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Instituto Cervantes, Spain's cultural institute, is located on Gongti Nan Lu, just a few minutes' walk from Institut Francais. It also offers Spanish language courses, a library of Spanish literary and cultural reading material, and a wide range of lectures, screenings, events, and exhibitions promoting the language and culture of Spain and, to a lesser extent, other corners of the Spanish-speaking world. Unlike Goethe-Institut and Institut Francais, which got their start in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, respectively, Instituto Cervantes launched in 1991. It's headquartered in Madrid, the birthplace of its namesake, author of the timeless Don Quixote. Instituto Cervantes Beijing is one of 77 such institutes around the world, and its main focus is on language instruction, offering certification courses for the international standard Diplomas of Spanish as a Foreign Language (DELE). That said, another part of their mission is to stimulate cultural activities in collaboration with academics, curators, artists and writers from Spain and Latin America. A recent favourite of ours was last year's Mapping the Paths, an exhibit tracing parallels between the Buddhist art and architecture of Dunhuang, Gansu province, and masterpieces of Romanesque fresco and codex art from various sites along Spain's medieval pilgrimage routes.


Danish Cultural Center

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Back in 798, one of the newer kids on the block is the Danish Cultural Center, opened in 2015. This standalone gallery is a part of the Danish Cultural Institute, which on a global level hosts over 900 cultural events a year, and sponsors an art residency in St. Petersburg. The Danish Cultural Center is the only of its kind, representing a long-term investment on the part of the Danish Cultural Institute in creating exchange and dialogue with China on certain world-relevant topics. The Dutch are known for their design acumen, and the Danish Cultural Center's exhibition programme likewise focuses on topics such as 'physical and social aspects of urban transformation, design as a daily commodity, revitalization of the cultural heritage whether tangible or intangible, sustainable development, and issues of public health.' They've also hosted events breaking out of the design paradigm, such as 2016's excellent Beijing Live, a ten-day programme of performance art from around the world, organised by Beijing-based curator Jonas Stampe and scheduled to recur at the Danish Cultural Center on an annual basis.


Romanian Cultural Institute

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Last but not least: the Romanian Cultural Institute, which opened on the first floor of Galaxy Soho in Chaoyangmen in July 2015. It's the first such institute in Asia and the 18th in the world, and opened with an exhibition of graphic art and tapestry entitled Tradition and Modernity. The Romanian Cultural Institute's main focus is promoting Romanian artists, writers, and musicians in China by encouraging and facilitating their representation in such venues as Beijing's International Book Fair and China's Central Conservatory of Music. They also have rotating exhibitions at their Galaxy Soho space, which recently held a show for the Beijing-based architect and electronic musician Alex Damboianu. Since he financed much of this recent show out of his own pocket, Damboianu said that he had total control in presenting his work, and that the Institute was receptive to his proposals. Damboianu tells Time Out the he hopes the Romanian Cultural Institute will host more contemporary, energetic and forward-looking Romanian art in the future: 'I hope to see more contemporary works from important Romanian artists. At the moment, with a retrograde government and a Senate that doesn't understand much about national and international culture and the art environment, there is no chance to see interesting things happening.' Of all the institutes on this list, the Romanian Cultural Institute is perhaps the least known, but hopefully their nod to the younger Damboianu signals a future willingness to promote a more progressive cultural programme.

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