Chinese envoy in India wins fans with impromptu tai chi show at Hindu festival
Consul general entertained the crowd with a 20-minute performance as his wife played the pipa while they waited for the governor to arrive
An impromptu tai chi performance at a programme marking a major Hindu festival has gained a Chinese diplomat in India instant popularity and rare social media fame.
Ma Jhanwu, consul general of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata in the province of West Bengal, was credited with an amazing feat of cultural diplomacy when he suddenly sprang to his feet, took off his coat and broke into a stunning 20-minute tai chi performance as his wife played the pipa.
The crowd gathered at Kolkata’s upmarket Salt Lake area for a public function to begin the community Durga Puja, or the 10-day worshipping of goddess Durga – the most important cultural event for Bengalis – cheered his performance.
The video of Ma’s performance has since gone viral, drawing praise from locals. “This is what public diplomacy is all about. Some nations, including India, could learn a thing or two! Brilliant,” posted Diya Erica Basu, a strategic communications consultant, on Twitter.
#China's #Kolkata consul general was star a #SaltLake #DurgaPuja. The Governor was late for the inauguration, guests restless, so Mr Ma Zhanwu takes off his coat, goes on stage and, while his wife plays the pipa, he puts on an incredibly elegant show of #TaiChi! Xie xie! pic.twitter.com/grQzqplocw
— Monideepa Banerjie (@Monideepa62) October 13, 2018
Ma, who is in his third year as consul general, was attending an event that was to be inaugurated by the state’s governor, Keshari Nath Tripathi.
“The guests were getting restless because Tripathi was late, so Ma offered to keep the crowd engaged with his performance,” said television journalist Monideepa Banerjie, a Salt Lake resident.
“His tai chi performance with his wife playing the pipa turned out to be a real hit.” The governor arrived a good one hour late.
“Superb! Glad to see someone his [Ma’s] stature loosen up – and how!” posted Suparna Dey, a Twitter user. Another, Soumitra Das, praised the consul general as “always well turned out, unlike our sloppy bureaucrats”.
“How sporting and in true diplomatic spirit,” read another tweet, by Niloufer Billimoria Sethna, after witnessing Ma’s performance.
The Chinese consulate surprised Kolkatans earlier in the year when it decided to partner and partially sponsor the Durga Puja celebrations at Salt Lake’s BJ Block. Most localities pool funds to celebrate the festival, turning Kolkata into a giant carnival site.
“Our pandal [a makeshift temple for the goddess usually made of bamboo and cloth] is looking like a thriving Chinatown. The pantheon of Durga is at the centre of the pandal but the ambience is distinctly Chinese,” said Umashankar Ghosh Dastidar, the secretary of the BJ Block Durga Puja committee.
The pandal has two dragons mounted on it, resembling a Kunming pagoda with ornate gates and arches from the city.
Chinese cultural troupes are scheduled to perform a dragon dance, Chinese acrobatics and musical shows during the festival, Ghosh Dastidar said. “Every year we choose one Indian state as the theme décor. This year it is China,” the committee secretary said.
The BJ Block’s is the first community Puja in Salt Lake and started in 1983 with a budget of just 20,000 Indian rupees (US$300). Last year’s budget was around 4 million rupees (US$60,000).
Kunming and Kolkata have been declared “sister cities”, connected by a two-hour direct flight. Kolkata, the closest major Indian city to China, has the country’s biggest Chinatown and a long history of Chinese immigrants settling down and prospering in the city despite the testy relationship between the two nations since the 1962 war and a lingering border dispute between the two Asian giants.
West Bengal, which was run by a communist party for 34 years, is ruled by a regional party headed by charismatic leader Mamata Banerjee, who is a trenchant critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is expected to be a major player in national politics in the event of Modi losing to a coalition of regional parties in the coming elections next year.
The Chinese government attaches strategic importance to Kolkata, the end point of the trading route running through the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) regional grouping.
Although India has not signed up for China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, Beijing had initially marked Kolkata as a nodal city in the proposed network as it is the most strategically located metropolis in eastern India. Modi and President Xi Jinping have decided to take the BCIM process forward.
Consul general Ma was recently in the news when he declared China was prepared to connect Kunming and Kolkata with a bullet train through Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Under him, the consulate has been proactive in organising cultural events. His tai chi performance is only the most recent of his initiatives – and by far the most dramatic – to engage the local community.
For the past few years, it has been funding awards to promote safety in Durga Puja pandals, which can be a fire hazard.
“We are trying to bring a slice of China to the city,” Ma said earlier on the decision to partly sponsor a community Puja.
“Durga Puja is not just a religious festival. It crosses the boundaries of religion and provides an unique experience to all. So we have become closely involved.”