Shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his hope of deeper people-to-people and cultural exchanges between the two countries in his reply to a letter from teachers and students at a secondary school in Malta in August 2022, Malta’s SKS Publishers presented the Maltese edition of The Analects of Confucius at the 2022 Malta Book Festival.
“This was no small achievement,” Malta’s Ambassador to China John Busuttil admitted in an exclusive interview with China Today. Given the hybrid Maltese tongue, which spans three distinct language families and is the sole semitic language written in a Latin script, translating this Chinese classic into Maltese was a monumental task. Its publication generated high hopes that the Maltese edition of The Analects of Confucius will broaden its readers’ understanding of China’s ancient culture wherein the country’s governance concepts are rooted. The country’s successive international propositions in recent years, notably the Belt and Road Initiative, have indeed brought China’s statecraft under the international spotlight.
“I think that President Xi’s reply reflects the centrality of people-to-people exchanges to bilateral relations, since language constitutes its core component,” Busuttil said. Its difficulty notwithstanding, the Chinese language has been a popular study choice among Maltese students, according to the ambassador. “Since around the 1990s, there has been a surge in the number of Maltese students applying for the Chinese course,” Busuttil said. This he ascribed to the Chinese economy’s rapid development, and to China’s growing importance in international politics – the former having created job opportunities, and the latter having piqued local interest in the country. In the past, certain universities in Malta other than the China Cultural Center have offered Chinese language courses, which later have been promoted in Malta’s public middle schools since September 2017.
Mellieha, a large village in the northern region of Malta, is renowned for its sandy beaches and breathtaking natural landscape.
Cultural Exchanges Lead the Way
Ambassador Busuttil still basks in the vibrant aftermath of the China-Malta Friendship Concert and Photo Exhibition in honor of the 50th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic ties. Held at the Mediterranean Conference Center in Valletta, Malta’s capital, on September 2, 2022, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra performed a combination of Maltese pieces and Chinese musical works composed over the past 200 years, the latter of which included the Yellow River piano concerto. “This conflation, played in the remarkable 16th century Mediterranean Conference Center building, truly embodied the strong relations and profound civilizational dialogue between Malta and China. It was an apt medium whereby to celebrate our 50 years of bilateral relations,” Busuttil said.
This strong relationship was also reflected in the accompanying photo exhibition. “The hallway leading to the concert hall housed an exhibition comprising more than 50 photos capturing historical moments during bilateral exchanges. They included pictures of Maltese prime ministers on visits to China, and of Chinese state leaders who came to Malta, so recording the evolution of bilateral ties over the past 50 years,” Busuttil said.
The China Cultural Center in Malta was one of the exhibition’s organizers. Founded in 2003, it was the first of its kind in Europe, and has since become an important window for Maltese people to learn about China. The cultural services it provides include lectures and seminars on Chinese history and culture, annual branded events stemming from traditional Chinese festivals, and fine art and photography exhibitions. The Center also organizes performances by distinguished Chinese cultural groups, as well as activities staged by acclaimed “National Inheritors of China’s Intangible Heritage.” “Through this center, people living in Malta gain knowledge and hence a better understanding of Chinese traditions and culture,” Busuttil told China Today.
The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, meanwhile, has enthralled the Chinese audiences that thronged to its performance tours of Chinese cities in recent years, and the appearances in Malta of Chinese art troupes from such regions as Hubei, Guangxi, and Shaanxi have also been warmly received.
“Cultural cooperation remains central to relations between Malta and China, as evident in the recent visit of a high-level delegation from Heritage Malta. It included the Chairman of Heritage Malta Mr. Mario Cutajar, who met for talks with officials of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, the China National Museum, and the Palace Museum,” Busuttil said.
The visit to Malta by a delegation from Xi’an Municipal Administration of Culture and Tourism in August, accompanied by a group of local artists, was another recent cultural exchange. In addition to giving performances, the delegation also donated two Terracotta Warrior replicas to the Chinese Garden of Serenity at Santa Lucija.
“It has to be said that, over the last five decades, Malta and China have developed strong and vibrant cultural relations. The many cultural programs and initiatives we have spearheaded throughout the years reflect the dynamic cultural relations between our countries and peoples,” Busuttil told China Today.
A large number of events scheduled for 2024 are under planning and preparation. UNESCO has granted its patronage to Malta’s hosting of the first edition of the Malta Art Biennale next spring, according to the ambassador. China will be one of its main participants. The festival will welcome artists from more than 100 countries.
The delegation from Heritage Malta is talking with the administrative authorities of the Palace Museum in Beijing on September 22, 2023.
TCM Charms Spellbind the Mediterranean Region
Malta, the “heart of the Mediterranean,” also inaugurated the first-ever traditional Chinese medicine center – not only in the Mediterranean region, but also across Europe. The Mediterranean Regional Centre for Traditional Chinese Medicine (MRCTCM) was jointly set up by the Chinese and the Maltese governments in 1993.
The 19th Chinese medical team to Malta paid Ambassador John Busuttil a visit before their departure in September. China began dispatching medical teams to the South European country in 1993. So far, the more than 100 Chinese physicians that have served in the country have provided TCM treatments to approximately 250,000 patients in Malta.
“This impressive number includes Maltese locals, expatriates, and even members of the Chinese community living in Malta. What’s more, over the past 30 years, patient feedback in a region where Chinese traditional medicine is not well-known has been overwhelmingly positive,” Busuttil said.
Acupuncture clinics have also been introduced by Mater Dei Hospital and the Gozo General Hospital in efforts to cater to a wider range of patients. “They are much appreciated. My wife, a piano player, was suffering arthritic pain in her hands, but was happy to tell me that a few courses of acupuncture treatments made a big difference,” the Ambassador said. He believes that acupuncture, by contrast with Western medicine which often relies on the taking of medicine, carries no risk of harm or side effects, and hence offers a good alternative treatment for suffering and illness.
The ambassador regards the University of Malta’s establishment (in collaboration with Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine) of a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic in 2015, as well as its launch of Master’s courses in Traditional Chinese Medicine, as signifying TCM’s increasing popularity in Malta.
“In fact, Malta and China signed their first agreement on medical cooperation in the 1970s. Efforts to strengthen cooperation, exchange information, facilitate exchanges among medical professionals, and provide mutual assistance to improve the quality of healthcare in our respective countries have indeed been constant over the past 50 years,” Busuttil told China Today.
The delegation from Heritage Malta and the Malta’s Ambassador to China John Busuttil (third right) tour the Forbidden City on September 22, 2023. Photos courtesy of the Maltese Embassy in China
Malta is an island state, and southernmost member of the European Union whose strategic central position in the Mediterranean Sea has shaped its rich heritage. Malta is famed for its historic sites by virtue of the succession of great and regional powers to which it has been attached throughout history. These include the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Knights of Saint John, the French under Napoleon, and the British. Site of numerous fortresses and prehistoric temples dating back to 5000 B.C., Malta is an irresistible destination for those seeking cultural enrichment. Tourism has thus become a pillar of Malta’s economy, contributing approximately 30 percent of its GDP, and creating a wide array of jobs.
Its historical cultural attractions are densely located due to their concentration. “For example, you can find several UNESCO World Heritage Sites within a half hour drive. There is an incredibly spiritual and mysterious underground Hypogeum burial chamber dating back to circa 4000 B.C. on the island of Gozo, and the city of Valletta itself, which was built as a fort in 1566 by the greatest architects, engineers, and artists of the 15th century baroque world, and also the three fortified cities protecting an incredible natural port that survived a famous attack by the Ottoman Empire in 1565, completing a unique historical and artistic experience,” Busuttil said. He concluded with mention of the beautiful beaches and rustic fishing villages that add even greater charm to the island country.
As one of the favored destinations for Chinese tourists, Malta greeted more than 10,000 Chinese tourists in 2019 – a record high. Malta’s tourism authorities, however, expect to shatter this record in 2024.
“Malta now appears once more on the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism list for outbound group tours, and we are organizing events to promote Malta in China,” Busuttil told China Today. Consultations have also been held between the two sides’ ministries and entities. “Meanwhile neither distance nor the language barrier will dampen the Maltese people’s desire to see China’s plentiful cultural treasures with their own eyes,” Busuttil said.
In August, Ambassador Busuttil was invited to attend a conference in Nanchang, southeast China’s Jiangxi Province, for the launch of the International Tourism Alliance of Silk Road Cities. The city of St Lucia in Malta has become one of the Alliance’s 40 founding member cities, which include 20 Chinese cities and 20 outside China.
“The cultural relations between China and Malta are hence strong; people-to-people exchanges robust. And I plan to strengthen them further,” Ambassador Busuttil told China Today.