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Spanish Ambassador: ‘We live, feel culture’
Author :  Bai Le, Wang Xiaozhen Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2016-11-30
Manuel Valencia is Ambassador of Spain to China. Born in 1954, he graduated with a degree in law and joined the Spanish Foreign Service in 1979. Since then, he has held a series of positions at the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1986, he was appointed as Vice-Director General of Bilateral Economic Relations with European countries and FTZs, and acted subsequently as Director-General of the foreign ministry’s International Economic Relations. From 2000, he served as Vice-President of the Spanish engineering company Tecnicas Reunidas. He was appointed Ambassador of Spain to China in March 2013.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the famed Spanish literary master Cervantes’ death. The humanity conveyed in Don Quixote, the most famous work of Cervantes, still inspires many readers to reread the book and savor the delight it brings today. How should the chivalry spirit embodied in the book be defined and how does it fit into the Spanish national sentiment? Recently, CSST reporters had a dialogue with Manuel Valencia to hear his thought on this. Valencia also shared with us his ideas on other stories of Spanish culture, its domestic affairs and China-Spain relations.
CSST: Don Quixote is considered one of the most influential works of literature from Spain. A combination of both tragedy and comedy, it emerged during the peak of the Spanish Empire. What is your understanding of the chivalry spirit embodied in this work?
Manuel Valencia: Spain was once a very large world power. From Madrid, they controlled half of Europe, Central America, South America, the Philippines and many other parts of the world. Cervantes lived at the beginning of the decline of Spanish Empire—kind of at a crossroad—and the book was written in the beginning of the fall.
Don Quixote is one of the best novels written. And today, there are still many young people from the world who recognize Don Quixote as very funny and deep. The ideas of Don Quixote are still very much on Spanish people’s mind and in Spain, we always use Don Quixote as a kind of literary way of explaining things.
The figure Don Quixote was full of idealism—to do something good— but perhaps was out of touch with reality. Realism is also what the book stresses throughout. In the end, idealism and realism are merged. So it’s more about the human soul. That’s why 400 years after his death, the book by Cervantes is still very popular and is presented everywhere. I can say that Shakespeare and Cervantes are two of the greatest writers in the world.
Chivalry was an excuse for many people, and it can be ultimately infuriating if they are too idealistic. So it was an excuse, but you can use it for many things. People who are out of their minds with idealistic things: a wonderful world, to be in love with a lady, in your dreams, things like that. But then you have to put it into reality. I think it’s more than chivalry. The book is more about the human mind and human spirit.
To continue, I have the book Don Quixote on my bedside table. I read it almost every night. I like it and I find it very deep.
CSST: Spain is famous for bull fighting and flamenco dance, and some say that Spain is a country with both passion and romance. This can be also seen from the fact that the country is home to world-renowned artists like Picasso and many colorful festivals.
Valencia: You are right. Spanish culture is one of the most important in world history. And we live the culture and feel the culture. The Prado museum is perhaps the best painting museum in the world; better than any others because it has a very good collection of all masters of painting in Spain. The paintings from the 15th to 19th century are very well preserved, like those of Velazquez, Goya, Murillo, El Greco. Also it houses very famous paintings of modern and contemporary masters like Picasso, Dalí and Miró.
Flamenco is very Spanish and there are some different opinions on it. If you ask me what flamenco is, I would say Flamenco is about passion and truth. It is very famous in China and Japan, and Chinese ladies like that. Sometimes the performers sing, sometimes with live music. Sometimes they shout loudly and stamp their feet and clap. In this way, Flamenco shows passion. It shows what you are inside. This is very much in the Spanish soul. We show what we have, we like to say if we are happy or not. We don’t keep sorrow forever with us.
Bull fighting is very old and has a tradition of almost 3,000 years. It is also important in South France, Portugal and many places in the Americas like Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. Aesthetically, it’s a very beautiful show and that’s why Picasso painted it many times—because of the quarrel, the light, music that plays there, the glows of the bull fighter and people who are there. Culturally, it is about fighting with animals, but more about fighting with strength and then trying to survive in the end. That’s why it’s famous.
Football is very important in Spain. Being a small country, we have some of the best teams in the world like Real Madrid and Barcelona, and many in South America, China, United States and Africa is watching TV soccer and teams from Spain. And we are trying to be one of the best in the world.
CSST: Spain is a country with an advanced welfare system and people have a long life expectancy. But in a poll conducted by Gallup International on Jan. 9, Iceland is the only European country on the list of the top 10 happiest world countries. This is considered to be closely related with the overall bleak economy and frequent terrorist attacks that afflict Europe.
Manuel Valencia: I don’t agree with the ranking. Spain is one of the happiest places to live in the world. Normally, in a list of the happiest countries in Europe, it has always been other countries because they take account into the consumption of clean energy, or the use of public transportation. In Iceland, or Sweden, you need a lot of energy, while in Spain, you consume less energy.
But as a country, I think it’s one of the happiest places to live in Europe. That’s why there is a large population of British people, or Germans, or Swedes who live permanently in Spain. When they have retired, they come to Spain because there are good foods, a nice working atmosphere, good culture, wonderful sanitary conditions and because there are very good hospitals in Spain, one of the best in Europe.
In Spain, we receive 68 million people every year, and we have a population of 46.4 million. Many of them are not new ones. They come regularly to Spain because they have a good time in Spain. Of course, nothing is perfect in life, and there are some concerns about quality of life and about rising prices. But in general, the conditions of living are very good in Spain.
Spain was also affected by the terrorist attack in 2004. There was a big terrorist attack at a train station in Madrid, producing many concerns. But we were in a solidarity effort. And we were very concerned about what has happened in France and Belgium. We were lowering our flag in public places and showing our respect for these people. We understand the concerns of Europe. But fortunately, so far, the terrorism in Spain is very low thanks to the active police activities. But you’ll never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
CSST: Could you talk something about the rise of separatism in the northeastern region of Catalonia? How likely is Catalan independence? Do you think such political instability will impact the domestic economy and foreign investment in Spain?
Valencia: I think there is actually little instability in Spain. But we are finding a way of compromising with new parties that arise and the old parties. But it’s just a question of time. I’m not worried about it at all.
A large majority of Catalonians want to be Spanish. In the last elections, the polls showed very clearly a large part of the population of Catalonians want to continue to be Spanish. So I think it’s a side effect of the economic crisis. If you reform the economy, there will be instability because it changes things and people have to pay price for the changes. And this has affected Catalonia as well as many other parts of Spain. That’s also the reason for the rise of the group of Podemos, the other left-wing group. But I don’t think that is consistent. And I don’t think Catalonia is going to be independent not only because I’m the Ambassador of the Spain, but realistically, it’s not the fact.
CSST: How do you view the refugee crisis that has affected Europe in the past year? What is Spain’s position regarding immigration in Europe?
Valencia: The situation of the refugees in Spain and how Spain views it is totally different from the perspective of some European countries.
About 10 percent of our population is immigrants from different countries. Some of them are from South America. Some of them are from Algeria or from other parts of the world. Spain is one of the easiest countries to immigrate to because it welcomes people, and these people have readapted.
Refugee crisis is more a Central and Northern European problem, not a problem in Spain. The distance between Spain and Africa is only 14 kilometers. Even if we are so near to Africa, we don’t have the problems as Greece, Turkey, the Balkan area, or Italy. Because we discuss with the authorities, we find solutions, we find a steady flow of immigrants to Spain to come to work. In some cities, there are demonstrations of some people trying to support the left parties in Europe for the immigration, but this is about politics, not a serious problem that affects all of society. Spanish people do not see immigration as a threat, but an opportunity to integrate people.
CSST: You’ve once said that Spain and China are in the “prime time of their friendship.” Could you elaborate on this?
Manuel Valencia: We have been together in many difficult times. When China has had political problems in the world, Spain has supported China. When Spain faces financial difficulties, China has supported Spain, especially in the last two years. We are very good friends.
Apart from that, our history goes way back, like the story of the Manila Galleon. It is a boat sailed from the Philippines, which was Spanish territory at the time, to Guangdong, Spanish territories in North America and finally to Europe through Spain in the time of China’s Ming Dynasty. It was like the “Belt and Road” initiative of its time, which connected America, Asia and Europe. The chili used in Sichuan spicy food was taken by this boat from Spanish America and later was planted in China. Otherwise, there would not be the famous Sichuan food. This helped to promote the early economic globalization. The boat also promoted Ming culture and social progress, because the boat brought silver to China in exchange for pottery, silk and other commodities.
The boat is a good connection in history. It’s a noted example of our historic friendship, and also an example for our future cooperation.