The Shanghai Ballet: A Model for Chinese Cultural Diplomacy?
Image Credit: Reuters

The Shanghai Ballet: A Model for Chinese Cultural Diplomacy?


In August 2013, the Shanghai Ballet Company made its U.K. debut in London with a contemporary performance based on Jane Eyre, a Victorian novel by English writer Charlotte Brontë. Attending the opening event, the Chinese ambassador to London congratulated the dancers, observing that their performance “…shows that broadening and deepening cultural exchanges between China and Britain will increase our mutual understanding, respect, trust and friendship.” For his part, London Mayor Boris Johnson welcomed the Shanghai Ballet with a special message: “The fact that we have the Shanghai Ballet company performing a contemporary ballet based on a novel by one of our greatest writers from the early part of the 19th century is a fantastic example of how we are growing ever closer as we share the best elements of our cultures – long may it continue.”

Given the concerns and suspicions that China’s economic and military ascendancy is causing in many Western countries, such warm words are a welcome—and much needed—attempt to improve perceptions of China among foreign publics. Indeed, as shown by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, China tends to be regarded negatively in many European and North American societies, with the lowest ratings received in Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and the United States. As Joshua Cooper Ramo put it in 2007, “China’s greatest strategic threat today is its national image.” To what extent could the Shanghai Ballet’s visit to London serve as a model for Chinese “cultural diplomacy,” aimed at improving attitudes toward China in Western societies?

Public Diplomacy, Cultural Diplomacy and Soft Power

In its classical sense, diplomacy is confined to the realm of official relations between governments and major multilateral organizations. In contrast, “public diplomacy” campaigns are deliberately targeted at general publics abroad. In this connection, “cultural diplomacy” is often seen as one dimension or branch of public diplomacy, encompassing a range of instruments such as arts, education, language, sports and religion. The concept was famously defined by political scientist Milton Cummings as “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding.” Today, public and cultural diplomacy alike are seen as important elements in the arsenal of “soft power.” The term, which was coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, can best be understood as “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment,” with the latter being characteristics of hard—economic and military—power. In short, soft power is “attractive power.”

Promoting China’s Peaceful Development

Concepts such as public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and soft power now figure prominently on the Chinese government’s agenda. For example, at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, then Chinese president Hu Jintao stressed the need to promote the attractiveness of Chinese culture as a way of enhancing the country’s “soft power.” The China Public Diplomacy Association was founded in Beijing on December 31, 2012. Peng Liyuan, wife of the current President Xi Jinping, has received growing attention as adding a soft touch for China thanks to her role in public diplomacy during presidential visits abroad. As concerns over China’s economic and military power mount in some parts of the world, the Chinese government is thus showing greater awareness of the importance of communicating with foreign publics.

To promote a more favorable image of China in the world and facilitate the country’s “peaceful development,” the Chinese leadership seems to have relied on three main strategies. First, it has been active in releasing White Papers to make Chinese policy more transparent and easier to understand for English-speaking audiences. To date, such papers have covered a broad range of topics, including energy policy, climate change, human rights, the rule of law, foreign trade, national defense, arms control and disarmament, space activities and foreign aid. Second, China is encouraging the establishment of Confucius Institutes on university campuses all over the world to further the study of Chinese language and culture. Since the creation of the first Confucius Institute in Seoul in 2004, the total number of institutes worldwide has risen considerably. At present, there are 324 Confucius Institutes in countries and regions across the world – more than twice as many as the German Goethe Institut and more than four times the number of the Spanish Instituto Cervantes. Third, China recently hosted cultural mega-events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Both events were major platforms for the Chinese government to showcase the country’s achievements and provided opportunities to increase its international recognition and status.

Nguoi Phan Bien
September 1, 2013 at 05:05

The Chinese culture is one of elitism and very hierarchical. It will have a very hard time making it into the mainstreams of the world. Let's face it, there are many more people who enjoy easy-to-absorb lower-end pop cultures than cultures that are typical of the higher end ones, the ones that require a great deal of efforts to learn in order to be able to enjoy. Especially with the advent of the Internet, lower end cultures get spread at an even much faster pace and the world is simply racing unstoppably to the bottom, culturally speaking.

August 30, 2013 at 13:22

Is that why you are commenting?

Dewey Last
August 30, 2013 at 04:59

@ TV Monitor

Correct, except not 100 times, many thousands. [I am being silly]


I suggest answering your own questions before addressing questions to others. Ask a non-sensical question, get a like answer in return. Oh, and what country do you come from? Weaboo are a Chinese social phenomena. More Chinese watch anime than any other people. Are you a weaboo?

Lao Gee
August 30, 2013 at 02:01

I take great comfort that many Chinese, some of them even from the China, share some of may opinions. Whoever I am or wherever I am from doesn't seem to be of any importance at all. And I hope China realizes that the world is getting even smaller. The boundaries, the nationalities or your national interest to some extend can not be clearly defined as easily as used to be. Japan is one of your biggest trading partner. Does it serve any of your interest by damaging that relationship?  Probably not.


As for culture and soft power, I think it's really hard to build. And it's even harder when your own people don't even believe in anything Confiscous said. Just a few decades ago anything or anyone related to Confiscous had a really hard time in China just to survive from persecution by the Chinese government. How much more rediculous could it be? So you want the rest of the world to forget that part of history just because it hurts?   


August 30, 2013 at 00:12


Isn't it the Russian learn ballet from Mongolian during the occupation by the Mongolian Empire?  Didn't the Mongolian invaded Myanmar, although unsucessful?  So did the British which you would thank them for bringing your nation together. 

Of course, when technology was offered for free, it is much appreciated.  For example, the number zero was invented in India, we all thank India for it.  Another example is that we should thank Hitler for his push to invent the atomic bomb.  We should thank Einstein to postulate his theory of relativities so that mankind can have weapon of mass destruction.  The Chinese contribution of gun-power to the world should be much appreciated.  The Chinese contribution of printing of books which standardized writing of characters or symbols are still waiting to be thanked since many centuries ago.  The Chinese discovery of silk which enrich the fashion world is still pending to be thanked by the world.  Where are the thanking cards for the Chinese for those inventions?  The Chinese had thanked the Soviet for their contribution in the Chinese defence industry.  When will China get its thanking card?

TV Monitor
August 29, 2013 at 22:29

@ cdk

Right now, the world sides with Japan on Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute because the world likes Japan more than China due to Japanese culture and sees the things from the Japanese perspective. Now, there is a direct example of China's weak soft power harming China's national interests.

August 29, 2013 at 16:08


 Why is that question important to you?


I believe that certain messages are universal. Communism was universal, so was Democracy.

August 29, 2013 at 15:55

Explain to us what is the benefit of attacting weaboo to our culture?

August 29, 2013 at 14:31

The thing is you see, the reason for concern over China in nations such as Germany or Italy has a lot less to do with perceived aggression over islands in Asia than the threat of China as a trade competitor.

Do you really think European nations care more about Vietnamese and Filipinos trading angry words and actions over the South China Sea than China being perceived as exacerbating their nations economic weakness?

Nations outside of East Asia and its periphery region barely care about distant regional territorial issues as long as they are satisfied it doesn’t affect them economically.

TV Monitor
August 29, 2013 at 13:11

Chinese should understand that Russian cultural content of ballets and classical music have had limited audiences overseas. While the Russian cultural content certainly had quality, the delivery medium itself didn't have enough broad appeal to reach the majority of world population. On the other hand, trashy Hollywood movies, TV shows, and American pop music have 100 times greater reach than the Russian contents. As the old saying goes, Dallas won the Cold War for the US by turning the world into fans of American popular culture.

The reality is that Chinese cultural content is not very attractive and refined enough to attract a wide scope of foreign audiences that China seeks. It is the Korean that have successfully emulated Americans to create its massive Korean cultural industry popping out endless waves of movies, TV dramas, and K-pop and establish Korean cultural hegemony in Asia. China's best bet is to study Korean content industry model and try to emulate it, not try to be next Russia with contents of limited audiences. After all, single PSY has greater influence than 10,000 Chinese ballerinas and classical musicians put together, and China would rather have single PSY than 10,000 nameless ballerinas and classical musicians.

August 29, 2013 at 11:34

What is your nationality?

August 29, 2013 at 03:33

When the magazine reports good news, no one is likely to comment.  When the magazine reports tragedies or strategic issues between China and India, many people  comments.  Where are the 5 pennies Indian bloggers?

August 29, 2013 at 00:05

The Russians taught the Chinese Ballet very well, but not technology (The Greta Lep Forward was a disaster) and that's why the sly little man Deng (with the help of Kissinger and Nixon) had to deal with the other cat, the West, to get the enormous technology transfer which is the root of China's "Great Economic Leapfrog Forward". China should be thankful to Western countries.

That's my "China Image"

Lao Gee
August 28, 2013 at 22:20

The only problem is China can only hide its true color for so long. How can it build the trust after it has been lying over and over again? Can it stop harassing its neighbors? Can it stop threatening its smaller counterparts? Can it stop brainwashing its people? The most important of all, does China believe co-existence?

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