International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, Vol. 5, No.

11, November 2015

The Void of Chineseness: Contemporary Art and Cultural
Diplomacy in China
Yao Yung-Wen


Andrew Scobell, “China‟s soft power in the early twenty-first
Abstract—This paper looks at China’s official cultural century rose in conjunction with its economy, underscoring
identity that has been constructed as discourses and used as the reality that a significant accumulation of hard power is a
China’s soft power as reflected in contemporary Chinese art precondition for generating appreciable soft power” [2].
externally and internally. The Chinese Government constructed
a unitary official cultural identity to ensure China’s social
Consequently, exerting China‟s cultural influence
cohesion and national unity when communist ideology was no overseas became an imperative part of China‟s global
longer upheld as China’s central belief system after Deng strategy. However, a “Chinese China” has been regarded as a
Xiaoping’s economic reforms in 1979. “Chinese culture” has “backward” force since imperial China was overturned in
been regarded as the core of China’s soft power in exercising 1919. In order to “modernize” China, Western political
China’s cultural influence in the face of Western cultural systems were adopted after 1919 and under the communist
imperialism in the post-Mao era in which China’s rapid
economic growth has largely strengthened the nation’s
regime since 1949, “Chinese tradition” had been believed to
confidence in asserting its position on the global stage and in be responsible for the failure of China‟s previous attempts to
holding its own world view. This paper argues that there is, modernise, to the point where it was decided that it should be
however, a void behind China’s soft power. The recuperation of completely abandoned during the Cultural Revolution.
China’s traditional culture and Confucianism is more of a Therefore, when the Chinese Government decided not only
strategic political language than a return to an “authentic” to change its economic system but also to redefine its identity
cultural root.
as a “Chinese” nation, defining that Chinese identity became
Index Terms—Cultural identity, cultural diplomacy, soft problematic.
power, contemporary Chinese art. In promoting this Chinese identity, the Party has utilized
contemporary Chinese art- as opposed to traditional folk
art-as the “additional element” of China‟s cultural diplomacy.
I. INTRODUCTION The inclusion of contemporary Chinese art as China‟s
China‟s official cultural identity has been reconstructed diplomatic language to display a modern and open “Chinese
since 1979, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state China” thus can be pertinently used in analysing how the idea
decided to participate in the capitalist market economy, and of “Chinese culture” is interpreted and represented in both
since the 1990s the CCP has employed contemporary official and unofficial discourses in relation to the rising
Chinese art in China‟s cultural diplomacy to articulate forces of nationalism, Confucianism and postcolonial
China‟s national identity as a „Chinese nation‟ both internally discourse in China.
and externally. China desired a position of world economic, According to the prevailing postcolonial discourses, it is
political and cultural importance, and when Party decided problematic to claim an original and authentic cultural root to
that China‟s national culture should be the core of its soft “return to” given that disruptions and discontinuities of
power, China attempted to project a unified cultural image history, global economic interdependence and international
which was believed to be distinct from others in the global emigration all seriously challenge the concept of the nation
community. Consequently, China‟s cultural diplomacy has state and the definition of national culture. The assertion of a
aimed to promote Chinese culture abroad and defend China‟s “singular national identity” became problematic when
cultural security in the face of the growing cultural influence foreign cultural influences were internalised as part of
from the West. Contemporary Chinese art, after achieving its everyday life. The hybridity of contemporary Chinese society
international success in the 1990s, has been co-opted as an also challenged the idea of “cultural homogeneity”. When the
significant part of China‟s cultural diplomacy in promoting CCP introduced a capitalist economy, it was made clear that
China‟s national image abroad. communism would no longer be the central belief that
maintained China‟s social cohesion and national unity.
Joining the international community not only meant that
II. MAIN BODY China had to open and change its once-isolated system in
order to be connected with international organisations and
As observed in the report, China’s National Defense in
their rules, but also placed China under the evaluation of a set
2006, “never before has China been so closely bound up with
of “universal”/Western values. It became urgent for the Party
the rest of the world” [1]. According to Andrew J. Nathan and
to reposition itself to deal with the external and internal
demands of a new identity.
Manuscript received June 10, 2014; revised August 3, 2014.
Yao Yung-Wen is with the Culture Film and Media Department, During the 1980s, the significant Western cultural
University of Nottingham, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK (e-mail: ajxyy1@ influence on Chinese society was deemed to be responsible
nottingham.ac.uk).

DOI: 10.7763/IJSSH.2015.V5.589 971

by conflating nationalism with its patriotic values was supported by the Chinese Government.” and “Chinese cultural nationalists as one of those Western theories that nationalism should help China reconstruct its own national should be excluded from the search for “authentic Chinese identity „from a synthetic combination of the best elements cultural roots”.” the Party the other hand. Vol. It was of crucial importance for China to “find its own from social reality. identity became a political ideology Kim argue that China. It is difficult to grasp what how the national symbol system was manipulated in the PRC constitutes the communally inspired vision of identity other through a semiotic analysis of contemporary Chinese works than a powerful China. That is to say. the communist ideology was regarded by unique path toward modernization. However. In particular. the CCP found it had to accept a set belief. This because the historical legacies of Chinese tradition have long ambiguity is revealed in particular in discussions related to been under heavy attack since the May Fourth movement of contemporary Chinese art. what exactly provide the substantive content for Chinese nationalism constituted “Chineseness” remained ambiguous. intellectuals and art practitioners. nationalism … suffered from a „lack of content‟” [8]. “in China today. it would be wrong to assume that social reality was tends to be an extension of the dominant culture. like the student movements that complex holds that China‟s great civilisation will eventually were once regarded as liberal pursuits.” which contributes to Chinese intellectuals‟ China. In order to distinguish Chinese values from Zemin stated. In contemporary China the 1919. intrinsically linked with meeting the challenge of the West” Also. postcolonialism. nourished by the growing importance of art from the 1980s. there are two culture was re-evaluated as the authentic roots of China‟s sides to China‟s growing nationalism [6]. China‟s also needed to reconstruct its identity as representing the nationalism was deeply linked with the interests of the “Chinese people” instead of the great proletarian class in communist state. The idea of Asian Moreover. own cultural values instead of a backward force. forty years of sustained attacks by the understanding of concepts such as cultural diplomacy. A “Chinese” China was certain to be antagonistic to the “Pye has pointed to a void in the cultural ideas that could Western-centred “universal” values. traditional Chinese unified in essence” [5]. which education. which was China‟s nationalism had a clear goal. “Chinese order to continue the Party‟s legitimacy in ruling the country. “The art of the Chinese avant-garde of the 1980s rather Still. The construction and management of a national identity dynamic” “Chineseness” promoted in contemporary Chinese art [8]. significantly consequence. plays a determining role in the and an ongoing anti-imperialist sentiment. practices bears the same hollow face that is manifested in Martina Köppel-Yang provides insightful arguments about China‟s cultural diplomacy. essentially. As Zhao has argued. By asserting that this equal nation-states” and insisted that legitimate rule rested on set of universal values served “the idea of the centrality of the “adherence to Confucian norms. No. Its definition of a modern contemporary Chinese society. was to blame for assimilate contradictory elements from other cultures while causing social upheaval and chaos. especially Confucianism. In other words. Therefore. On the one hand.” which were basically conflated with the Party‟s interests. The CCP‟s re-evaluation of art was officially banned from any public sphere as a traditional culture. “with its legitimate monopoly on influenced by China‟s national interests. 5. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity. the of universal values that ultimately influenced its domestic ancient Chinese refused to “acknowledge a world of formally affairs and put its legitimacy in crisis. East and West‟” [7]. Lowell Dittmer and Samuel China‟s nationalism. of “Chineseness” in defining China‟s cultural identity. however. the CCP also silenced cultural nationalists‟ stated that Asia could provide an alternative to the Western questions towards its “alien nature”: communism. concrete assertion of China‟s official cultural identity. when socialism had become increasingly distanced [7]. I argue that there is a void behind the inability to grasp concrete problems of cultural change. as it fully manifested in the dominant official discourse. which dominated the West”. Yet the distinction between Chinese identity is further more or less tightly related to the Chinese culture and Western culture has been firmly asserted 972 . A unified develops in a semi-official space and forms a kind of “Chinese” identity failed to explain the reality of symbiosis with the official culture. Still. 11. Like Responding to Pye‟s argument. Pye believes that “Chinese nationalism in the PRC was usually involving a nationalist sentiment. behind violence and its controlling interest in terms of manipulating this identity is an ambiguous assertion of the glorious past the national symbol system. taking Lucian Pye‟s point of view. On defining China‟s global role as a “Chinese nation. Contemporary Chinese retaining the Chinese essence. patriotism and socialism are the Western-centred universal values. To put it another way. As Jiang way of life [3]. [8]. which “was how it had been labelled since the early twentieth century. The ‟85 Art by the Chinese Government and supported by Chinese NewWave also ended with controversy in the same year. By holding the conviction of cultural superiority. reduced to the expression of a political party‟s current “Chineseness” is an undefinable concept in contemporary policies. in addition to the necessity of from the traditional and the modern. the Party decided it was of crucial importance to development of Chinese culture for more than one thousand “emphasize and strengthen the study of the differences years” [4]. between Eastern and Western culture” [3]. modernity and contemporary with a relatively inchoate and incoherent form of nationalism Chinese art was often based on reinterpretations of those without a substantive core that could be readily articulated concepts that were consistent with China‟s national interests. communist regime on traditional Chinese culture left China nationalism. November 2015 for the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. China‟s Middle Kingdom China‟s avant-garde art. things had to be read in the “Chinese” way. With the advanced participation in the strengthened the cultural nationalists‟ confidence in this international community.

The emergence of a large number of in their exhibitions. a French collective visual expressions. the right of interpretation was left to the local image in the early 1990s was not entirely under the CCP‟s authorities. pushing the total by the end of 2012 to works of art. In Deng‟s era these basic principles did not change” [10]. The exhibition delivered a strong “In 1949. art scholars. “Authentic Chineseness” and a Chinese culture was believed to be subjected to Western “modernised China” were themes that could easily be traced value judgements. is based on the Chinese symbol for the number one If the development of contemporary Chinese art in the [12]. The boundaries are fluid. … Official and alternative strategies of 3. They believed that it by the official side” [10]. No. London - all have important by the CCP as “the strategic employment of images and signs museums and China should too” [12]. a target it selected objects. says An Laishun. 11. when the Communist Party took control. rather than explicit. … One of the representation and interpretation” due to the fact that art star attractions will be the new National Art Museum of practices were conditioned with social and political norms. Nevertheless. Köppel-Yang argues that works of art and discourses in Beijing in 2017. even the “alternative trends” of Chinese artists in the a strategic “pillar industry” and stressed that Chinese culture 1980s were impregnated with the impression that the was the “spirit and soul of the nation” and hence “a powerful function of art was mainly in the service of ideology and force for the country‟s development” [12]. According to The Economist: the art media and artists. rules. By contrast. China was to have 3. The concern of projecting its image globally. As control. the internationalisation of projecting China‟s international image yet was deeply contemporary Chinese art in the 1990s revealed China‟s associated with Western evaluation systems and rules. selection and interpretation. and talk of the importance of remembering of life” eliminated the boundary between art and life and “in the past and of educating the younger generation” [12]. still existed in contemporary 973 . In contemporary Chinese art represented China‟s international most cases. Nathan and Scobell CCP monitors contemporary art practices by placing them contend that the CCP‟s emphasis on contemporary Chinese under implicit. Last year [2012] a record 451 will show how a Chinese culture identity is defined in the new museums opened. rather than tensions between China and judge why a certain work of art was or was not permitted to other Asian countries. which was a legacy of the Cultural Revolution contemporary art museum in the world will also be opened in [11]. … The new NAMOC. The international prestige of contemporary Chinese The Economist put it. The largest discourses.” Association. Vol. the way that be displayed in a public space were never made explicit. November 2015 official program of modernization. was hence evident in the winning bid for its design. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity. art. “in contemporary art. The district … will be six times as big as the current museum. China formed a dialectical relationship because both the Government and artists believed that images were endowed “Museums are an integral part of this policy. “the total aestheticisation of all aspects foreigners alike. … According to the current five-year its relationship with contemporary Chinese society. Culture Notice in 2001 officially enabled local governmental contemporary Chinese art mainly reveals conflicts between units to monitor contemporary art exhibitions. The plan. China message of “traditional Chinese culture” but failed to explain had just 25 museums. The Chinese who had the right to represent and interpret China was one of pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the Shanghai Biennale the examples that revealed the tension engendered when were two cases of this will. The Chinese pavilion at the 54th Venice contemporary museums. government policy already defined Chinese culture as view. a China (NAMOC). … In Beijing ideological or moral transformation of society. She further states that during the was important to “show off their ancient culture to locals and Cultural Revolution. vice-president of the China Museums interpretation are to be uncovered [9]. Chinese artists test the patience of promotion. who rarely referenced professional opinions. Their officialdom. Paris. architect. despite the fact that a Ministry of diplomatic breakthrough in the West.866.500 museums by 2015. the rules to China and the West. in America only 20-40 museums a year were built in the decade before the 2008 financial crash Drawing on Igor Golomstock‟s work in Totalitarian Art. evoked the Chinese Government‟s and mainland Chinese The Party sought to homogenise ideas and elements of intellectuals‟ nationalist sentiment. She terms the the government is planning to turn part of the Olympic park. function of art in a totalitarian system “the strategies of built for the 2008 games. The debate between contemporary art practices in China and to place Chinese mainland Chinese artists and overseas Chinese artists over artwork within its own evaluation system. In her 2009. close to the 798 art set of cultural value concepts and discursive practices. but most Chinese “interpretation” of contemporary Chinese culture inevitably know how far they can push them” [12]. [12]. biennales and triennials Biennale adopted unmistakeable traditional Chinese symbols demonstrated the Chinese Government‟s resolution to tighten to represent contemporary China but was generally perceived the control of its discursive power in contemporary Chinese to be a failure by mainland Chinese art critics. … [The semiotic analysis] achieved three years early.” Köppel-Yang believes that the exploitation of art in the service of ideology began early in China with the Chinese Chinese officials pointed out that “the great cities of the modernisation movement in 1917 and continued to be used world - New York. by Jean Nouvel. and they are with a transformational power that could achieve the multiplying rapidly—too rapidly in many cases. into a culture hub.” 1980s witnessed the continuous connection between art and Contemporary Chinese art played an important role in official discourse domestically. with its ironies art was brought about by Western curators‟ and institutions‟ and its multiple readings. 5. The identity. As a result. such as wine. as engendered values. For the thousands art in the 1990s was less a coincidence than a strategy for its of museums in China.

engendered by the collision of cultures. domination. strategies in the political present. the “many as one”. a stable system of reference in terms of we understand that all cultural statements and systems are authentic Chinese cultural roots was necessary in order to constructed in this contradictory and ambivalent space of support China‟s official cultural identity and China‟s global enunciation. Therefore. but the exhibition failed to elucidate why they were national community. that we begin to understand why hierarchical role.” more explanation. Still. when mainland Chinese art scholars. claims to the inherent originality or „purity‟ of cultures are art critics and artists attempted to criticise the Government untenable. was ignored by the more Bhabha rejects the reading of cultural knowledge as an pressing common pursuit: an independent and powerful integrated unit. identification in China. made between a powerful China and a democratic but chaotic authenticated by the originary Past. he advocates the concept of “cultural difference. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity. stable system of reference and the necessary negation of the Homi K. … even the same signs can be appropriated. they also “renewed” the past. No. it would be alternative discourses actively contributed to a collusive a mistake to read the CCP‟s gesture as re-embracing present in a totalitarian system. if a choice had to be identity of culture as “a homogenizing. He remarks that “it is only when former. The concerted responses in interviews I conducted supremacy which is itself produced only in the moment of in 2011 pertinently echoed this paradox. he does not explain how present. regarded as a necessary strategy for unofficial/alternative Although nationalism and Confucianism in China were of discourses to become the “supplementary” element of the crucial importance in reinventing China‟s official cultural powerful official discourse. even before we resort to empirical historical for merely showing a “Chinatown culture” by juxtaposing instances that demonstrate their hybridity” [13]. He Alternative discourses proposed in China also revealed the criticises the concept of “cultural diversity” for its persistence in searching for China‟s own cultural roots. As the “additional “resettlement of the borderline” sees identity as being elements” that the CCP adopted to reconstruct its identity in order to consolidate its rule. the ideas that influence the performative “strategies” [16]. would opt for the tradition of the People” [14]. the asserted which focuses on “the problem of the ambivalence of cultural „Chineseness‟ seemed to be a strong voice with a void in authority: the attempt to dominate in the name of a cultural essence. 11. a tradition. it Government to promote Chinese culture overseas. the Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennale with the Bhabha holds that the revisiting of the Past did not connect “Chinese Years” projects organised by the Chinese the present with an “origin” of the past. Also. That is: different cultures would be accepted and Though he mainly refers to the minority discourse in assimilated as long as a pre-given condition to recognise the postcolonial nations. the pursuit of the very could best represent contemporary Chinese art. As a consequence. In this sense. or resistance‟ [19]. as being gradually chosen to be placed in the global context other than to diminished by the “less-than-one” which undermined the demonstrate the greatness of Chinese culture. kept alive in the national China. “refiguring it as a contingent failed to provide a more convincing interpretation of „in-between‟ space. 5. of living” [15]. homogenous totality with an iterative temporality [17]. translated. Vol. however. If it recognition of “pre-given cultural contents and customs” and were wrong to assume a homogeneous cultural identity in its subsequent upholding of “multiculturalism”. as Bhabha states. Bhabha‟s theory of the Third Space contends that certitude in the articulation of new cultural demands. denotes the vulnerability of an assertive and authoritative never meant to re-pose the past as a definite resource for the cultural identity. These “strategies” renewed the past while formation of identity in China are different. it remains unclear how identity. drawing on Foucault‟s theory. rehistoricized and read anew‟ [13]. similarly. Just like the upholding of Confucianism. highly valued the concept of Party‟s rule. November 2015 China. almost all the authority of culture as a knowledge of referential truth would interviewees gave the same firm response: „No one. although Bhabha‟s concept of the restricted by the Party‟s implicit policies. „Chineseness‟ directed by the official discourse demanded Instead. in Bhabha‟s opinion the origin of the “Chinese” culture as the supreme culture was ensured. On the contrary. performance of the present” [15]. the prevailing upholding of the ambiguous admitted “the Utopianism of a unique collective identity” [18]. In other words. most people. not the nostalgia. The complicity in effect Confucian values. When asked who differentiation” [19]. Consequently. unifying force. which China. As Chinese scholars pointed out. as a practice of unity or fixity. that innovates and interrupts the “Chineseness”. 974 . The extent to which the official identity when the discursive power was under nationalists and Confucians could engage with society was strict control. a community. “the The uncertain. in fact. unstable and ambivalent elements „past-present‟ becomes part of the necessity. The CCP‟s re-evaluation of the past. He challenges the perception of the historical China. “performatively” formed through the iteration and recreation the mechanisms brought into play in power relations were of the “self”. „the meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial meanings. Regarding the The split in the performative present of cultural structure of meaning and reference as an ambivalent process. including intellectuals. criticises. the values they promoted were by no means allowed alternative discourses can internalise their values as part of to override the Party‟s interests. is „a split between the traditional contemporary Chinese art but none of them represents culturalist demand for a model. As China‟s nationalism. which. However. the “Chineseness” was between official and unofficial/alternative discourses may be used more to define the “Other” than to define the “Self”. as they contradicted the Party‟s socialist “pre-given cultural contents and customs” in the way Bhabha identity. a contemporary Chinese art‟. Traditional claiming a return to the past and brought instabilities to the Chinese philosophy. went on to state that „every artist‟s work is part of according to Bhabha.‟ They ultimately witness the split of cultural identification.

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