Chinese soft power: on the shores of West Lake

It has been called the “Kung Fu Panda problem,” or, more recently, the “Gangnam Style question.” Why, China’s leaders and intelligentsia ask, is it American studio Dreamworks which scores a global blockbuster with the film Kung Fu Panda, two of China’s most globally resonant symbols, and not a Chinese studio? And, on the heels of South Korean rapper Psy’s achievement of the most watched video on YouTube, they are also asking, and not without some jealousy, why it is Korean pop playing on iPods worldwide and not Chinese?

These are but proxies for the broader question of China’s soft power, an issue that is at the forefront of the minds of China’s leaders, who recognize that overdependence on sheer economic might in international relations is reaching the limits of its effectiveness. For China’s leaders, soft power brings not only the chance to counter fears of its rise, but also the opportunity to positively cultivate and strengthen global ties. In outgoing president Hu Jintao’s speech before the Party Congress in November, he affirmed that “culture is the lifeblood of a nation” and that “the strength of Chinese culture are an important indicator of China’s power and prosperity and the renewal of the Chinese nation.”

Many writers, like the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, suggest that China’s soft power problem is in an inherent consequence of one-party rule: a culture unable to seriously (or, in the case of Gangnam, not so seriously) critique itself, or, which under the watchful eye of government can only glorify its accomplishments abroad and ‘guide’ its citizens at home, is one that cannot engage fully with the rest of the world.

And yet, there is a masterpiece of theater in Hangzhou, 110 miles southwest of Shanghai—and the reason why it is not yet widely celebrated speaks not only to the enormous gap between China as aspirant for global cultural influence and China as actual practitioner, but also challenges the hypothesis that politics is behind  China’s soft power problem.

At the heart of Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, lies Xi Hu, or West Lake, a 2.5 square mile body of water that has captivated artists and poets from the time of the Qin dynasty more than  a millennia ago. The lake, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011, today attracts millions of tourists annually.

Each night, a corner of this magnificent freshwater lake serves as the stage for Impression West Lake, a minimalist hour long theatrical performance which, in five acts, portrays the arc of a doomed relationship.

The marquee director is Zhang Yimou, known internationally for the film Hero and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games. Impression is a marvel of choreography, costumes, lighting, and minimalist storytelling.

The performers quite literally walk — and dance—on water, their rippling stage just below the surface bordered by gorgeously lit trees and overlooked by a majestic pagoda. The performance is a showcase to ethereal cranes of light and torrents of fish, walls of water, and a smaller army of drummers that Zhang used to such startling effect at the 2008 opening ceremony. Its score is the only aspect to have achieved much international recognition, with a Grammy nomination in 2010, but its creation by Japanese new age artist Kitarō only reinforces China’s own cultural invisibility.

The performance, incorporating traditional Chinese themes, costumes, dancing, and music, is at once universal, yet uniquely the country’s own. (How important is the absence of any dialogue to its immersive effect?) It is a spellbinding accomplishment both technical and aesthetic. What Impression accomplishes with water coolly rivals the fiery extravaganzas of the West. I respected China long before my travels to Hangzhou  for reasons that had nothing to do with culture; it was not until Impression of West Lake that I admired it for the first time.

On pages sixteen and seventeen of the American passport, a quote by President Eisenhower is printed above a scene of a farmer trailing two oxen, manually plowing his field, a stalk of wheat dominating the left foreground:

“Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”

At its heart is an observation that is no less true for China than it is for any nation which seeks a leading role on the world’s stage: culture is not spread on its own merit — it must be evangelized. And, if the audience that watched Impression is any guide, it is perhaps a failure to evangelize that matters as much as politics for China’s soft power problem.

With the start of the final act, a great many of the audience began to make their way towards the exits; a performance which deserved a standing ovation by those who remained received it only from the Mexican tourists behind me. However right the argument that politics stifles the reach and ambition of Chinese culture, what I witnessed on the banks of West Lake would suggest that the “Kung Fu Panda problem” is as much a deep-seated societal problem as it is political that inhibits China’s championing of its own cultural richness. At worst, it is perhaps a consequence of a disregard for art as a legacy of the destruction of the Cultural Revolution; at best, it is the cultural modesty of the Chinese themselves that allow them to turn their backs to the stage with such apparent disregard.

Soft power matters—and American and Chinese leaders are far from alone in recognizing it. In the course of human history, economics and military might are mere instruments to a greater master. The truest markers and greatest conflicts of human history are inherently ideological, and its messenger cultural. It is in the conflicts over the nature of truth and who may divine it; between authority between the governed and their governors; whether to turn inward or engage with the world, on which the narrative of mankind turns. And, eventually, be it in Gandhi’s India or Vietnam, it is in the battle for hearts and minds, not bullets, that history is won.       

If the Chinese will not take it upon themselves to evangelize their culture, then they subject themselves to the discretion of the West to ignore or selectively appropriate it. In doing so, it is the West that controls the terms on which China is defined and understood by the global community.

A China that can neither independently articulate the narrative of its own rise nor promote its many contributions to the global community is a China not merely unworthy, but incapable, of becoming a true great power.

This essay was originally published on The Yale Globalist