President Xi Jinping uses the Chinese Dream to express his desire to build a rejuvenated nation, which  encourages the population to strive for a fully developed and prosperous state. But the vision of a golden future can be more than a government’s message to inspire its people. Since former President Hu Jintao endorsed the use of a soft power strategy in 2007, China has made significant efforts to communicate the Chinese Dream beyond its own borders, presenting the image of a reinvigorated country ready to engage as a positive player on the world stage.

Soft power is the influence a nation gains through attraction and co-option, but what works for one country may not work for another. To most in the Western world, the ‘national dream’ that springs to mind is American, which differs significantly from the Chinese version. When it comes to the cultural aspects of soft power, a difference in message may have implications for the medium that suits it best.

One of the most obvious manifestations of soft power in the form of artistic works is the US film industry. Around the world, we are familiar with locations, events, and people as projected to us through the Hollywood lens. Movie characters and tropes from films like Westerns are part of the collective consciousness, a lingua franca of the imagination. Scandals may rock Hollywood, but so far we still turn out to watch the films. At its best, The American Dream appeals with its promise of a new start, a blank slate free from the constraints of history and a way out for those trapped by circumstance. This vision translates well into the populist movie narrative, and across all forms of pop culture. China has the world’s second largest film industry, but domestic success has not translated as well abroad – apart from those with storylines mimicking the US model.

But there are other forms of cultural communication. The downside of the American Dream, stemming from its most basic idea of individual success in a relatively young nation, is a perceived lack of depth in terms of ancient history and traditional culture. On the other hand, older nations often use aspects of their heritage as brand ambassadors. For example, the first Ancient Civilizations Forum took place in April this year, hosted by Greece and co-organised with China. Greek Foreign minister Nikos Kotzias stated the Forum would bring together countries with some of the world’s oldest cultures to find ways of exercising soft power around the world.

Some things can’t be forced

Much of China’s artistic culture is not well known in the West, beyond a few familiar names. For some years, the Chinese Government has tried to tap into this rich resource, facing the problem of how to export unfamiliar work to new audiences. As with any endeavour, the less people feel they are being ‘sold’ to, the more actively they engage. Joseph Nye, who coined the term soft power, stresses that international influence is a by-product of natural success by civil players, not state organisations. He points out that a top-down, propagandist approach is ineffective. Confucius Institutes, set up around the world by the Chinese Government, have sometimes attracted suspicion that they are spreading Communist Party ideals rather than promoting cultural activities and skills.

Flexible, co-operative projects offer a credible alternative. New audiences are especially receptive to unfamiliar artistic works if given some kind of context in relation to their own culture. The prospect of viewing new artistic works is appealing, but so is the opportunity to tell others about their own culture. If both dialogues happen at the same time, the exchange is more efficient.

In a stroke of luck for future planners of commemorative events, the Ming-dynasty Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu died in the same year as William Shakespeare. During 2016, a series of events took place across the UK and China marking 400 years since their deaths. Underlining a conscious policy to use the arts in diplomacy, President Xi Jinping said, “China and the UK can join in celebrating the legacies of these two literary giants, to promote interpersonal dialogue and deepen mutual understanding.”

For one of these events, Beijing-based students from the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) adapted A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while students from Leeds University reworked Tang’s A Dream Under the Southern Bough. By studying and adapting the scripts, the groups had to relate the characters from another time and culture directly to themselves. As the plays were performed together, across the UK and China, the audiences were given a chance to compare and contrast work both unfamiliar and familiar to them.

The central theme of both plays – dreaming – prompted thoughts about dreams, whether national or individual. The general mechanism of successful cross-cultural cooperation at an international level seems a perfect fit to communicate ideas particular to the Chinese Dream. These are projects where groups work together ‘for the people’, under the aegis of state institutions coming together from different nations. Another aspect is the importance of restoring past glories decimated during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. As people tend to feel that great art belongs to all humanity, this strategy of preservation has a good chance of promoting good will.

An increasing amount of initiatives are bringing a new familiarity to Chinese culture. During the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, China Focus was set up to showcase Chinese performances. In a collaboration going the other way, China’s first design museum was created by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and state-owned China Merchants Shekou Holdings.

Artistic practitioners and audiences in the West will always have concerns about the possibility of individual fulfilment within a state-controlled system which engages in censorship. But a soft power strategy, as opposed to propaganda, can aim for mutual understanding and not agreement. In order to impart a familiarity with Chinese ideals and aspirations, the Chinese Government is promoting the country’s artistic heritage as an effective means of communication. This approach might not reach the broad audience of a movie industry dealing with superheroes, but it does have the potential to forge lasting bonds.

About the author

Lucy Nordberg is a scriptwriter and journalist interested in aspects of geopolitics, culture and technology.