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Examining the Influence of Chinese Cultural and Soft Power in Europe

Ai Weiwei Exhibition, Istanbul, Turkey. 13 September, 2017 © Photo retrieved from:

China has been one of the most frequently examined countries of the 21st century. With a range of topics, from COVID-19 to economic deals with European countries, Africa, Russia and the US, to culture, it has been shaping and reshaping ideas of itself everywhere around the world. This article will contribute to understanding the soft power and the country’s cultural influence in particular on European Union countries, and how that power can be examined in the wider context of the current geopolitical situation.

Soft power is understood as a largely non-confrontational type of influence that does not try to force a country’s values onto others, but rather uses its appeal to attract people and pique their interest in them. In international politics, the impact of soft power remains a significant point on each nation’s agenda as it can determine the kind of relationships that the country will have with other governments, its opportunities, or lack thereof, in foreign affairs, and what image it will be associated with. It impacts how likely people are to travel there, and therefore contributes to the development of tourism, or whether they are willing to trade with the country’s companies (Tom, 2016). In recent years, a rising number of countries have recognised the importance of soft power, and the budget earmarked for its development has been gradually increasing (The Economist, 2017).

For China, soft power has been a pillar of its foreign policy for over 25 years, as well as its long-term goal. Chinese President Xi Jinping stated in 2014: “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world”, further showing his commitment to increasing the impact of the country’s soft power and continuing the pursuit of a peaceful image of China, just like his predecessor, Hu Jintao, attempted to counter unfavorable narratives from the West (Albert, 2018).

Due to the recent changes in China’s approach to diplomacy, also related to the emergency of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in late February of 2022, it appears clear that the country’s desired goal is to become a “big brother”, a mediator, a friend, and that such “status” is difficult to be achieved without reexamining its own soft power capabilities and influence strategy (Guo, 2023; Ivanov, 2023). This appears particularly clear in the light of recent controversies ranging all the way from COVID-19 to the China-US trade war and Beijing’s vacillating stance on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and European affairs, and releasing volatile statements on how the conflict may be approached, without clearly supporting nor accusing any of the sides (Channel News Asia, 2023).

The article will explore several aspects of Chinese culture, such as traditional arts, language and education, and cultural diplomacy and exchange, and will focus on how these efforts contribute to endearing or alienating the image of China and sparking very different feelings regarding the Far-East country among students, entrepreneurs and politicians in Europe.

Traditional Arts and Performing Arts

Chinese calligraphy is well-known for being an ancient and long-appreciated traditional art in China, admired not just by many Chinese people, but also by calligraphy connoisseurs all around the world. The beautiful forms of writing over thousands of years have enhanced the imagination of the masses, opening the way from the city of Hangzhou, the cradle of Chinese calligraphy, to Europe, where it’s been exhibited in museums across the continent.

One recent exhibition took place in The British Museum in London, one of the biggest art and history related establishments in the world. The Asia Gallery, named also The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery shows a European audience the beauty of ancient Chinese landscapes 山水 (shan shui) accompanied by different calligraphy styles, as well as diverse selections of art across China and Asia art. Currently, The British Museum exhibits another China-related show focused on 19-th century China, called “China’s hidden century” (British Museum, n.d.). Instead of focusing on ancient art, it showcases the innovation and turbulent history of a country that has come to the forefront of public imagination culturally and politically, advancing and learning from multiple regime changes, economic models, and global conflicts over multiple centuries. The ongoing exhibition collaborates with over 100 scholars from 14 different countries, indicating a large interest which researchers have in exploring uncharted China and its historical legacy and sharing it with the general public.

For enthusiasts of performative arts, Peking Opera can also be experienced in Europe. This rare opportunity of delving into the ancient tales of China was to be experienced in 2018 and 2019, when the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe and the China National Peking Opera Company participated in a Peking Opera Festival in Europe, set in Berliner Festspiele in Berlin Germany (China Culture, n.d.; Xinhuanet, 2022). With classics, such as The Dream of Handan or The Peony Pavilion, the European audience was able to see China from a new perspective. By experiencing its legends, oftentimes unheard-of in this part of the world, China has begun to seem more accessible and real to a European audience.

As such, Chinese art has begun to enter the museum space in Europe, and multiple new audiences have been inspired by it, including high-end fashion companies in Europe such as Christian Dior in 2022, creating a clothing collection inspired by traditional clothing from the Ming dynasty or Chanel in its 2018 jewelry collection made out of appreciation for the unique aesthetic of Coromandel screens (Hawkins, 2019; Robinson, 2023).

Additionally, many European Universities have renowned Asia Studies Centers or majors in China and China-related fields, often under the patronage of local Confucius Institutes. Besides studying the language and international affairs, oftentimes they organise Chinese Culture days, like the one in Wroclaw, Poland - open to public events that aim to familiarise the walk-ins with the rich heritage of Chinese history up until the present (Xinhua, 2022).

Not only are academic institutions in Europe increasingly interested in China, but China-related festivals are also endorsed by municipal governments. For example, in 2022, those who traveled to Ghent, Belgium, were able to explore multiple faces of China during the third edition of the “Made in China Festival” (ASEF, n.d.). From February to March, the festival showcased Chinese movies largely unknown to the West, Chinese traditional music performances and organised day Chinese literature events accompanied by a discussion group, so that people could learn new perspectives on the country.

Language and Education

In addition to the promotion of Chinese culture, Confucius Institutes are also responsible for providing quality training in Mandarin for students of all ages, from children to business professionals. Currently, there are around 200 Confucius Institutes in Europe, many of them affiliated with European Universities and faculties related to Asia, international relations or language learning.

However, the recent crackdown on the Institutes amid censorship and accusations of pro-Chinese propaganda have sparked a debate on whether this form of soft power is wanted and appreciated in Europe (Vanttinen, 2022). In contrast to Russia and African countries, which have recently experienced a boom in the numbers of Chinese language learners, Europeans are reversing towards other languages, and therefore many governments have begun closing down the Institutes. By undertaking such a radical move, political affiliations of countries are being affirmed by the choice of their citizens’ language education preferences.

Many Western European countries, such as Sweden, Germany, Finland, Norway and Belgium have accused Confucius Institutes of espionage in 2020, cutting down funding and the number of university programmes focused on China and the Chinese language, and therefore questioning the role of the Institutes, further increasing the anti-Chinese sentiment that has been gradually rising in Europe due to controversies in recent years (Flittner, 2020). The aversion was multiplied by the unappealing “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, which has taken a toll on how Chinese politicians were seen by the international stage. Despite recent changes in that approach and toning it down and altering its diplomatic efforts to seem more plausible, many European governments are still hesitant to welcome China as a partner, rather than a competitor, or even an enemy.

Regardless of the controversies, there are still countries where Confucius Institutes remain some of the major hubs of Chinese culture in Europe, where access to it is fairly limited. In the past, the Institutes were one of the only places where Europeans could attend structured Chinese language classes, preparing for pursuing further education in China, which used to be one of the most exotic and adventurous academic choices one could make. Nowadays it is still an option, albeit no longer the most desired one for many students.

Cultural Diplomacy and Cultural Exchange

Evolving cultural exchange between Europe and Mainland China is still in progress, not just in terms of the academia, but also when it comes to China-related festivals that are frequently organised in the biggest European cities. For instance, the Chinese Lantern Festival at Chiswick House and Gardens in London is organised annually as a light-and-shadow show inspired by Chinese art (Ellis, 2017). It falls at the end of January, which is around the Chinese New Year. Attended by local Londoners as well as tourists, the festival is a popular outing for people of all ages.

Additionally, traditional Chinese festivals, such as The Dragon Boat Festival with dragon boat races are organised by a European Dragon Boats Federation, responsible for organising European competitions in this sport and promoting the activity. Furthermore, there is a strong academic exchange between the countries, as EU universities still offer comprehensive Chinese language majors, whereas many Chinese universities specialise in European languages, even the more niche ones like Bulgarian, Hungarian, Finnish etc.

For example, the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) has a faculty dedicated to European languages, The Guangdong University of Foreign Studies has recently launched an undergraduate programme in Polish studies, in addition to other well-established programmes in French, German and Spanish (Borowiak, 2014). Moreover, the Beijing Language and Culture University offers undergraduate programmes in Portuguese, Italian, German or French, popularising the culture of these countries in Beijing and China by conducting cultural activities and workshops.

Considering the number of tertiary institutions offering programmes in foreign languages in both China and Europe, it appears clear that there is still an interest in strengthening academic cooperation and multicultural understanding between the two, as students pursuing these majors are usually required to participate in an exchange to the country that they study, which contributes to promoting each other’s cultures and shaping the outlook on China in Europe and vice versa.

Besides education, despite being struck down by the European Parliament due to concerns of modern slavery, the mutual EU-China agreement, CAI (Comprehensive Agreement on Investment), signed in 2020 remains popular among many decision-makers in the European Commission, as the business cooperation has been rapidly developing despite the Russia-Ukraine conflict (European Commission, n.d.). Furthermore, there are still multiple Chinese companies, such as a mobile electronics brand Xiaomi or EV brand NIO, that have high hopes on their further development on the European continent, and even of being able to compete with European companies themselves, introducing new technology and business practices to their European partners (Nio, 2022).

Factors Contributing to the Appeal of Chinese Culture across Europe

There is increased awareness of Chinese culture and society in Europe, not limited to its long history, but also aspects of modern society and changes undergone since the reform-and-open-up period, such as trade and mutual dependence on the business, as well as an extensive academic cooperation between EU and China. Knowing this, one may wonder how strongly the aspects of Chinese culture touching Europeans’ lives will continue to resonate with them. With the number of differences and potential misunderstandings that may arise due to the gap between these two world views, one could argue that there are two ways to explain that.

Firstly, Europe has a longstanding historic interest in traditional Chinese culture. Almost all Europeans would be able to recognise the Great Wall of China, Xi’an’s Terracotta Army, Beijing’s Forbidden City and have seen Chinese pottery or calligraphy. As this differs from what Europeans experience in daily life, it brings out natural curiosity about a faraway culture, often misunderstood or simply unknown to the average European.

Similarly, in China, a relatively small amount of the population had the chance to travel to Europe, and yet many have heard about the Eiffel Tower, Venice or the London Eye, and the inability to experience these in real life makes people wonder what they are like, and want to actively know more about it. That is perhaps the reason why many universities across China have launched an impressive number of courses in European languages, even as English-language learning has experienced a reduction in popularity, at least in regard to government policy.

Chinese aesthetics in Europe, as well as European aesthetics in China, are seen as sophisticated, high class, almost elite, due to a combination of originality and tradition. They fascinate each other with differences while having a “classic” and “traditional” look, desirable particularly by upper-class people and high-end companies.

Secondly, there is a more pragmatic aspect of Chinese soft power influencing Europe, and the interest in China, with a significant interest from the PRC to have a surge in bilateral political and economic relations. Even though nearly every major European leader outside of French President Macron has expressed hesitation in deepening ties, from the perspective of the business community, the EU and China have to cooperate on multiple platforms, and such endeavor would be impossible to manage without a thorough understanding of each other’s priorities, worldviews and wants. In this way, for some, the appeal of the foreign culture is derived from necessity.

Implications for the future

The importance of the topic and realising the fluctuating connections between the cultures lies in implications that Chinese soft power, as well as mutual interest and cooperation between the cultures, will have for the future.

The influence of Chinese soft power, especially in the arts industry, is already causing big brands, such as Christian Dior, to create China-inspired collections. Sometimes, art or products associated with traditional Chinese culture tend to be perceived as “sophisticated” in the European continent, but exploring new forms of art, such as Chinese opera or Chinese lantern crafts also helps expand intercultural awareness. Increasing cultural exchange in an era of continuous distrust may lead to appreciation only of certain aspects of China, while despising others. That polarisation of ideas will most likely bring issues that will require a well-thought solution and future collaboration.

Whether in business, trade, academia or art, Chinese soft power seems to have gained more influence up until the Russia-Ukraine conflict, during which popular opinion on the country among European institutions and governments has shifted due to the no-limits partnership with Russia, as seen with the aforementioned crackdown on Confucius Institutes. Despite that, there are still many areas in which countries want to collaborate, seeing it as a valuable connection and, perhaps, as a way to reconcile their differences and work towards a common goal (of which there are many) when it comes to economics and trade, as well as solving some of the major issues of our time.

As patterns either soften or harden the Chinese Government’s approach to diplomacy, especially towards Europe, depending on the country’s readiness to stay neutral and non-confrontational on the international scene, this may be able to create even more opportunities for Chinese soft power to develop to appeal to people, reviving a slightly diminishing curiosity and interest in Chinese language, history, and culture among European governments, consumers, and society.

About the Author

Marta Gramatyka is a Hong Kong - based graduate of Chinese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Passionate about Chinese society and intercultural communication, she tries to find connections between different cultures, with a particular focus on China- Europe relations. She previously published articles related to culture, history and current events on platforms including European Guanxi and China Project.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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