Issue: 2013: Vol. 12, No. 2

China’s Cultural Diplomacy: Historical Origin, Modern Methods and Strategic Outcomes

Article Author(s)

Parama Sinha Palit

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Dr. Parama Sinha Palit is a Research Associate at the China in Comparative Perspective Network (CCPN) Global, a UK-based Interdisciplinary Academic Society. The views expressed are personal. She can be reached at [email protected]
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PalitComprehending behaviors of nation-states has never been easy. Understanding China is particularly difficult given the great divide in terms of language (yu yan) and culture (wen hua). Beijing is conscious of this difficulty in communicating with the rest of the world. To tackle the “hegemony of discourse”— perceived in Beijing as a persistent effort by the West to project a negative image of China and promote “western values” for maximizing its own interests1 —and to overcome its own weakness of the “power of the word” (hua yu quan), China has embarked on vigorous cultural diplomacy (CD), a strategy used since ancient times for communicating with the rest of the world. China considers culture essential in correcting adverse impressions created by its rapid strategic rise. Consequently, culture has emerged as the third pillar of Chinese diplomacy after economics and politics, with the 18th Congress in 2012 endorsing its relevance and the more recent Third Plenary in 2013 reaffirming its importance. Cultural diplomacy and soft power are important strategies for the Chinese leadership in developing benign impressions about China and securing strategic dividends through “virtuous” policies of engagement.

The employment of culture as a foreign policy tool in present-day politics in China is a combination of both academic effort and the leadership’s genuine compulsion to open channels of communication with the international community. This paper tracks use of culture as a soft power tool in Chinese history while underlining the leadership’s pragmatic understanding of the concept and underscoring its application worldwide. The Confucius Institutes (CIs) have played a major role in the global transmission of Chinese language and culture. This paper also reflects on the mandate of these Institutes and argues that China’s CD is a far more strategically ambitious exercise than the mere export of its rich cultural heritage.

Cultural Diplomacy: An Ancient Chinese Legacy

CD is widely used by modern states for enhancing soft power. Soft power, popularized in the contemporary discourse on international relations by Joseph Nye, focuses on diplomatic engagement for strategic dividends. Several prominent political thinkers, e.g. Foucault, Bourdieu, Gramsci, Habermas and E.H. Carr, also have variously expounded on the concept prior to Nye. As a conceptual identity, soft power and the role of culture in its use are hardly limited to the western political discourse. Indeed, the prevalent impression of China’s modern soft power strategy for connecting with the rest of the world being essentially an emulation of similar strategies pursued by major western powers overlooks the fact that soft power was strongly embedded in ancient Chinese history and philosophy. The specific period in Chinese history that can be identified for its distinct emphasis on spread of harmony and amity is the Spring and Autumn era (771 BC – 476 BC), also known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. Marked by significant cultural and intellectual developments, the historical thoughts of the period remain relevant in the modern era and are reflected in the contemporary Chinese articulation of soft power and its emphasis on CD. Thus, recognizing culture as an effective instrument of soft power and modern statecraft is an example of the pragmatism characterizing contemporary Chinese foreign policies.

According to the literature of the Hundred Schools of Thought, China’s ancient strategists preferred diplomatic maneuvering to secure state objectives and were averse to territorial expansion by force. Kong Zi or Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) stressed the limitation and regulation of power. Rather than war, Confucius’ teachings focused on education and humanity. Mencius (372 BC – 289 BC), another great thinker of the time, also denounced wars with the idea that benevolent kings who could easily win over masses had no enemies.2 The Confucius-Mencius political construct rejected the need for possessing large territories for enhancing state prestige. The Chou kingdom (1027 BC – 256 BC), for example, was hardly large but was nonetheless able to retain its dynastic command for eight hundred years—the longest for any Chinese dynasty.3

Along with Confucianism, the doctrine of Taoism and Mohism also emphasized “universal love” and the virtues of discussion and persuasion for solving problems. Lao Zi, another ancient Chinese philosopher who wrote the main texts of Taoism along with Zhuang Zi, discounted wars, with the latter emphasizing education and humility. Ideas such as culture winning over an enemy and winning a battle before it is fought are replete in ancient Chinese writings. The celebrated military strategist, Sun Zi (722 BC – 481 BC), in The Art of War, argued for attacking the enemy’s mind rather than his fortified cities. Indeed, Chinese ancient philosophy and history rarely espoused hard power and focused on cultivating friends as opposed to engaging in conflicts. Later Chinese history obviously produced different strategies and priorities dictated by national interests of the time. Nonetheless, soft power and CD – conspicuous in modern China’s strategic engagement – are essentially products of its ancient history and tradition, not emulations of western experiences.

The Academic Discourse on Culture

China’s communication with the world was largely intermittent until the late 1980s. Prolonged isolation by the international community, a vocal discourse in the West labeling China as a destabilizing force, and the increasing spread of the “China collapse” theory after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 led China to seriously contemplate positive image-building. A nascent interest in soft power began taking shape in the 1990s with scholars and academics deliberating the virtues of dialogue and interaction. Wang Huning was one of the earliest exponents of soft power. Earlier with the Fudan University and currently a member of the Communist Party’s Poliburo and the Director of the Policy Research Office of the Party’s Central Committee, Wang was probably the first contemporary Chinese scholar to argue that culture is the main source of a state’s soft power.4 The view was endorsed by other scholars such as Xiang Shu Yong5 and Zhao Chang Rong6 with both identifying culture and language as instrumental in enhancing strategic strength of a nation.

The modern Chinese literature on soft power is conspicuous by its ideological flavor and pronounced emphasis on culture. Discussing soft power, Rong distinguishes between western and Chinese cultures and argues that while the former stresses hegemony, Chinese culture based on Confucianism seeks peaceful solutions to international problems.7 Several of his peers argue the western culture’s focus on materialism, science, individualism, and industrialization are producing clashes and disharmony, while traditional Chinese principles such as “putting people first” and “harmony between nature and mankind”8 are more effective in solving complex international problems. Modern Chinese writings regard China’s indigenous culture imbibing Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Mohism, and other classical schools of thought as embodying the softer aspects of China’s national power. In this regard, concepts such as winning respect through virtues, benevolent governance, peace, and harmony without suppressing differences are repeatedly highlighted.

Culture in Official Pronouncements

Chinese culture retains ancient characteristics while accommodating changes. Culture has been influenced by politics and has acquired diverse undertones under different leaders. While Mao Zedong relegated Confucian teachings to the background during the Cultural Revolution (1965-75), the subsequent generation of leaders adopted Confucianism almost passionately. Whether it be Jiang Zemin’s “rule by virtue” (yi de zhi guo) or Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” (he xie she hui), Confucian ideals are embedded in modern China’s state vision for underscoring and achieving various national objectives. Mao highlighted the congruence of culture and politics decades ago: “There is no such thing as art for art’s sake. Proletarian art and literature are… as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.”9 In the same vein, he emphasized that the Party would not hesitate to harness literature and art for achieving national interests. Mao’s emphasis was on the creation of what he termed a New Democracy—national and anti-imperialistic—for advancing the dignity and independence of the Chinese nation, not the individual. This national and anti-imperialistic flavor continues to condition Chinese contemporary thinking on the role of culture, albeit with modern connotations.

Mao’s vision of cultural exclusiveness gave way to a more receptive outlook toward cultural diversity with emphasis on coexistence and harmony during the Hu-Wen period (2003-13). Premier Wen aptly reflected: “…Cultural diversity is an objective reality in this world and only when the diversity of cultures is respected, will civilizations progress.”10 This is a marked departure from past when culture was defined as “class culture,” identified more with the “ruling elite,” and to be employed for serving workers, peasants, and soldiers. The current new leadership is also showing signs of pursuing an accommodating and pragmatic cultural policy in keeping with larger national interests of holding “high the banner of peace, development, cooperation, and mutual benefit….”11 The Resolution adopted at the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012 was emphatic about upholding China’s cultural heritage: “The country’s cultural soft power should be improved significantly”12 for mutual understanding. Subsequently, the Communiqué of the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress held in November 2013 offered similar emphasis. While highlighting “putting people first,” the Communiqué stressed cultural openness while strengthening “national cultural soft power.”13 The message is clear. China is eager to project itself as a responsible stakeholder in the international community by employing culture.

The contemporary avatar of culture has been in vogue for a decade or so. While the 18th Congress explicitly highlighted the role of culture in shaping foreign policy, the 11th Five Year Plan (2006-10) urged a bigger presence for China in the international cultural markets.14 Beijing is determined to push deep into the global culture market in particular to communicate China to western audiences. Efforts for achieving this objective by “connecting people and building platforms for introducing writers…” have been called critical and hailed “as important as high-level government dialogues.”15 China has also tried to project Zheng He’s voyages during the Ming dynasty as an example of China’s cultural tradition of friendship in international relations. According to Huang Ju, former Vice Premier and a member of the Standing Committee of the Party’s Politburo, “Zheng He’s voyages facilitated cultural, economic, and trade exchanges across the globe, helped establish friendly ties, and contributed to the world’s navigation cause.”16

China’s leadership, however, is still wary of the western “cultural onslaught” and “hegemonism.” In Seeking Truth (March 2012 issue) — the Party’s flagship magazine — Hu cautioned: “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”17 The Report of the 18th Party Congress underlined similar concerns. Reportedly drafted by a team headed by Xi Jinping, it warns of the continued presence of “hegemonism” and “power politics” in the world in what is probably a veiled reference to the United States and its allies.18 These perceptions have been influencing China’s cultural strategy. Aspiring to play a major power role in future global politics, China realizes that its cultural rise will augment its strategic rise. It is hardly accidental that almost all major world powers are leading global cultural hubs as well. Expanding global cultural presence therefore is a priority. The primary focus, while upping cultural communication with the rest of the world, is to charm the West through a markedly different, Oriental brand of culture. This effort will also add a distinct dimension to global culture and might reduce the western cultural hegemony over time.

Confucius Institutes as Cultural Ambassadors

With culture increasingly identified as “a mission more arduous and critical to guard national cultural security and to boost national soft power and Chinese culture’s international influence,”19 Confucius Institutes have spread globally. The implicit strategic objective behind the proliferation of CIs can be traced to the vision of China nursed by a core group of foreign affairs decision-makers in the Party’s Central Committee (zhong yang wai shi gong zuo ling dao xiao zu) emphasizing a globally benign image of China.20 Confucian teachings and principles with their unequivocal focus on humanity, education and harmony are expected to bind ethnic Chinese all across the world and attract other countries to China, through their non-dogmatic virtuous appeal. Indeed, Confucian thoughts are most representative tenets of a “global” doctrine that the CPC is comfortable in identifying with and disseminating across the world. Taking off in 2004, the CIs were originally designed to promote Chinese language and culture. Over time their mandate expanded from cultural interaction and exchanges to academic collaboration. Their programs now depend on the scope demanded by host countries. The largest number of CIs is in North America. Some of these step beyond their usual domains of promoting cultural interactions to assume advanced academic roles, such as the one at Stanford University, which apart from language training also focuses on research and literature of the Tang dynasty for discerning the cultural saliences of the period. The CIs at Chicago and Columbia Universities also declare themselves “research-oriented.”21 The advanced academic roles are hardly noticeable among CIs in Asia. Aligned with the Chinese Government and its programs overseen by the Hanban (Office of Chinese Language Council International), CIs have emerged as China’s cultural ambassadors with varied agendas.

The propagation of CIs began in South Korea, which in many ways was an ideal ground for launching “Brand Confucius” given the Korean peninsula’s long history of following the Confucian system of thought, society, and governance. South Korea’s significance as an economic partner for China and the importance of not allowing territorial tensions to damage economic ties was also responsible for launching CD through a CI. Furthermore, the fact that South Korea is a major U.S. ally and a conduit for facilitating extra-regional presence in the region made the country and the geography perfect for communicating China’s arrival on the world stage, through a dedicated policy of cultural engagement and with a loud and clear message: China was back into the “first world club after a century of semi-colonial status and fifty years of third world membership.”22

CIs in South Asia – China’s western neighborhood with complicated regional dynamics – are much fewer compared with some other parts of Asia. India’s dominant presence in the neighborhood and its overarching and deep-rooted cultural influence in the region probably have motivated a relatively low-key cultural engagement strand from China to minimize any potential clash of cultures among the two occasionally estranged neighbors. CIs in the region have confined themselves to teaching Mandarin, organizing limited cultural events, and occasional study tours and education exchanges. CIs have been rather active in their teaching and cultural communication functions in Central Asia – a key region for China given its strategic location and vast natural resources. The CI at the Tajik National University, for example, had 2,000 registered students learning Mandarin in 2011 and is an important platform for cultural exchanges and interactions between China and Tajikistan since its inception in March 2009.23 CIs have sprung up fast in Africa as well – another strategic continent and region – critical for China’s global outreach.

Global Perception of China

China’s rise is accompanied by mounting anxiety on the part of the international community. Beijing is conscious of the need to provide an alternate perception of its rise by addressing tensions surrounding it. Premier Li Keqiang spoke to the issue at a press conference held after the annual session of the national legislature in March 2013, saying: “Even if China becomes stronger, we will not seek hegemony.” The statement underlines the Chinese effort to project an image as a responsible stakeholder willing to work with other countries. The Code of Conduct to be worked upon for the South China Sea is an example. The Chinese government has demonstrated its willingness to embrace “gradual progress and consensus through consultations” as the cornerstone of the agreement.

Culture has been identified as a key tool for conveying the messages of peaceful development and harmonious coexistence. However the strategy so far has had relatively limited success. A BBC survey conducted in May 2013 across 21 countries revealed perceptions about China at their lowest since 2005.24 Another survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that while people across the world may accept China’s superpower status, they “don’t like it.”25 Indeed, CD, and particularly the CIs might be producing counterproductive outcomes by being identified as propagandist arms of the state.26 Scholar Sheng Ding writes that many Chinese observers believe “despite their neutral scholarly appearance, the new network of Confucius Institutes does have a political agenda…. The Institutes will teach Beijing’s preferred version of Chinese, characters that are (not) used in Taiwan. This would help advance Beijing’s goal of marginalizing Taiwan in the battle for global influence.”27 Other opinions suggest CIs “have been effective at expanding China’s network of relationships, but in terms of cultivating cultural soft power, they have yet to offer anything to substantiate their nominal use of Confucius as a representative of Chinese culture.”28 While aggressive CD is yet to reshape global perceptions, China’s massive economic growth has generated enormous interest in its culture. Indeed, economic success has probably acted as a stronger pull for Chinese culture than its CD. In fact the success of the CIs to a large extent has been influenced by this economic pull. Several economically backward countries in Africa and Asia are inspired by China’s economic development and are keen on reproducing its economic strategies. However, such awe is much muted elsewhere and accompanied by anxiety. Niall Ferguson argues that the bloody twentieth century witnessed “the descent of the West” and “a reorientation of the world” toward the East, underscoring the future power shift from the West to the East. China’s rise, an integral part of this shift, is cause for discomfort in its immediate neighborhoods of Southeast and Northeast Asia, and, needless to say, in the West. CD has hardly been able to erase this strategic discomfort given that the world realizes that China’s cultural engagement is far more strategic and national interest-driven than pure virtuous export of cultural heritage. This could be due to several factors including reluctance to introduce domestic political reforms coupled with heavy military build-up including the recent effort for a drone development program.29 The hard power implicit in these actions continues to overshadow the soft power explicit in CD.

  1. “Time to break the hegemony of western discourse”, People’s Daily Online, 5 August 2013 at, accessed on 19 September 2013
  2. Ding, Sheng, The Dragon’s Hidden Wings: How China Rises with its Soft Power, UK: Lexington Books, 2008, p. 24
  3. Wu Teh-Yao, “Southeast Asia and China: Asian Neighbours”, NUS Occasional Paper #8, September 1974, p. 4
  4. Huning, Wang, “Zuo wei guo jia shi li de wen hua: Ruan quan li” (Culture regarded as national power: Soft Power). Journal of Fudan University, 1993
  5. Yong Shu Xiang, “Xin guo ji zhu yi yu zhong guo ruan shi li wai jiao” (New country doctrine soft power foreign affairs). Guo Ji Guan Cha (International Observe), 2007
  6. Rong, Chang, Zhao, “Zhong Guo xu yao ruan shi li” (China needs soft power), Liao Wang Xin Wen Zhou Kan, 7 June 2004
  7. Rong
  8. Haiyan, Jiang, “Hong yang zhong hua minzu de you xiu wen hua yu zeng qiang wo guo de ruan shi li” (Promoting the outstanding culture of the Chinese nation and strengthening China’s soft power), Journal of the Party School of the Central Committee of the CCP, 2007, pp. 107-112
  9. Tung-Tse, Mao, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (2), London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954
  10. Jiabao, Wen, “Chinese premier calls for respect of civilizations, vows to stick to reform, opening up”, 7 December 2005 at, accessed on 26 September 2013
  11. Full text of resolution on CPC Central Committee report, 14 November 2012 at, accessed on 25 September 2013
  12. Ibid
  13. Communique of the 3rd Plenum of the 18th Party Congress, 12 November 2013 at, accessed on 26 November 2013
  14. Hongyi, Lai, “China’s Cultural Diplomacy: Going for Soft Power”, East Asia Institute Background Brief #308. October 2006, p. 6
  15. Chinese media to get boost overseas”, China Daily, 10 January 2012 at, accessed on 26 September 2013
  16. “Zheng He anniversary highlights peaceful growth”, 12 July 2005 at, accessed on 1 October 2013
  17. “Hu Jintao, China President, says hostile forces to seek to westernize China”, 1 March 2012 at, accessed on 26 September 2013
  18. Summers, Tim, “China’s New Leadership: Approaches to International Affairs”, Chatham House Briefing Paper, April 2013 at, accessed on 28 September 2013
  19. “When Soft Power is too soft: Confucius Institutes’ nebulous role in China’s Soft Power initiative”, August 2012 at, accessed on 27 November 2013
  20. The author interviewed an Associate Professor at the Nankai University, Tianjin.
  21. Confucius Institute at, accessed on 19 September 2013
  22. Starr, Don, “Chinese Language Education in Europe: The Confucius Institute”, European Journal of Education, 2009, 44 (1), pp. 65-80
  23. Confucius Institute at Tajik National University, Tajikistan, Hanban News, 12 December, 2011 at, accessed on 28 September 2013
  24. “Views of China and India slide in Global Poll, while UK’s ratings climb”, A Globescan Poll for the BBC, 22 May 2013 at, accessed on 23 September 2013
  25. “Global Public Opinion Poll reveals an increasingly negative view of China”, 25 November 2013 at, accessed on 25 November 2013
  26. Mattis, Peter, “Reexamining Confucian Institutes”, The Diplomat, 2 August 2012 at, accessed on 2 October 2013
  27. Ding, Sheng, The Dragon’s Hidden Wings: How China Rises with its Soft Power, UK: Lexington Books, 2008
  28. “When oft Power is too soft…”
  29. Wong, Edward, “China’s push for drones fueled by U.S. secrets”, International Herald Tribune, 23 September 2013, p, p1, 4