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Ballet as form of Cultural Diplomacy.

by on April 8, 2014


(Butterfly Lovers, Shanghai Ballet, London, Google Images)

Public diplomacy campaigns are intended for foreign societies. Cultural diplomacy as a branch of public diplomacy, entails arts, education, language, sports and religion. Cultural diplomacy is “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding.” (Milton Cummings) In the 21st century, public and cultural diplomacy are regarded as significant elements of soft power. Soft power is “attractive power, the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment,” (Joseph Nye)

During August 2013, the Shanghai Ballet Company debuted its modern version of Jane Eyre in London. Ballet can be used as a tool of cultural diplomacy, in this case it incorporated British culture, associated with finesse and high artistic quality and looks apolitical, performed at London’s most prestigious theatres and affordable tickets available which attracted a diverse audience, which builds a positive relationship with foreign societies. “In contrast with systematically planned, large-scale policies in higher education and sports”( Andrea Beck) the Shanghai Ballet’s performances in London are a form of China’s current attempts at cultural diplomacy, with the undercurrent to  improve attitudes towards China within Western societies. 


(Jane Eyre, Shanghai Ballet, London, Google Images)

The Chinese ambassador to London congratulated and observed the performance “…shows that broadening and deepening cultural exchanges between China and Britain will increase our mutual understanding, respect, trust and friendship.”

 “The fact that we have the Shanghai Ballet company performing a contemporary ballet based on a novel by one of our greatest writers from the early part of the 19th century is a fantastic example of how we are growing ever closer as we share the best elements of our cultures – long may it continue.”  (London Mayor Boris Johnson)


(Jane Eyre, Shanghai Ballet, London, Google Images)

A “high level of sensitivity to the local context” was shown by the ballet performing a classic English novel, at the same time showing how “illustrating how Chinese and British cultures can be combined in an outstanding artistic symbiosis.” (Andrea Beck) The dancers and playwright were international, from China but the performance was assembled by a German choreographer and a French designer created the costumes and set. The intercultural cooperation indirectly shows foreign audiences the interest and focus of the the Shanghai Ballet, in turn China to work together with other cultures and countries. 


(Swan Lake, Shanghai Ballet, London, Google Images)

China’s greatest strategic threat today is its national image.” (Joshua Cooper Ramos, 2007) Concern and suspicions have risen in many Western countries due to China’s economic and military rise and suspicion. “China is regarded negatively in many European and North American societies, with the lowest ratings received in Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and the United States.” (The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project.)

 The Chinese government are taking seriously communicating with foreign public as public diplomacy and soft power are clearly on their agenda. With the intention to promote a more positive global image, in turn push forward China’s peaceful development, with reliance on three core strategies. Firstly, a transparency of Chinese policy to the English speaking world, which entails China’s “energy policy, climate change, human rights, the rule of law, foreign trade, national defense, arms control and disarmament, space activities and foreign aid.” (Andrea Beck) Secondly, Confucius institutes have been created to spread language and culture globally. The total number of Confucius institutes has risen globally to 324 since the first in Seoul in 2004, which is 2x more than the ‘German Goethe Institute’ and 4x more than ‘Spanish Instituto Cervantes’ have spread. Thirdly, hosting cultural mega-events as platforms for showcasing Chinese achievements and raise international status and recognition, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Success of the above has been achieved to a certain extent.

However two weaknesses hamper China’s current approach to public-cultural diplomacy, in terms of government orchestration and magnitude. Government orchestration has raised concerns over the use of government propaganda and interference with academic teaching and research within Confucius Institutes, as they’re funded by ‘Hanban’ and the Chinese Ministry of Education. Magnitude in terms of the push of Confucius Institutes has been regarded as very aggressive, fast paced, in turn interpreted as efforts to achieve global dominance by some commentators.  A “China Brand” is being pushed by the government, for example, the 2008 Olympic Games was a platform to “transmit officially constructed messages about Chinese cultural identities”, whilst covering up widespread social cleansing, economic inequalities and displacement within Beijing’s urban areas. Due to China’s size and expanding international influence, it makes sense that China wants to improve its image globally. However, for China’s communication efforts to succeed in changing Western perceptions, they should take on board features of the Shanghai Ballet model to a large extent. In terms of devising strategies which “combine controversial large-scale approaches with less politicized, smaller-scale and culturally sensitive initiatives.”(Andrea Beck) With a more intense “commitment to international responsibility and domestic artistic freedom” (Andrea Beck), this approach to cultural diplomacy can lead to China attaining approval from foreign audiences to be regarded as key player on the global stage. 


1: The Shanghai Ballet: A Model for Chinese Cultural Diplomacy? By Andrea Beck, The Diplomat, 28/08/2013, Last Accessed 08/04/2014

2: Images of the Shanghai Ballet performing in London, Google Images. Last Accessed 08/04/2014


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  1. Thank you for this very interesting case study, of which I was not previously aware. This is a well written and nicely illustrated account which hits on some of the key themes of the second half of the module.

    When you come to revise this entry for inclusion in your reflective portfolio you might like to work on:

    – The tension between soft power and what the British Council used to call ‘mutuality’, i.e., are cultural exports intended to boost a country’s influence through attractiveness or to build better understanding between societies (not least through international collaboration in staging the production). These are not the same thing. Your post seems to suggest that both are seamlessly at work here, but there is potentially a tension between the two. Perhaps you could say a bit more about this subject. What involvement has the Chinese state had in the tour? Many commentators think that some government involvement is required to turn transnational cultural exchanges into public and cultural diplomacy.

    – I feel that this post might have been structured more effectively. The very general introduction doesn’t add much to the discussion. It might be better to start the piece with the section on China’s strategic threat from its national image, before moving on to your case study. But it is up to you to present this entry as you see fit. By all means start with the case study if that is more effective.

    – Finally, there is your use of the academic literature. Please provide full Harvard-style references for the quotations you use. You might also like to look at two books which deal with this and other aspects of cultural diplomacy (although they focus on the Cold War): Prevots’ Dance for Export and Caute’s The Dancer Defects.

    • Thanks for your response, I have taken on board your advice, much appreciated.

  2. this seems very interesting and very insightful.

  3. karo1990 permalink

    This is a wonderful post on image, cultural diplomacy, and how to foster cultural exchange between two greatly different cultures.

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