People wear traditional dress and hold colourful lanterns in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival at Sik Sik Yuen’s Lantern Carnival in Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong, on September 10. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
April Zhang
April Zhang

Classical Chinese literature is having a moment. Can it boost soft power?

  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk, astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and director Chloe Zhao have made classical Chinese literature cool and shown that it can foster goodwill towards China
  • Whether Beijing can capitalise on Chinese literature in its soft power push, though, remains open to question
Last November, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted an ancient Chinese poem about beans. Immediately, people began to discuss the highly allegorical poem about a dispute between brothers, and to speculate on Musk’s intentions.

When I saw this, I had a chuckle: the world was learning a Chinese poem that every child in China probably knew by heart.

But another recent incident prompted me to think that there may be more to it.

Earlier this month, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti posted some photos on Twitter while the International Space Station (ISS) she was on was passing over China. She attached several lines from another famous ancient Chinese poem.

Thus, China’s presence was felt on the ISS, a project the country is banned from. That this presence came in the unexpected form of an old poem had a favourable impact.


Italian astronaut goes viral for sharing ancient poem and pictures above China in space

Italian astronaut goes viral for sharing ancient poem and pictures above China in space
I also recalled film director Chloe Zhao. In April last year, as she accepted the Academy Award for her film Nomadland, the world heard her quoting from an old Chinese children’s textbook, Three Character Classic.
Although small, these incidents show that classical Chinese literature has the ability to foster goodwill and genuine interest towards China and Chinese culture. It is non-coercive and stands in startling contrast to the authoritarian, “wolf warrior” image that modern China has in the West. It is a form of soft power that China needs.

As an economic heavyweight, China lacks soft power. While American media products are consumed worldwide, and Japan and South Korea have had great success exporting their pop culture, Chinese music and films have gained little clout overseas.

Even in countries where China invests, people have not fallen in love with Chinese culture the way they have with American cultural brands.

There is also a lack of attraction at home. In 2015, China’s middle class swelled to 109 million, becoming the most populous in the world – and a major consumer of Western luxury brands.

For Chinese culture to be a global hit, look to J-pop and hallyu

China is aware of the need to boost its soft power and has taken steps in this direction, the most noticeable being the Confucius Institutes. Since 2004, China has set up hundreds of Confucius Institutes across the globe to teach Chinese and promote cultural exchange.

But in recent years, the government-linked programme has been criticised as a tool of China’s national propaganda and accused of interfering with academic freedom in universities. Many such institutes have shut or are being replaced. Under these circumstances, they can no longer drive China’s soft power ambitions.

Last year, the Chinese authorities designated 29 locations as China’s cultural production centres, aiming to become a powerhouse cultural exporter. But unless China relaxes its tight control over its cultural industries, content creation will continue to be stifled. This is a self-imposed hindrance to China’s ability to challenge other countries’ established cultural reputations.
Although China’s attempts to expand its soft power are mired in difficulty, they represent a healthier direction than the coercion and intimidation at the core of today’s geopolitical tensions.
Coercion is a trait of hard power, which has proved ineffective and even had detrimental consequences. Just look at the United States and Europe. Sanctions and weapons have not won them the Ukraine war; instead, they have dragged them further into economic crisis. As American political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power”, noted, it was American television and films that won the Cold War long before the Berlin Wall fell.


Ancient ‘book doctors’ restore historical Chinese literature

Ancient ‘book doctors’ restore historical Chinese literature
Television and films are more powerful than guns. Although China has not produced hit television shows like Squid Game or Game of Thrones, the country has something no one else has. With thousands of years of literary history, China has amassed a body of classical Chinese literature that is still amazingly alive today.

When Musk used a 1,800-year-old Chinese poem, he made it cool. When Cristoforetti used a 1,600-year-old Chinese poem to connect with Earth, she made it appealing. When Zhao used an 800-year-old Chinese textbook to explain her views on the world and on human nature, people listened.

Will the Chinese authorities be able to use classical Chinese literature to enhance the country’s image, tell its stories and expand its soft power? That remains the issue.

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and the author of the Mandarin Express textbook series and the Chinese Reading and Writing textbook series