Art of diplomacy: can cultural exchange bridge the growing gap in China-US ties?

Art of diplomacy: can cultural exchange bridge the growing gap in China-US ties?

The Asian Art Museum has devoted some 3,000 square metres (10,000 sq ft) to “Phoenix Kingdoms: The Last Splendour of China’s Bronze Age”, which runs until July and features archaeological finds from the Zhou dynasty that ruled from 1050-256 BC.

Jay Xu, the museum’s chief executive officer, said the exhibition came at a time when facilitating cultural exchanges between China and the US was “crucially important”.

“Over the years, we’ve presented more than a dozen exhibitions sourced from China – most highlighting the finest examples of Chinese art across the ages, and many featuring recent archaeological discoveries on view for the first time in the West,” he said, adding that the Phoenix Kingdoms exhibition was a part of this legacy.

“The enthusiastic participation of officials from China reflects the significance of this exhibition as an opportunity for truly global connection and understanding.”

The opening ceremony in April was attended by China’s vice-minister for culture and tourism affairs Li Qun, who also heads the Chinese National Cultural Heritage Administration, and other senior officials.

Addressing the event, Li said the exhibition presented the magnificent and romantic charm of Chinese culture to the American audience.

“Supported by in-depth academic research and the latest archaeological findings, it showcases the continuity, unity, peace, inclusiveness, and innovativeness of Chinese civilisation,” he said.

Art from China’s Bronze Age art comes alive at the Phoenix Kingdoms exhibition in San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Photo: Xinhua

In his remarks at the opening, China’s deputy consul general in San Francisco Zhou Maoyi said it was “a rare chance for Americans to delve into the brilliance of Chinese culture from over 2,000 years ago”.

“We hope it opens a new window for people, especially young visitors, to appreciate the richness of Chinese history and traditions,” he said.

In a written message, San Francisco mayor London Breed – who was on a visit to China when the ceremony took place – described the showcase as “historic and groundbreaking”, adding that there was “no better example of the power and importance of economic and cultural exchange”.

Emily Wilcox, associate professor of Chinese studies at William & Mary, a public research university, said the two major powers each had deep histories of employing artistic and cultural exchanges as a component of their diplomacy.

These exchanges occur both at the national level through activities planned and funded by governments, as well as through unofficial events organised by individuals or groups with their own goals and connections.

“Both types of activities have historically been important in helping the people of each country learn more about one another,” Wilcox said.

“They have also been instrumental in strengthening mutual cooperation, respect, and trust, all of which are essential to healthy and functioning relationships.”

Cultural exchanges, like the San Francisco exhibition of Chinese Bronze Age relics, can be an instrumental component of diplomatic engagement between the US and China, analysts say. Photo: Xinhua

The impact of a separate showcase, of some 200 artefacts ranging from jade ornaments to ritual bronze vessels which ended in April at the National Museum of Asian Art, had a far-reaching impact, according to its curator Keith Wilson.

The exhibition, “Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings” – a reference to the capital of ancient China’s Shang dynasty (c1600-1050BC) and the birthplace of Chinese archaeology – explored the early development of Chinese writing and ritual practices.

Wilson said the exhibition had not only catered to the museum’s visitors and scholars but also to public and private school groups.

Anyang was included as part of the curriculum for schools in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, and nearly 1,000 students and teachers toured the exhibition during its two-month run, he said.

According to Wilson, entrance and exit surveys suggested that attendees liked how the museum used technology to answer questions about ancient China that could not be addressed by other means.

Asked about the importance of art exchanges, he said: “In addition to promoting human connections, general education, and mutual cultural respect, exchanges and exhibitions like ‘Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings can promote closer relations between the two countries.”

“This collaboration, predicated on the advancement of scientific knowledge and the protection of cultural patrimony, marks an important chapter in the history of Sino-American relations.”

“Phoenix Kingdoms: The Last Splendour of China’s Bronze Age”, which is on display until July at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, showcases more than 260 works from ancient Chinese Chu and Zeng kingdoms in the multistate Zhou dynasty. Photo: Xinhua

Gao Minglu, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, noted that US-China cultural exchanges date back to the late 1970s, when Boston’s Museum of Fine Art brought its collections – including classic and modern art – to Beijing.

“It was the first time for the Chinese people to see the original Western artworks, especially the modern and contemporary part,” he said. “It inspired the new generation of Chinese artists at the moment when China opened [its] doors to the West.”

Gao, a critic and scholar of contemporary Chinese art, said exchanges and communication in the art world between China and the US boomed in the 1990s. At that time, museums, universities and cultural institutions in the US paid “immense interest” in bringing Chinese art back home.

Gao himself was instrumental in bringing two large-scale exhibitions to the US. “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” was first showcased in New York in the late 1990s before making its way to San Francisco and Seattle, and later Mexico, Australia and Hong Kong.

Gao also curated “The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art”, a collaborative project in 2005 by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the University at Buffalo Art Galleries, and the China Millennium Monument Museum in Beijing.

But he pointed out that exchanges between the two countries had dipped since 2008, partly because of the economic crisis and also a later “scepticism of globalism”. “Very few Chinese exhibitions have taken place in the US in the last 15 years,” he said.

Gao called for scholars, curators and artists to convince institutions to push for such engagements and overcome “certain geopolitical barriers” as both countries stood to gain from art exchanges.

The cultural relics from China’s Bronze Age on display in San Francisco aim to open a window for people, especially young visitors, to appreciate the richness of Chinese history and traditions. Photo: Xinhua

According to Gao, these exchanges can “go beyond the political and economic tensions since art is a kind of special way of human thinking” that could “play a role to heal the gap, no matter the cultural or political gap”.

Wilcox said that art exchanges between the two rivals could create opportunities for people of different backgrounds to engage and learn from one another.

The arts addressed a wide range of subjects from everyday material life to individual hopes and dreams – topics that could open up areas of conversation and “bridges of imagination” that may be difficult to achieve through traditional diplomacy, she said.

“The arts engage human experience in a visceral way that can impact emotion and reach people on a personal level. This can be a powerful mechanism to connect people otherwise separated by language, political or economic system, or simply physical distance.”

A visitor views an exhibit from China’s Bronze Age at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where more than 260 works are on display until July, many of which have never before been seen outside China. Photo: Xinhua

According to Wilcox, arts exchanges and cultural collaboration have grown in importance, especially when relations between the US and China have become increasingly tense.

“In the current environment, all opportunities to open up direct communication and create human connection between the US and China should be pursued and supported,” she said.

“The arts should just be one of many arenas in which the US and China successfully cooperate and learn from one another to build a better future.”

Gao said that, in a way, engaging in art could allow people from different cultures, with different traditions, and with different interests to reach “certain mutual understanding”.

“A harmonious universe is the end in creation of art. Although it’s difficult in reality, but keeping the idealism will be very important for the future of human beings,” he said.

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