Witnessing China’s new cultural revolution

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Chinese culture is on the long, slow rebound. Back in 1989, the Chinese government was shocked by the sudden appearance in Tiananmen Square of an icon of Western culture. This was a ten-meter-tall statue created by protesting students that was modeled on the Statue of Liberty, and called the “Goddess of Liberty.” For the five days it stood — before the government sent in the tanks — it helped to galvanize the protesters who were calling for the same kind of Western-style democracy and freedom that was then sweeping communist Europe.

The statue revealed the virulent nature of Western cultural memes and the destabilizing effect they could have on a Chinese society that had in large part moved away from its own traditional culture due to Communism, which was itself something of a cultural import from the West.

The events surrounding the democracy protests also confirmed the Chinese government’s policy of careful, selective repression as it accelerated its economic interaction with the outside world.

Now, as the world’s second-biggest economy, it is no longer quite so easy for the Chinese government to use such negative tactics to protect itself from outside cultural influences, hence a recent speech and article by President Hu Jintao, calling attention to a culture war between China and the West. He raised the issue of “cultural security,” and stated that the country must defend itself against the assault of Western culture by strengthening and asserting its own culture.

Here in Tokyo, Hu’s latest pronouncements on this burgeoning cultural war came against the backdrop of a large-scale demonstration of Chinese cultural power, “200 Selected Masterpieces from the Palace Museum Beijing,” a major exhibition of Chinese art and historical artifacts at Japan’s most prestigious museum, the Tokyo National Museum. It is something of an irony that these works come from an institution that overlooks the site where the Western cultural memes that helped power the 1989 protest movement were crushed.

But the tumultuous events of Tiananmen Square seem a long way from the orderly queues of mainly elderly visitors patiently waiting for up to three hours to file past “Life along the Bian River at the Qingming Festival” a famous, five-meter-long, silk handscroll painting by the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) painter Zhang Zeduan, which was on display until Jan. 24.

If the Chinese government is aiming to bolster their soft power overseas, then they have started with the right audience. While the West’s secret weapons — Lady Gaga, Harry Potter, and movies like “Transformers” — may be making cultural inroads into China, here, the visitors are coming to revel in the splendor of Chinese culture with a degree of reverence that reminds us that beneath the “veneer” of the last 150 years of Westernization, Japan is much more part of the Sinic cultural sphere than the Western one.

In addition to “Life along the Bian River at the Qingming Festival,” the show features several other lengthy scroll paintings whose vast dimensions and astounding quality seem partly designed to overawe us. A good example is the 26-meter-long “Emperor Kang Xi on an Inspection Tour to the South (Volume 12)” (1691). This shows thousands of beautifully-painted, individual figures in an enormous procession returning to the Forbidden City.

In addition to the skill and diligence of the painters, we are also struck by the meticulous organization that must have gone into creating the actual event depicted. In this, thousands of guards, officials and servants accompany the emperor, whose tiny figure we finally detect carried in a palanquin.

The exhibition includes items from most of the significant periods of Chinese history, including bronzes from the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1046 B.C.), which is often referred to as the starting point of a strong Chinese civilization. This serves to remind us that China in its vastness is also the most enduring civilization. But despite representative items from earlier dynasties, most of the show is dedicated to the Qing dynasty, set up by Manchu invaders in 1644.

Why the Qing Dynasty should be accorded such attention at this exhibition is an interesting question. It is tempting to see parallels between the Manchu ruling class and today’s Communist Party elite. In the initial stages of gaining power, both groups repressed the indigenous culture of the Chinese; one as semi-barbarous invaders, the other as Marxist modernizers bent on sweeping away ancient traditions. However, in order to entrench their power and unify the country, both realized there was a need to embrace Chinese culture.

A key figure in the exhibition is the Emperor Qian Long, whose reign stretched from 1736 to 1795. He is seen everywhere, most impressively in a couple of large portraits by the Italian Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione. One shows the emperor on horseback in armor, an allusion to the “Ten Perfect Campaigns” associated with his name that extended Manchu power to its furthest limits.

While hard power was important to Qian Long, so was soft power. In other paintings he is shown as a Buddhist bodhisattva and a literary gentleman, revealing that the emperor was keen to place himself not only at the head of the Empire’s armies, but also its religious and cultural life. While this tells us a lot about Chinese history, the prominence accorded Qian Long in this exhibition also reveals a great deal about the intentions of China’s present day rulers. However, whether this ideal of hard power complemented by assertive soft power will be enough to see off the likes of Lady Gaga remains to be seen.

Two Hundred Selected Masterpieces from the Palace Museum, Beijing at the Tokyo National Museum runs till Feb. 19; open 9:30 a.m.-5p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.tnm.jp.