China’s Cultural Clout

China is not only an economic powerhouse and political world power, it also has considerable soft power - even without a Chinese McDonalds or Coca Cola. Bernhard Bartsch, Senior Expert at the Bertelmann Stiftung, argues that we all have an instinctive understanding of Chinese culture, acquired through watching Kung Fu movies, eating Chinese food, adoring Pandas or following news about Chinese dissidents.

Kung Fu: The Dream of Flying
People have always longed for the impossible, and the ur-expression of that yearning is the dream of taking flight. If you can suspend the laws of anatomy and physics, you can also transcend any other obstacle standing between you and happiness. Dozens of TV channels in China provide ready access to this dream. Flying heroes who save the people from malevolent characters, bringing about peace and prosperity, are the mainstay of that most Chinese of film genres: kung fu melodramas. Thanks to stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, this Chinese martial art has become part of the global mainstream. These days, western action heroes have to do more than simply bludgeon their opponents; technique has become more important than brute force. People in China ascribe cathartic qualities to kung fu, saying the genre’s epics allow them to experience “unfettered gratitude and hate.” And one ironclad law of kung fu dictates that the forces of good must always triumph over the forces of evil – a dream, truly.

Civil Service: Equal Opportunities for Everyone
When Prussia reformed its administrative and educational systems in the 19th century, China was one of its role models. In Europe, bestowing offices within the public sector based on performance instead of background was revolutionary. Yet beginning in the 7th century, the tests required to enter China’s imperial civil service ensured that people of limited means could also become part of the government apparatus. To prevent cheating, candidates were often sequestered alone for days and the answer sheets bore numbers instead of names. Naturally, the rich could afford experienced tutors and were therefore at an advantage. But it was common among the lower classes for extended families to come together and support the education of gifted offspring in the hope that everyone would one day benefit from a child’s success. To that end, the Confucian system of education became a tool for promoting social mobility. “Education must be available to all,” said Confucius, a quote frequently heard among Chinese politicians today.         

Food: Where a Multicultural Society Truly Succeeds
You simply have to like a nation that cooks so well. No one can deny that China is a culinary superpower. China’s chefs have probably done more to integrate their homeland into the global community than all of its economic reformers put together. After all, China’s cuisine can delight even the country’s harshest critics. Few nations can say the same – certainly not its rival, the United States. Nowhere does this multicultural society function as well as in the kitchen and, when it comes to satisfying the palate, Beijing is its undisputed capital. Master chefs have come to the city for almost 800 years to impress the country’s rulers with their culinary talents and to whip up delicacies from their native provinces for top-level functionaries. As a result, Sichuan’s intense spiciness chanced upon Yunnan’s fresh aromas, the inventiveness of the Cantonese encountered the Mongols’ firebrand fare, and the bounty of the seas met up with the plenty of the mountains. What was at first a mere coexistence of different dishes gradually became a comingling. One taste was added to the next, and fusion food – yet another Chinese invention – was born.

Feng Shui and TCM: In Search of Harmony and Balance
Yin and yang are a pretty pair. Feminine and masculine, moon and sun, soft and hard. Opposites that are incomplete without the other. China’s traditional philosophy and science – the borders between the two disciplines are blurred – has many adherents around the globe. Some swear by feng shui, teachings derived from the properties of wind and water that are meant to create homes in harmony with nature. Others rely on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). There are tens of thousands of professional feng shui consultants in China and some 500,000 doctors practicing TCM. In the west, China’s longstanding methods of balancing and healing have been stigmatized as unscientific. Yet Beijing is spending considerable amounts of money to prove using modern methods that acupuncture and herbal treatments are effective, thereby creating new markets for genuine Chinese products.

Dissidents: Pandas Are Not the Whole Story
Ai Weiwei is hardly an ambassador for the Communist Party. The artist is, however, a good ambassador for his native country. China’s free thinkers, critics and dissidents show how much more complex, colorful, creative and engaged Chinese society is than the “official image” allows. From the Party’s point of view, it’s bad news when names such as Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and Woeser make headlines abroad. Yet this can also be seen as good news. China’s dissidents increase sympathy for the country in areas where the Communist Party does not. They show the degree to which China is struggling with itself: with its current challenges, its past, its future. There is no reason why that struggle should not be visible to others. China needs more than just its pandas as ambassadors.

Chinatowns: Performance Pays Off
In 2010, the Chinese-American author Amy Chua caused a stir with her book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” In it, she details the tough rules she used to raise her daughters, rules the children rebelled against but which ultimately proved successful. She maintains that decades of prosperity have made western parents soft and reluctant to insist on achievement. One need not endorse military-style childrearing methods to recognize that the willingness to endure hardship and learn is a key reason why the Chinese are arguably the world’s most successful immigrants. Migrating to a new country means adjusting to an unknown environment and accepting a new role there. The requirements are clear: immigrants must generally work harder and take on jobs that natives don’t want. Millions of Chinese have done just that, putting down roots in other Asian countries and beyond. The Chinatowns found around the globe are testimony to their success.

Fireworks: Bamboo That Goes “Bang!”
The world also has China to thank for all the “oohs” and “aahs.” Much loved everywhere, fireworks are a Chinese invention – something to remember the next time skeptics claim the country is incapable of producing a global hit. More than 1,500 years ago the Chinese discovered a highly explosive compound made of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, a concoction they called “black fire chemical.” When the Germans discovered the same substance – gunpowder – some 1,000 years later they called it “black powder.” A Chinese scholar, Li Tian, is said to have created the first firecracker in the year 621. As legend has it, he heard bamboo crackling in a fire and was inspired to fill hollow shoots with gunpowder. By the 14th century, the Chinese had developed fireworks that not only exploded, they also gave off light of various colors. Fireworks were brought to Europe by traders plying the Silk Road. Even today, more than 90 percent of all firecrackers and bottle rockets are made in China. Manufacturing them takes a great deal of effort and is dangerous, with gunpowder explosions killing a significant number of workers each year.

Fortune Cookies: The Adopted Tradition
Every meal at a Chinese restaurant ends with a clever saying. To that extent, fortune cookies are the ultimate marketing tool: they remind diners that China is a country of philosophers and poets, a cultural nation that is capable of much more than just cooking delicious food. What wouldn’t the United States give to present diners everywhere with some national advertising as they head out the door? Ironically, fortune cookies are not a Chinese but an American invention. After the First World War, a pious baker in Los Angeles was reportedly the first person to make cookies containing sayings, in this case uplifting Christian messages. The practice caught on in Chinese restaurants in the US and then became popular around the globe. Except in China, where the post-dinner treats are unknown. Fortune either smiles on you – or it doesn’t.

Mao: Still Drawing Crowds
“A revolution is not a dinner party.” In China it is still customary to quote Mao Zedong, something that would be considered politically incorrect in the west. The world’s historians consider him one of the most brutal rulers of the 20th century, even if history’s judgment has not been as uniformly negative as it has for other tyrants. When the author Jung Chang published her highly critical biography of Mao in 2005, it became a global bestseller. The book precipitated a worldwide debate, causing its subject to gain new supporters along with new detractors. For many he remains an object of fascination – not least because he was an icon to leftists in the west in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. His “Little Red Book” is one of the most purchased publications of all time, along with the Bible and the Harry Potter novels. And his portrait above the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing remains one of the most popular backdrops for selfies – for tourists from both east and west.        

(This article first appeard in the IP Country portrait China.)