Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Flip-Side of Cultural Diplomacy-- China's Exhibits of RomanticTibet

Cultural diplomacy through the foreign exhibition of art is an extension of diplomacy which is usually positive and uncontroversial. But as the example in this article shows, countries can and do use cultural diplomacy to manipulate foreign opinion in support of their foreign or domestic policy.

In October 2009 the Chinese government sponsored an exhibit titled "Snow-Covered Plateau--Chinese Painting Works" that was displayed for six days in Milan, Italy. The explicit intent of the exhibit was to showcase the region's "social and economic development in past 50 years," and therefore the benefits of "cooperation" with China.(1) The purpose of having this exhibit in Italy instead of in Tibet or Beijing logically must have been to garner support for the cooperation between Tibet and China and to divert popular support for the cause of Tibetan independence, which has significant support in the rest of the world. 

The main defense of China's occupation of Tibet has been that "they have modernized a country that had once been repressively backward." But the images chosen to garner support for China's occupation depict Tibet as a place dominated by tradition and religion. The assertion is that Tibetan culture has been relatively unchanged by the Chinese occupation. This focus on the most "exotic" aspects of Tibet romanticizes Tibetans and ultimately distances Tibetans from Han Chinese.

On the other hand, one of the main objections to China's occupation in the West has been that it is oppressive and destructive to traditional Tibetan life. The images in the exhibit could be used as supposed evidence to refute the idea that China has repressed Tibetan Buddhism, an idea that for good reason has been widely held outside of China. While claiming to show how Tibet has benefited from "cooperation," the exhibit instead is meant to convince Italians just how little Chinese occupation has affected the daily lives of Tibetans, and thus make occupation that much more acceptable to foreigners.

A more suitable type of image to indicate the extent of Tibet's modernization and integration might have been Tsewang Tashi's "Wineseller #1". "Wineseller #1", painted in 2009, depicts a Tibetan who experiences the reality of modern Tibet. Not only is she painted with the neon-esque palette of modern life, but presumably is meant to represent a wine seller at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a testament to the integration Tibetan people in Chinese society. 

The short article by Xinhua includes pictures of two of the paintings and can be accessed here: 

The Mechak gallery has been featured in another post. There website page featuring a biography of Tsewang Tashi can be accessed here: 
Tsewang Tashi is currently painting in Lhasa, Tibet.

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