As China-Russia Economic and Diplomatic Ties Advance, Their Cultural Bond Flourishes with Ballet, Theatre and Music

BRICS, 8 Jan 2024

South China Morning Post | BRICS Info Portal - TRANSCEND Media Service

Ballet Royal Moscow – BRICS Information Portal

29 Dec 2023 – As the Russian musical Anna Karenina is set to be staged in Shanghai and Beijing this month, theatre director Alina Chevik hopes to see how it can connect the two peoples at a time when Russian artists have been shunned in Western markets.

The musical is one of several recently presented by Russian artists in China as the number of visiting Russian companies rises amid boycotts and sanctions in the West following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

This year, the two countries have also repeatedly stressed the importance of boosting people-to-people exchanges ahead of the 75th anniversary of bilateral ties next year. Further, they have deemed 2024-25 as Russian-Chinese Years of Culture, with a view to putting on more events.

Analysts said this push for cultural exchange acknowledged how cultural diplomacy helped public opinion and perceptions that might show Russia in a more positive light in China.

Chevik sees up close how the two cultures interact as she tours Russian players in China. She also has experience directing Chinese performers on the production’s Chinese version.

“Working with Chinese actors was very interesting,” she said. “The way the actors were able to feel Russian history, the character of Russian people, suggests that art has no boundaries, a good story will be interesting and understandable to people of different cultures and nationalities.”

In late November, more than 100 representatives from both sides gathered in Beijing for the 14th Plenary Session of the China-Russia Friendship Committee for Peace and Development. They said the committee would “give full play to the role of the main channel of civil interaction and further promote people-to-people bonds”.

A day earlier, Chinese Vice-President Han Zheng met the representatives and hailed “increasingly solid public support” of China-Russia relations which had been viewed sceptically in the West since Russia invaded Ukraine.

As the Russian delegation visited Beijing, the Eifman Ballet of St Petersburg presented its show Eugene Onegin in the Chinese capital. In Shanghai, Russian ballet companies also scheduled Swan Lake and The Nutcracker performances through December.

Earlier in November, the St Petersburg Masterskaya Theatre presented its eight-hour stage play And Quiet Flows the Don in Shanghai as part of an international arts festival. The festival also hosted a performance featuring Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who led the St Petersburg-based Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in a concert on November 20.

Feng Qiu, a Beijing-based ballet teacher who viewed Eugene Onegin this month said he saw an apparent close cultural connection between the two countries that had not been affected much by the Ukraine war.

Qiu, who performed in Russia in 2019, said it was better to separate art from politics. A broad sanction that affected all Russian artists wrought “quite a loss for the public, for those who love ballet”, he said.

For university student Cui Di, the trickle of Russian shows was a chance for her to see a Russian ballet performance for the first time. She was among a full-house audience for a performance of Swan Lake on December 10 in Harbin, the capital city of northeast China’s Heilongjiang province.

The 19-year-old said she became familiar with and appreciated Russian culture and art while growing up in Heihe, a Chinese city on the border with Russia.

China and Russia have been stressing the need to boost cultural ties, with a joint statement signed in Moscow in March by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Putin. It emphasised the promotion of exchanges between cultural institutions and noted that both sides opposed “the politicisation of international cooperation in the humanities”.

In late November, Putin told the St Petersburg International Cultural Forum that “building a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination between Russia and China would be impossible without cultural exchanges and interpersonal bonds between the two peoples”.

Anna Kireeva, associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said the two countries viewed people-to-people exchanges as “an integral and important part” of their bilateral ties primarily because “without strong support from both societies no partnership has solid foundations only based on the contacts between elites”.

She said Russia saw the need to push more resources into building up cultural ties with a partner that would welcome them.

“This is especially true for Russia which used to enjoy much closer people-to-people ties, cultural, educational and scientific exchanges with the West but now, because of the sanctions and numerous restrictions, is no longer able to sustain them,” she said.

“China also increasingly needs alternative educational and scientific partners due to the restrictions by the US and more difficult relations with Australia and the EU.”

Zhang Chi, a postdoctoral researcher in international relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said China and Russia’s emphasis on people-to-people exchanges could be seen as an extension of their soft-power strategies amid escalating geopolitical tensions.

Cultural diplomacy, which may not directly alter hard power dynamics, could significantly influence people’s attitudes and perceptions, she said.

“Both governments share the assumption that their portrayals within Western media are being misrepresented. Hence, they recognise the need to seize the reins of discursive power in order to reshape their image within the international arena,” she said.

Zhang said this goal required a concerted push in cultural diplomacy “to foster a more nuanced understanding of their cultural identities, values, and policies”.

“They aspire to cultivate a narrative that resonates more authentically with global audiences, countering the prevailing narratives that they perceive as skewed against them,” she said.

Russia considers it must retain influence or some discourse power in China to maintain its image to avoid “a very unfavourable situation” of global isolation, according to Wan Qingsong, an associate researcher at East China Normal University’s Centre for Russian Studies in Shanghai.

“One of the major driving forces behind this is the West’s cultural sanctions against Russia, so it needs to find a breakthrough,” he said. Wan said Russia sought to counter Western dominance in public opinion and information – what it considered “a stop-loss” for its image.

Wan said China and Russia also had common interests and motivations to boost cultural exchanges. Cooperation in areas such as the economy and security had already advanced but cultural ties remained relatively weak. He said many people in China understood Russia through its Soviet past but not as the country was today.

Zhang noted that cultural diplomacy was more effective when there was an existing affinity or resonance between cultures, and that public opinion shaped by cultural diplomacy could affect domestic and foreign policy stances.

“For example, the historical cultural ties between China and Russia serve as fertile ground for Russian cultural products to be positively received in China. This shared cultural background can evoke positive sentiments and familiarity, which may lead to a more sympathetic public stance towards a country’s broader policies or actions,” Zhang said.

“Past alliances or influences, such as the Soviet influence in China, can leave a lasting impact that extends into present-day cultural affinities. Despite past political rifts like the Sino-Soviet split, the appreciation for aspects of Russian culture such as classical music, art, ballet and literature remains influential among the older generation in China.”

As the 2024-25 Russian-Chinese Years of Culture approach, Russian theatre director Chevik said she looked forward to meeting Chinese dance and theatre troupes and taking part in joint projects in the next two years.

“It seems to me that we have something to share with each other in the field of culture and theatre. In Russia there is a very strong school of Russian drama theatre, classical ballet and classical music. I hope that the world of Russian culture will open up even more for Chinese viewers in these two years,” she said.

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