Art Diplomacy and Nation Branding: The Visual Politics of Re-inventing China

The research investigates how Chinese contemporary art has increasingly become a popular method to help rejuvenate China's nation brand. 

The Visual Politics of Re-inventing China


Research background 

This is a joint project between CCVA and De Montfort University that explores the relationship between Chinese contemporary art and nation branding. 

With China growing in influence, its newly-gained reputation as a superpower is also being reinforced through the strategic promotion of its culture and arts. Our research aims to trace the growing power, cachet and cultural capital of Chinese contemporary art as a key element in transforming the foreign public's perception of a country that is eager to orchestrate its international image. We seek to analyse how two spheres of activities - Chinese contemporary art and government nation branding efforts - are now entwined, and with what effects for the curatorial and artistic development in China and beyond, in view of our globalised art world. 

The concept of nation branding has been widely discussed in the past few years in fields such as marketing, international relations and communications studies. It has almost become a catch-all term, incorporating related themes such as country of origin effect, made-in country image, cultural stereotype and place branding. Our examination of the topic, however, is inspired by both theoretical and practiced-based thinking from the humanities. We approach the concept by going beyond its framework of selling a nation and maximising nation brand recognition for potential consumers and tourists, but by focusing on the promotion of national ideals, identities and values, especially on the cultural horizon. We analyse this topic from a globalised visual arts point of view by examining works by Chinese artists exhibited at home and abroad. We argue that a solid understanding of China's global reputation and national brand image must be anchored to the ways in which key visual practices are being used to advertise the country.

Research aims 

Our research will address questions such as: How is the growing field of Chinese contemporary arts creating a new style and tone for the nation brand? How are artists creating new possibilities for China to represent itself at global events? How does the political usage of Chinese contemporary art reveal the dilemmas and politics of art diplomacy? More importantly, how does this combination of art, nationalism and state oversight affect China's latest aspirations to excel in creativity and originality in many different fields?

We aim, therefore, to gain a critical understanding of the multi-layered tensions at stake: the freedom of creative imagination enjoyed by artists, institutional values and rationalities embraced by curators, the material and political gains required of nation branding, and finally, Chinese government control. Our objective is to survey this precarious terrain and highlight the political, aesthetic and ethical tensions. We seek to produce pivotal and essential knowledge so stakeholders, such as curators, artists and cultural industry professionals, can have a timely road map to help guide them through this maze.

Research methods

Our research is born out of an urgent critical inquisitiveness to document China's global rise and its impact on world cultures. We place our research questions at the intersection of multiple concerns: artistic trends, Chinese nationalism, cultural values, (macro)marketing and global politics. We also cross multiple boundaries, be they academic disciplines (international relations and visual arts) or distinct industries (nation branding, creative arts and museums), to boost knowledge.

Our research will be enhanced by our proposed network of academics and industry practitioners from the museum and nation branding/marketing sectors. Hence, there will be a natural outflow of impact beyond the academia to these two industries in China and the UK. For practitioners in the UK, we endeavour to create impact by widening and deepening their knowledge base on China, providing empirical evidence and narrative case studies on the fusion of nation branding mechanisms and contemporary art.

Projected outcomes 

Specifically, our findings will impact the museum sector, in particular curators, cultural industry workers and policy makers in the UK who are organising China-related exhibits and events. This will occur on two levels: knowledge transfer and practical collaborations. Our research conclusions will help strengthen the critical thinking capacity among practitioners and identify new channels of Chinese artistic expressions for them. By better understanding the artistic developments in China, these professionals will be well equipped to introduce new artists, curatorial practices, exhibit themes and sustainable policies that could advance their institution's overall goals, including their audience reach and diversity. Beyond knowledge, our impact will also manifest in actual collaborations with museum professionals as co-curators of new China-themed exhibits at public arts venues at national and local community levels. We have already identified different venues, and we will help draft, plan and organise inventive exhibitions featuring Chinese and British artists in dialogue.

By producing relevant and timely knowledge, we envision another key impact of strengthening the collective China literacy that will enable UK-based branding experts who are or who will work in the future on China-related promotional and public relations projects. Being 'China literate' in this context means possessing insights on contemporary Chinese cultural trends, a keener awareness of the risks of cross-cultural projects, cultural polices and state oversight. For example, our industry-oriented research report - clearly articulated in a concise policy-paper format - will serve as a useful tool. This research report will deliver much-needed new and balanced knowledge on how art influences China's nation brand, and vice versa. This critical knowledge can help branding experts see clearly the Chinese approach to statecraft, national identity, artistic practices and the broader issue of political ideologies' influence on marketing. Thus equipped, they can navigate the complex process of branding China and engage constructively and critically with their clients, users and audiences. Our outputs also have the potential to impact UK-based branding experts who are not even engaging with China, as discussions on nation branding have been revived here in the context of Brexit. Our critical appraisal of Chinese developments could become a fresh case study in the handling of art diplomacy and the construction of a nation brand.

Turning to possible impact in China, we see similar effects of knowledge transfer and practical collaborations with the museum sector. Because the whole field of art management is still underdeveloped and art activities are often run by civil servants and not by art professionals, we can provide extra resources through our academic outputs and our industry-oriented research report. Our networking visits to China (see further explanations in the Case for Support document) will also allow us to initiate a practical dialogue with curators, artists and art students. The impact of such contacts and debates would be honest and balanced evaluations of the tensions, implications and politics of conjoining nation branding and art. These beginnings could lead to future impactful collaborations, including on art exhibits and public symposiums.

You can find more information about the project below: