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Blackface Dance and Perceptual Gaps Between China and the World in the Age of Belt and Road

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Keren Zhu
March 8, 2021

I had a facepalm moment recently as I watched Chinese dancers performing in blackface during Black History Month. This year’s performance, televised in China and throughout the world, is the second time Chinese performers have darkened their faces to represent Africans and the second time there was an outcry at this racist depiction.

I’m a Chinese researcher and PhD candidate at a graduate school housed within an American think tank working on the Belt and Road Initiative and its rollout in Africa. I have spent time in Benin, Ethiopia, Kenya and Ghana over the past 10 years. Watching the performance, I was torn between a deep embarrassment for my country’s choice of genre in communicating with an international audience, and an urge to explain and justify it based on my understanding of local contexts.

The dancers were part of China’s Spring Festival Gala, a 5-hour annual program held since 1983 to celebrate the Lunar New Year. One of the world’s most-watched TV programs, it started as a movable feast of entertainment in an economy of scarcity, became a celebrated national tradition and gradually politicized as a symbol of patriotism and prosperity. As China has become a global power, the Spring Gala has become a tool of cultural diplomacy. The African dance in this year’s gala was followed by dances from Egypt, Spain and Russia, to cover many distinctive art performances along the way of the Belt and Road, the ambitious global connectivity program that China has initiated.

But to the extent the event portrays a China-centered worldview, it underscores the perceptual gaps between China and the world. The mixture of unintended racism and contrived cultural diversity in the Gala’s opening performance encapsulates the dilemma that a rising China faces in its leap to globalization.

A highly homogenous population with stringent immigration policy has left the majority of Chinese people ignorant of or unfamiliar with ongoing discussions of racial politics worldwide. So Chinese leaders may view the Gala’s blackface dance as a friendly gesture of union between China and other developing countries and an act of cultural integration, or least a harmless representation of foreign culture. In fact, China established the Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble in 1962 to introduce traditional Chinese performance art to international audiences, and international artforms to domestic audiences. The lead dancer of the 2021 Spring Gala opening dance has been performing Asian and African dance since the 1980s.

Yet from a Western perspective, blackface is considered highly offensive, disrespectful and racist, as it reminds the world of a painful history of African enslavement and discrimination. In the United States in particular, blackface invokes the dark past of minstrel shows featuring “blackened” white performers playing African Americans, not to mention that for decades the only major roles black people could get on stage or in film were as maids and slaves.

While the intent of the Chinese Spring Gala dance may be to promote unity with African nations, when the Gala meets an international audience, people with different backgrounds, nationalities, norms and values can easily misinterpret or take offense to that message. Without grasping the historical weight of the repeated trope and how truly offensive it is in the eyes of international observers, the performance has triggered conversations on social media about the racial discrimination that Africans face when living in China or working with Chinese citizens. To date, controversies about the performance are largely confined within advocacy groups working on Chinese-African topics. Continued reliance on such inappropriate intercultural communication tools in China’s cultural diplomacy could hurt China-Africa ties that took years to build.

In the case of China, should ignorance of blackface’s cultural connotations be a defense to the perpetuation of racial stereotypes? Can it justify or mitigate the ultimate impact of such actions and its global repercussion? I don’t think so.

Without intercultural knowledge, China’s reliance on a racist stereotype to symbolize Chinese-African unity is easily read as an example of a China-centered approach to public diplomacy that fails to advance its intended goals. Chinese audiences growing up with a national rejuvenation narrative might take pride in some Chinese diplomats combatively denouncing criticisms of China on social media and in interviews. International observers, in contrast, puzzled and enraged, tag such an approach, “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” and view it as a self-righteous celebration of nationalistic sentiments.

China’s re-emergence over the last few decades and its growing influence causes considerable anxiety, in part, because China is significantly different, culturally and politically, from other ascending powers in the past. As the Belt and Road Initiative attempts to encapsulate and repackage China’s decade-long efforts to engage overseas, it in turn has become a vessel through which mixed feelings about a globalizing China are channeled. In this light, inappropriate cross-cultural communication devices such as blackface dance reflect a China-centered worldview reminiscent of the ancient tributary system, deepening the perceptual gap between China and the rest of the world.

For that reason alone, China should take care to not build infrastructure projects and invisible walls at the same time. Narrowing the perceptual gap between the world and “Me” should be a process of intercultural openness, not shear intracultural pride and persistence.

Author: Keren Zhu ([email protected], @Zhu_Keren) is a PhD candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Her research interests include global infrastructure and international development. Prior to joining RAND, she was the international affairs manager at Research and Development International, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, where she promoted international cooperation and produced policy research to advance the Belt and Road Initiative.

Her thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of the RAND Corporation, Pardee RAND, or RAND’s research sponsors.

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