Soft Power: The CCP Uses China’s Traditional Culture for Propaganda

By Kelly Song
Kelly Song
Kelly Song
Kelly Song is a U.S.-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on all things related to China.
July 20, 2021 Updated: July 28, 2021

“A country with strong soft power can easily spread its ideology and values, thus able to control and manipulate global public opinion,” said a December 2007 China Central TV report. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers the ability to spread its culture of violence in the form of art to be a pivotal factor in its soft power campaigns.

According to the “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” the CCP replaces Chinese traditional culture with its Party culture of “deceit, malice, and struggle” in order to maintain its tyranny. At the same time, it puts up superficial cultural manifestations as a façade to deceive people and increase its soft power globally.

Establishing China culture centers in countries around the world is a project headed by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. A document states that 34 provincial agencies are tasked with setting up cultural centers to “promote Chinese traditional and modern culture.” The project has the goal of reaching 30 countries or cities, such as Singapore, Fiji, Stockholm, Tel Aviv, Luxembourg, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Laos, Sydney, Kairo, Malta, Mexico, and Copenhagen.

Performing arts are one of the ways it spreads this repackaged culture by altering age-old traditional legends and lyrics of ancient folk songs.

Here are some examples:

The Singing Legend Liu Sanjie

One example of this repackaged culture is the 1,300-year-old legend of Liu Sanjie, a beautiful and intelligent young girl whose singing captured people’s hearts. The legend was insidiously altered by the Party to depict hatred using a musical movie and stage performances, which made Liu the leader of the oppressed peasant class. In the modified versions, her songs promoted violent struggle against the oppressor class—the land owners.

Although banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), this version of Liu Sanjie was brought back to center stage both inside and outside China.

One Chinese language website promoting communist ideology claims that the CCP version of the Liu Sanjie legend is “the world’s most influential musical” and that it reminds people to not forget the “blood and tears of class struggle;” and that “Liu Sanjie’s songs were like the fire of hatred burning from the bottom of her heart.”

The Epoch Times has obtained several documents, issued by various Chinese regime agencies, detailing their accomplishments in “exporting culture” via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as “One Belt, One Road”).

In 2018, the Guangxi Provincial Department of Culture sent eight performing troops to perform a musical about Liu Sanjie to a number of countries linked by the BRI, including Singapore, Macao, Israel, Turkey, Spain, and Croatia. Another document shows that the musical was performed in Singapore for an audience of 6,000 in 2018. During the 2019 Chinese New Year, it was performed in the Philippines.

Guangxi Province, where Liu Sanjie originated, is responsible for opening culture centers in Vietnam and Laos.

Red Troops on Lake Honghu

The revolutionary opera “Red Troops on Lake Honghu” tells the story of a newly formed CCP organizing militia groups in the Lake Honghu area of Hubei to fight the Kuomintang army during the Chinese civil war in the 1930s. These communist militias became the Red Army, and everywhere it went, large numbers of civilians were slaughtered, yet the opera glorifies its origins.

When the CCP sent the opera to Australia in November 2018, the name was shortened to “Lake Honghu.”

The Australian Values Alliance, which consists of mainly Australian Chinese, issued a statement opposing the performance. The statement said the performance “represents a new attempt by the Chinese government to introduce soft power to influence Australia.” The letter added that “the opera presented many ‘revolutionary’ songs that glorify the Red Army. We all know that the Red Army killed massively during the Long March especially targeting the landowners, many of whom were innocent peasants.”

The Red Detachment of Women

This Chinese revolutionary ballet is also one of the eight model theatrical pieces. The story’s lead character is a peasant girl who escapes imprisonment by a rogue landlord and joins the red detachment (a CCP army unit for women only) during the early years of the communist revolution. The story takes place in Hainan, the largest island in the South China Sea.

Epoch Times Photo
A scene from the “Red Detachment of Women,” a CCP propaganda ballet performance. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

It’s been performed on international stages over the past decade including in Melbourne, Australia in February 2017. A report describes the ballet as military and martial, “costumes for the ballet are military and the props are overwhelmingly martial: pistols, rifles, knives, machetes. Rarely can the Victorian Arts Centre have housed such an arsenal.” Local Chinese, Tibetans, and Vietnamese held protests outside the theater. According to the same report, the protesters held posters and banners proclaiming the importance of protecting Australian values in Australia, denouncing violence and hatred, and demanding the “fascist ballet” to “go back to China.”

The red ballet drew a similar response when it was performed in Washington D.C. in 2011.

The White-Haired Girl

For hundreds of years, Chinese in the north-eastern province of Hebei believed in the existence of a saint who lived in the mountains, possessed superpowers, helped good people, and punished the bad. Because of her long white hair, she was called the white-haired saint and locals built temples to worship her.

In the mid-1940s, the CCP stole the story about the saint, changed the lyrics of popular folk songs, and produced an opera called “White-haired Girl.” It became a story about a peasant girl battling a wicked landlord with the help of the Red Army. In this communist account, she was enslaved and raped by the landowner but escaped to the mountains, hid in a cave until her hair turned white. At the time, the opera was seen as being very effective in erasing “superstition” from people’s minds and inciting hatred of the land-owning class.

The opera was later adapted into a ballet, which became one of the eight model theatrical pieces approved for performance during the Cultural Revolution, when even performances about Liu Sanjie were banned.

Disrupting Performances of True Traditional Culture

While using the façade of showcasing tradition, the CCP spares no effort in preventing other independent performing arts companies from presenting true traditional culture to the world.

The CCP’s main target is the Shen Yun Performing Arts, a premier Chinese classical dance company based in New York. Prior to the pandemic, Shen Yun toured the world for six months each year.

Shen-Yun-New-York-2020-9ED3770
Shen Yun Performing Arts’ curtain call at Lincoln Center, New York, on March 11, 2020. (Edward Dye/The Epoch Times)

The Shen Yun website explains the CCP’s destruction of Chinese culture. “Over its past 70 years of rule, the communist regime has treated traditional Chinese values—centered on the idea of harmony between heaven and earth—as a threat to its existence. And in its systematic campaigns like the Cultural Revolution, it has uprooted traditional beliefs and destroyed ancient treasures—bringing 5,000 years of civilization to the brink of extinction.”

Only by being independent of the Chinese regime, can Shen Yun bring the essence of ancient tradition to stages around the world, meanwhile dogged by the CCP’s interference.

website by Leeshai Lemish, a Shen Yun MC since 2006, details 74 recorded cases of the CCP and its “diplomatic missions” interfering with Shen Yun shows around the world. These incidents occurred between 2007 and 2019 in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, England, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Korea, Malaysia, Moldova, New Zealand, Romania, Russia, Scotland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Thailand,  Netherlands, Ukraine, and United States.

One may wonder, why China is included in the list since Shen Yun is not allowed to perform in China.

Its because the Chinese police monitor mainlanders who purchase tickets for Shen Yun shows taking place outside the country, including Hong Kong; and they harass and, in some cases abduct, families of Shen Yun performers inside China.

Why does the CCP fear Shen Yun so much?

Lemish explains one of the reasons is that the CCP wants to portray itself as the “protector of Chinese culture” in a bid to legitimize its ruling status. So, it sends art troupes abroad to perform. However, Shen Yun’s performances outshine the propaganda-filled CCP troupes. Thus, the CCP comes up with all kinds of tactics to sabotage Shen Yun.

Kelly Song
Kelly Song
Kelly Song is a U.S.-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on all things related to China.