China developing soft-power infra along Silk Road

In tune with a growing domestic focus on tapping the achievements of its past.

Updated - October 18, 2016 01:14 pm IST

Published - May 08, 2016 02:57 pm IST - DUNHUANG (NORTHWESTERN CHINA):

The iconic nine-storey building at the Mogao Buddhist caves in Dunhuang. Photo: Atul Aneja

The iconic nine-storey building at the Mogao Buddhist caves in Dunhuang. Photo: Atul Aneja

China is digging deep into its cultural roots to anchor a seamless revival of the ancient Silk Road, in tune with a growing domestic focus on tapping the achievements of its past.

In Dunhuang, the oasis town along the ancient Silk Road in northwestern China, dozens, under the authority of the Dunhuang Academy, are patiently restoring the priceless artwork in Mogao caves.

Vigorous cultural cross-currents

The caves, whose intricately painted walls and statues depict the life and thought of Buddha, and much more, are an icon of the vigorous cultural cross-currents that, for centuries, energised ties between India and China, through a branch of the ancient Silk Road.

In September, thousands will descend in Dunhuan for the first Silk Road International Cultural Expo, whose mascot would be the Mogao grottoes. Organisers say that 72 countries have been invited to participate in the mega-event, which draws inspiration from China’s traditional engagement with a diverse set of people and cultures along the Silk Road.

Not accidental

The hosting of the event is not accidental. On the contrary, many see it as a strategic exercise of soft-power, to help blunt accusations that Beijing is pursuing self-centered regional dominance, in tune with its economic rise.

Analysts say that by leveraging culture, the Chinese wish to message to the world that the One Belt One Road (OBOR) connectivity project, championed by President Xi Jinping, is an extension of China’s symbiotic and peaceful engagement of Asia and Europe that ran for over a millennia along the Silk Road super-highway. With China as the fulcrum, the OBOR hopes to link Asia with Europe on the backbone and

revival of the ancient Silk Road.

Message of inclusivity

The message of inclusivity, anchored in a harmonious tradition, as a norm of international conduct, resonates strongly among officials of the Gansu province, of which, Dunhuang is a part. “The Silk Road has a shared legacy, for not only did it involve China, but many other countries including India, Russia, and Italy,” says E. Jun, the director of the Gansu Provincial Museum in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu.

The exhibits at the museum also include replicas of grottoes from Tianti Shan and Maiji Shan, powerfully echoing the intensity of India’s Buddhist-connect with China along a broad geographical band-width.

The scale of the cultural infrastructure being established in Dunhuang is stunning. A legion of yellow cranes are operating round-the-clock as workers in blue uniforms, race against time to complete three main buildings, including the main convention center, by July, well ahead of the expo.

Iconic nine-storey

A short distance away, a vast gray slope of un-plastered cement shows that a mega-theater is emerging from the brown sands of the Gobi desert. “None of the structures would be higher than the nine-storey building that is at the heart of the Mogao caves,” says Wu Guang Lin,

Deputy mayor of Dunhuang, pointing to the primacy of the 492 caves, hewn out of the barren cliffs, which tower over the Dachuan river, a short distance away.

The focus on culture and tourism also aligns well with China’s “new normal” economy, which aims to override low-end manufacturing with services and consumption.

Contributes over 55 p.c. to GDP

Mr. Wu points out that the overall contribution of the “culture industry” to the total GDP of the city had already crossed the 55 per cent mark last year, and the figure is expected to rise, as plans to develop infrastructure take root.

The pursuit for a cultural revival, contrasting sharply, and ironically, with the 50th anniversary of China’s traumatic Cultural Revolution this year, is not without its critics. Some say that

Call it cultural overkill

Dunhuang is an example of cultural overkill, which could endanger the marvel of the Mogao caves by a flood of tourists. But officials contest the criticism, by pointing to a comprehensive plan that would ease the visitor stress in Mogao. They point out that other nearby sites are also being developed to divert the tourist rush, including the iconic Jade Gate -- the nearby junction from where two branch lines, the northern and southern route of the ancient Silk Road headed out to converge at Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province.

From Yarkand along the southern route, one of the arteries of the Silk Road has headed through the Karakoram pass, eventually terminating at India’s western coastline.

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