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Behind the scenes of Chinese art and its role in diplomacy

Behind the scenes of Chinese art and its role in soft diplomacy

New China Eyewitness: Roger Duff, Rewi Alley and the art of museum diplomacy

Colourful eyewitness accounts in a new book from Canterbury University Press bring to life the fascinating story of how Canterbury Museum came to acquire the largest collection of Chinese art in New Zealand after a group of prominent New Zealanders visited the People’s Republic of China in 1956.

New China Eyewitness provides important new perspectives on the Chinese Communist Party policy of using traditional artworks in soft diplomacy and the vital role art collecting played in giving the People's Republic of China a voice in non-communist countries.

The book contains portions of Canterbury Museum director Roger Duff’s diary during the trip. These first-hand accounts contain rare insights, including the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign which encouraged intellectuals to engage in constructive criticism as a means of strengthening socialism.

“Roger Duff’s detailed and highly readable diary, enhanced by extracts from others on the delegation, provides a remarkable eyewitness account of a rapidly developing China, at a unique time and unprecedented moment in its history,” says co-editor Dr Richard Bullen, Head of the Art History and Theory Department at UC.

The rise of China has heightened public interest in all aspects of the nation, especially in its traditional artworks, as illustrated by the popularity of exhibitions of Chinese artworks.

“The beautifully captured, yet ‘gritty’ street photographs of everyday life provide fascinating detail about the domestic, political and cultural situation of China in the 1950s,” adds co-editor Associate Professor James Beattie from Victoria University of Wellington.

New China Eyewitness details how the People's Republic of China reached out to the West through exhibitions and exchanges of traditional artworks during the Cold War. It also provides a detailed lesson on the primacy of art in the foreign policy of the People's Republic of China government, and through one of its main foreign supporters, New Zealander Rewi Alley, its use as a tool of soft diplomacy. This included, quite remarkably, the lifting of its own export ban on antiquities, to permit the gifting of seven crates of antiquities to Canterbury Museum.

“We’re delighted to learn that New China Eyewitness is on the longlist of the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in the illustrated non-fiction category,” says Canterbury University Press publisher Catherine Montgomery. “Readers interested in 20th-century Chinese history, cultural diplomacy, the legacy of Rewi Alley, museum and curatorial studies or travel history will be captivated by the text and images within its pages.”

New China Eyewitness is part of a larger research project centred on Canterbury Museum’s Rewi Alley Collection, which was supported by a Marsden grant. The book includes Chinese translation of the majority of the text, undertaken by Xiongbo Shi.

About the editors:

Dr James Beattie is associate professor, Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington. He is an historian of gardens, empire and environment, as well as Chinese art collecting, and has written four monographs, co-edited five books and published more than sixty articles and chapters.

Dr Richard Bullen is the head of art history and theory at the University of Canterbury and a research fellow at Canterbury Museum. He studied calligraphy and the Japanese way of tea during several years living in Japan and China. He has published on the aesthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony in the British Journal of Aesthetics and elsewhere.

About the translator:

Xiongbo Shi is a doctoral student in the Department of Art History and Theory, University of Canterbury. He has a master’s degree in art theory from Nanjing University, where he also received a postgraduate certificate in Chinese and American studies.

New China Eyewitness: Roger Duff, Rewi Alley and the art of museum diplomacy, edited by James Beattie and Richard Bullen, Chinese translations by Xiongbo Shi, published by Canterbury University Press, December 2017, RRP $59.99, ISBN: 978-1-927145-94-4


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