Written by Laura De Giorgi.

One of the peculiar features in the development of Sino-Italian relations is the importance that both countries attribute to culture as a privileged terrain for bilateral cooperation.

To some extent, this has been the reflection of the shared perception of being both cultural nations, whose modern national identity has been built on the acknowledgment of the legacy of a long and culturally important past. This past and the cultural identity are seen as increasingly marketable goods in a global economy in which creative industries and tourism represent an important field of competition. It is therefore not surprising that the current rhetorics of friendly cooperation which surround the plans for new economic agreements between Italy and China is more and more focussed on the idea of having been and being – or in case of China aspiring to return to be – cultural superpowers.

In this framework, the antiquity of Sino-Italian cultural relations is always highlighted as an important symbolic resource. In Italy, Marco Polo and Matteo Ricci are championed as the icons of a specific way of dealing with China, suggesting an implicit aspiration of becoming a cultural broker between China and Europe. Concurrently, in China the two Italians are considered as exemplary cases of a positive cultural interaction between East and West, not tainted by any hegemonic ambitions or colonial attitudes.

Nevertheless, the background of current cultural relations between China and Italy has to be found in the Twentieth-Century, when, especially in Italy, “culture” was often considered useful to balance a reality of weak political and economic relations. Until recently the history of these contacts has been often forgotten or downplayed in comparison with the “giants” of centuries ago. On the contrary, we are recently seeing a renovated history to reconsider the experiences of the Twentieth Century and their political implications.

In pre-1949 era, knowledge of Chinese culture in Italy was in the hands of journalists and travelers, always eager to produce travelogues and reports for the general public. Sinologists in Italian academic institutions were few, and most of them came from a career in Italian diplomacy in the Far East. In Republican China, Italian influence was evident in the field of law, as shown by the history of some Italian jurists as counsellors to legal reforms in China, while fascination for Fascism had a role in the development of Chinese political thinking and practice under the Nationalist regime. But, seen from another perspective, Italian literature and arts played just a minor part in the cosmopolitan culture which marked the era in China. In early 1930s the Fascist regime tried to promote a stronger cooperation and in 1934 the “Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente” (Italian Institute for Middle and Far East, IsMEO) was founded in Rome. Among its core missions there was the teaching of Chinese language for commercial purposes and the study of Chinese civilization. Moreover, a few Chinese students attended Italian universities. But human and financial resources remained limited, and political factors drove Italian interests towards Japan.

It was especially after 1949, when during the Cold War diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed, that Italy resorted to the importance of “culture” in order to circumvent the barriers put by the ideological divide with Communist China. In the 1950’s Mao’s China approached Italy as a target of its new cultural diplomacy aimed at introducing the new face of the revolutionary State to the West drawing inspiration from China’s aesthetic and artistic legacy. Italian intellectuals (not exclusively belonging to left-wing political parties) considered humanities and arts as instruments in their hands to ease commercial exchanges with the People’s Republic and to open the path to future political developments.

In the framework of the “people to people’s diplomacy” several unofficial cultural, scientific and journalistic missions were exchanged between Italy and China. The most important Italian mission was the one led in 1955 by the jurist Piero Calamandrei, who in his comments published on the journal “Il Ponte” emphasized the need to increase the exchanges of cultural products between Italy and China and to carve out a role for Italy in helping China to find its own creative path, from tradition to modern culture, and to break the cage of Soviet-style propaganda.

There were some significant developments. Some Italian students studied Chinese language at Beijing University. An Italian film director, Carlo Lizzani, shot a documentary film on the People’s Republic, “The Great Wall” in 1958, which received several awards. Six Italian modern painters (an even an abstract painter) exhibited their works in Beijing in 1956. Modern Italian traditional and contemporary literature and theatre was translated in Chinese (mainly from Russian), and Chinese modern literature was made known to the Italian reading public. Italian neorealist films were well known and studied in the People’s Republic. Even if the diplomatic divide between Italy and China needed time to be overcome, these activities had some implications to prospect a political rapprochement between Italy and China. These activities were not heavily burdened by ideological concerns, contrarily to what occurred later in the late 1960s, when cultural contacts between Italy and revolutionary China took too often place in the context of international Maoism.

Since 1978 cultural cooperation between China and Italy has developed in a wide spectrum of activities, from higher education to heritage preservation, from cultural industries to fashion, supported by bilateral agreements and national and regional institutions, and the age of Twenty-Century pioneers has come to an end.

Nevertheless its meaning is not lost. In recent years the history of the exchanges and attempts of collaboration in the field of culture between Italy and China in pre-1949 and in the 1950’s, has become a topic of academic research. Above all, this history is emerging as a memory to be preserved and emphasized in public events – as photographic and art exhibitions – and in fact recognized as an important instrument itself for the public diplomacy between Italy and China.

Laura De Giorgi is Professor of History of China at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Image Credit: CC by Yuxuan Wang/Flickr.