Politics of the Past, Promises of the Future, and Images of the Silk Road

In my recent article published in the International Studies Quarterly, I explore why 15th century Chinese maritime navigator Zheng He has become such a prominent iconic symbol of the New Silk Road. The article seeks to unravel the meaning and timing behind the revival and reconstruction of the legacy of Zheng He, as a way of marketing the New Silk Road with values (such as trade, prosperity, cultural exchanges) associated with the Ancient Silk Road. Through analyzing the Belt and Road Initiative marketing materials , official discourses , and other visual materials , the article examines the politics of the past and the political use of nostalgia in foreign policy making.

How is nostalgia used in foreign policy making?

I argue that the return of Zheng He in the discourse of Chinese foreign policy elites today indicates at least three interesting and interlinked phenomena.

First, the selective borrowing from Ming Dynasty navigations carefully leaves certain aspects out, especially those that involve violence. One can read Zheng He’s expeditions as part of a self-interested state-ordered strategic plan. Yet the Zheng He’s legacy in official speeches and BRI documents was constructed within a cultural context rather than a military one. In fact, his expeditions were not all that peaceful with documented accounts of the use of brutal violence. This then leads me to ask what exactly facilitates the celebration of parts of Zheng He’s legacy and not all of it.

Second, and relatedly, the reconstruction of Zheng He’s maritime navigations is made possible by tapping into a rosy and nostalgic perspective that borrows only the peaceful parts of the past. Nostalgia allows retelling parts of the story that emphasize the desirable values while cleansing the past of its unwanted elements. Indeed, glorious depictions of Ancient Chinese maritime navigators as peaceful envoys and cultural ambassadors rid their legacy of undesirable accounts of violence. Nostalgia triggers positive feelings about the Ancient Silk Road and an imagined past that was Sino-centric, peaceful, prosperous, and filled with cultural exchanges.

Third, reconstructing such a positive narrative of the Ancient Silk Road opens up an opportunity to brand the New Silk Road as the path for the return of prosperity, cultural exchanges, and technological advances. The New Silk Road is both a platform that is forward looking, with promises of a prosperous community with a shared destiny for all mankind, and also one that is anchored in the past, with the reconstruction of a past that is harmonious, rich, and Sino-centric.

Put together, these three points lead to the use of nostalgic imaginations of the Ancient Silk Road. This nostalgia for the past, however, is not for the sake of reviving the past, but for shaping the future of the global order with a massive-scale New Silk Road Project.

Nostalgia as a branding mechanism

Branding the New Silk Road by leaning on nostalgia for the Ancient silk road and its glorious values is important for capturing two sets of audiences. The first audience is domestic. Here Chinese nationals are invited to remember Zheng He’s heroic Indian Ocean navigations and feel proud of China. In this narrative, China is resuming or continuing its natural position as a maritime power and global leader.

The second audience is international, particularly those located in the Global South. Here, political nostalgia frames the BRI as a platform that builds on China’s peaceful rise. It invites Global South states to again be part of the glorious legacy of the Silk Road by signing onto the BRI. Documented with material artefacts such as the giraffe that was given to Zheng He as a gift, the Ancient Silk Road is now used as evidence that China’s earliest encounters with Africans was based on friendship, trade, and cultural exchanges. This is intended to draw contrast to Europe’s imperial and colonial conquests of Africa.

The past is very much alive in these discourses and is part of not only the present, but of an imagined future, in which more connectivity between China and its Indian Ocean neighbors will guarantee a prosperous, equitable, and peaceful global order.

Lastly, the example I used in the article to illustrate the importance of thinking about political nostalgia and its role in the writing of national narratives and global histories is not a singular instance. Aside from looking at Zheng He and his come-back in branding the New Silk Road, this theoretical framework could be applied to cases looking at the revival of socialist friendship and revolutionary past in current politics of African states towards several European and non-European powers.


Image: The statue of Zheng He at the Treasure Boat Shipyard Park in Nanjing. Vmenkov, Wikimedia Commons.