The New Silk Road and EU-China Relations through Jiny Lan's Visual Art

Qinna Shen
Qinna Shen is Associate Professor of German at Bryn Mawr College in the USA.

In a painting produced in 2021 and titled “Alternative Fiction,” a giant Buddha statue is transposed into the nave of the La Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain.The facial features of the Buddha resemble those of Chinese president Xi Jinping, now wearing a bindi. Xi as Buddha alludes to the pervasive cult of personality in contemporary China. The stained-glass rose window above the chancel is patterned after the Chinese national emblem (Fig. 1). This bold artwork by Jiny Lan is representative of the feminist painter whose avant-garde and politically engaged art uniquely fuses Eastern and Western culture. As a German artist of Chinese origin, Lan uses visual language to comment on the New Silk Road and the Chinese government’s authoritarianism, which presents a big challenge to the Sino-EU relations.

What inspired Lan to create this painting was the inaugural Silk Road International Cultural Expo (SRDICE) in Dunhuang in September 2016, where she and about 1,500 other foreign guests were invited to participate, all at the expense of the Chinese government. The Chinese hosts did not spare anything to impress foreign guests with their hospitality, wealth, and power. However, Lan is skeptical of the outcome of this costly endeavor. Despite the stunning gala shows, the foreign guests were, according to Lan, put off by a propagandistic film about the BRI. In her painting, the arms of the dancers look grotesque and ghostly.

In place of an altar, spectators see an emperor and an empress giving an audience, evoking the heyday of Chinese dynastic history when foreign guests from tributary nations came to China and were welcomed with extravagance, as shown in the giant scroll “All Nations Coming to Court” (Wan guo lai chao, 1761), a painting of an imagined scene made during the rule of the Qing Emperor Qianlong. Devoid of fanfare, Lan’s painting is actually modeled on a contemporary version of the same title by Wang Yongqiang. [1] A Chinese critic has pointed out that the spectacles of “All Nations Coming to Court” are “extremely costly for the Chinese court. Gigantic vanity projects constitute a feature of all of Chinese history.” [2] The BRI is Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative and reveals China’s ambition to enhance its global influence. In 2017 and 2019, the first two BRI summits conjured up the glory of past Chinese dynasties as expressed in “All Nations Coming to Court.”

International critics of the BRI have focused on the lack of transparency, potential debt traps, Chinese authoritarianism and corruption, environmental damage, and a reliance on Chinese in place of local construction labor, among other problems. [7] Chinese critics of the BRI, however, resent the fact that the government is using Chinese money to subsidize foreign countries and would rather the government spend money on China’s own population. They fear that astronomical loans to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, such as Venezuela, will not be repaid due to economic and political instability in these regions. Netizens play with homophones such as da sa bi (大撒币) and da sha bi (大傻逼): the first means to throw money around, which has become a synonym for the BRI, and the second means a big idiot. One of Xi’s critics, Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon in China, described the Chinese president as “A Clown Who Stripped Himself and Insisted on Becoming an Emperor.” Ren was sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges on September 22, 2020. The Hawaii-based emigre cartoonist Cheng Tao has also repeatedly ridiculed Xi as an emperor without clothes. [8]

Hong Kong occupies a special place in Lan’s art, because it is an exemplary city where oriental and occidental cultures merge. In 2019, however, the motion to pass an extradition bill pushed the prodemocracy protest in Hong Kong to its climax. 2019 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen military crackdown. At this political juncture, Lan painted 1989–2019 (Fig. 2).

A bright yellow umbrella takes center stage and Tiananmen lurks behind it. Yellow umbrellas evoke the fight for democracy in Hong Kong. In the background hovers the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, the native city of Marco Polo, also the Italian city with longstanding economic connections to China. The painting evokes the New Silk Road, because Italy became the first G7 country to join the BRI, resisting pressure from the EU and the US. Before Italy, Hungary was the first European country to sign on to the BRI in 2015, followed by Poland, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Portugal. As of 2019, more than half of the EU’s 28 member states have signed bilateral endorsements of the BRI. [9] China’s country-by-country approach revealed the vulnerability of the European project, subverting a united front and causing disunity in the EU. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized Italy’s decision to join the BRI and warned that “China is not a liberal democracy.” [10] France also criticized Italy for pursuing a unilateral policy, but France itself signed large contracts during President Xi’s visit to Paris in 2019, and the first trains connecting Wuhan and Lyon ran in April 2016. [11] The two terra-cotta soldiers on the right represent the totalitarian Qin dynasty—the dynasty that first united China but also started a tradition of dictatorial, paternalistic rule.

In conclusion, Jiny Lan’s paintings illustrate the complex relations between China and the EU. In the face of an adverse international climate, the Chinese government may be forced to downscale its investment in the BRI. The country’s low resources of soft power stand in the way of the BRI, and this is the greatest dilemma that China and EU-China relations face.


  1. All Nations Coming to Court” (Wan guo lai chao万国来朝图, by Wang Yongqiang)
  2. Li Xia’en, “The Spectacle of All Nations Coming to Court: A Vanity Project of Emperors of All Dynasties” (Wan guo lai chao da xi: ge chao huang di de mianzi gong cheng,” Xin Zhou Kan, No. 421, October 15, 2015.
  3. “Where the rubber meets the ‘Belt and Road’ – German ambassador answers the big questions,” South China Morning Post, May 13, 2017.
  4. "China's BRI creates opportunities for German companies: business association speaker," China Daily 2019/06/18.
  5. China’s One Belt, One Road: Will it reshape global trade?” McKinsey, Podcast, July 2016.
  6. Guy Chazan, “The Unlikely End to China’s New Silk Road is in Germany’s Rust Belt,” OZY, April 10, 2019.
  7. David Dollar, “Understanding China’s Belt and Road Infrastructure Projects in Africa,” Brookings, September 2019.
  8. The Emperor’s New Clothes,” 成涛漫画 Tao Comics, March 9, 2018.
  9. Michael Peel and Lucy Hornby, “China pledges open Belt and Road but west is split on project,” Financial Times, April 26, 2019.”
  10. DPA, “Germany criticized Italy on decision to join China’s Belt and Road Initative,” Daily Sabah, March 24, 2019.
  11. François Nicolas, “France and China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” French Institute of International Relations, April 8, 2019.