The emperor's new clothes

Prince Charles was roundly condemned for describing China's leaders as "waxworks", yet the state-spo

In his recently published diary entry about the handover of Hong Kong, Prince Charles described the Chinese leadership as "appalling old waxworks". Many westerners, having observed China's leaders on ceremonial occasions, might be inclined to agree. Yet Jiang Zemin, the president at the ceremony Charles attended in 1997, does not fit that description. A bearlike man given to bursting into song, he strikes most Chinese as a buffoon rather than a stuffed dummy. China's current president, Hu Jintao, who visited London in November, is no waxwork either: young and energetic, he presents himself as managing director of China Inc, the world's fastest-growing corporation. Charles's use of the term "waxworks" expresses a historic western view of the Chinese as stiff, formal and inscrutable.

China's leaders want to challenge this stereotype and convince westerners that the country's inhabitants are just like everyone else, willing participants in the global economy. Yet the message they put across is often highly confusing. President Hu was in London last month to promote business links with the UK, China's third-biggest trading partner. At the same time, he opened the "Three Emperors" exhibition at the Royal Academy, a lavish display of treasures from China's last imperial dynasty, including paintings, jades, bronzes, porcelain, ceremonial robes and palace furnishings. The show is a prelude to "China in London 2006", a season of events celebrating Chinese arts and culture and China's historic links with the British capital. By associating himself with the exhibition, President Hu is, in effect, positioning himself as the legitimate heir to the country's imperial past.

As China's economic expansion brings it into closer contact with the west, its leaders are increasingly seeking to bolster their positions by promoting a historicised image of their country that has little to do with contemporary reality. In Zhang Yimou's state-sponsored martial arts film Hero, for example, a potential assassin of China's first emperor, the ruthless and aggressive Qin Shi Huang, is persuaded to abandon his plan when he realises that imperial brutality is a necessary condition of national unity. The film's underlying message is clear: that the Party is the logical and necessary culmination of Chinese history. According to another well-known film of this genre, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, China is a place where the laws of physics do not apply, where people can fly if only they learn the right mumbo-jumbo. Fantasies have their logic, and Crouching Tiger reinforces the notion of China as a museum piece in which strands of occult wisdom are braided into a form of practical magic.

For China's leadership, exploiting the country's past has obvious advantages. It is a way of blurring the distinction between the Party's history and that of the country; in a film such as Hero, the two are inseparable. It can be an oblique way of trumpeting nationalist, self-assertive messages. And at a time when the country is increasingly viewed by the west as a potential threat, the China of Couching Tiger represents an acceptable, exportable national image, one that smoothes over the reality of a rapidly emerging economic giant ruled by undemocratic means.

From the evidence of President Hu's visit, the PR offensive is working. When he opened the "Three Emperors" exhibition, few commented on the irony of the leader of a party that has done all it can to destroy China's culture and traditions laying claim to the imperial past. The strangeness of the spectacle was underlined by Ken Livingstone's decision to arrange for various London tourist attractions to be flooded in red light. "Turning some of the capital's iconic buildings red is a fantastic way to mark the opening of the 'Three Emperors' exhibition," the mayor commented.

For those seeking a realistic picture of contemporary China, the "China in London 2006" season is unlikely to prove rewarding. A more genuine effort to explore the country's unsettled identity can be found in Foreign Babes in Beijing: behind the scenes of a new China (published by Granta on 2 January 2006), a fascinating book by a young American author, Rachel DeWoskin. In 1994 DeWoskin, then a 21-year-old graduate, flew to China in search of adventure. With a limited Chinese vocabulary, she took a job as an "account executive" for an American PR firm in down- town Beijing, before being offered a starring role in a Chinese TV soap opera, Foreign Babes in Beijing. First aired in 1995, the series became a huge commercial success, attracting an audience of 600 million viewers. For almost half of China's population, DeWoskin became a symbol of her native land, an experience that gave her a rare insight into Chinese views of America, while shaping her view of China during the five years she lived there.

Foreign Babes in Beijing was a romantic drama about two American women who fall in love with China - and Chinese men. The Li brothers, the objects of their affection, live with their parents in a traditional siheyuan (courtyard) in Beijing. As the "foreign babes" insinuate themselves into the brothers' hearts, their American values threaten the courtyard's way of life. DeWoskin played Jiexi (a Sinicised version of "Jessie"), a rich, sassy, liberated brunette infatuated with the married elder brother, Li Tianming. She sets out to seduce him, and succeeds. The moment of truth comes when, after a steamy bedroom scene, Li Tianming pops the question: "Would you marry me if I divorce my wife?" The shock on Jiexi's face exemplified, to Chinese viewers, the difference between China and America: for Jiexi, there is no necessary connection between sex and marriage, while for Li the consequence of sex can only be marriage.

Foreign Babes the soap opera was one example of China's recent obsession with the opportunities, discomforts and dangers of the collision between the two cultures. It presented Chinese attitudes towards the west as a cocktail of ignorant stereotypes, racial prejudice and xenophobia. Jiexi is a home-wrecker, sporting a fur coat and Dallas hairdo, while her racist father calls the Chinese "lazy and uncultured"; the Chinese, by contrast, are proud, patriotic and loyal to tradition and family.

DeWoskin paints a lively, chaotic portrait of the country in the 1990s, particularly through the people she meets, caught between east and west, old and new. With her corporate identity as Rachel, and her television identity as Jiexi, DeWoskin herself straddled the divide, an earnest, young American willing to go beyond conventional limits to discover the secret of today's China.

However, she inevitably remained an outsider, and her story is one of confusion and contradiction: despite her reservations about the soap's image of the west, she still leapt to its defence when it was criticised by westerners. And she rightly argues that the xenophobic attitudes presented in Foreign Babes were neither as widespread nor as threatening as they seem.

Predictably, disillusionment was not long in coming. In May 1999, when a Nato bomb hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, DeWoskin suffered abuse by locals and had to pretend she was Swiss. Her time in China was over, at least for the time being. Had she understood China? "While we westerners have come and gone," she concludes, "China has changed at its own pace, gradually at times, quickly at others, within plan at times, but most often outside it. What may be more predictable is how China changes us."

For Rachel/Jiexi, the main change was a loss of innocence. Foreign Babes made millions for its Chinese investors, while the young DeWoskin was paid $80 per episode - some $20,000 less than her Chinese co-star. The show's producers told her that they couldn't afford more, and she believed them.

Clearly, China remains a puzzle to outsiders - even those who earnestly seek to understand it. But who cares about puzzles when business is booming and a city like London can colour its buildings red in a grand gesture of hospitality to the world's fastest-growing economy?

"China: the three emperors (1662-1795)" is at the Royal Academy, London W1, until 17 April 2006 (020 7300 5760)