Monday, March 31, 2014

Korean drama 별에서 온 그대 (My Love from the Star) causes minor international incidents in China

This Buzzfeed article outlines the tremendous popularity of a Korean drama in China, to the point that it became the sort of cultural phenomenon not controlled by the state that drives the Chinese government nuts. The feeling was so strong that Chinese fans took out a full-page newspaper ad after a Korean professor's research indicating that Chinese fans of Korean and Taiwanese dramas were poorer and less educated than Chinese fans of Japanese and American dramas, published a year or two ago, came to light. The ad in the Chosun Ilbo demanded that the professor apologize to a character in the drama.

A one-party state consisting of 1.4 billion people really is only sustainable by either monopolizing or banning human interactions. Much of the persecution of the Falun Gong is explained by the fact that it is a large group of people that isn't entirely within the control of the Chinese government, the latter fact made evident by the time it surrounded Zhongnanhai, the sort-of-acknowledged headquarters of the Communist Party and, therefore, also the Chinese president. In that sense, it's odd but not inconceivable that the annual lianghui, or meeting of one rubber-stamping legislative body and one pointless advisory body, spent an entire morning discussing the success of this Korean drama and others like it, as well as the failure of China to produce anything that could compete with Korean dramas, American movies, Japanese comics, and so on.

The reason is obvious, of course. Dictatorships aren't too good at soft power, and China is no exception. The Chinese film industry is, as an American producer described in a New York Times article examining the problems faced by Hollywood in the Chinese market, the industry is controlled by a body that is "the equivalent of Universal, Sony, the M.P.A.A. and Regal all tied up in one". If you're like me and had never heard of Regal, it's a chain of movie theatres. The reality of Chinese cinema is that it still features propaganda films like 1911, which has an 8% score on Rotten Tomatoes, or the Beginning of the Great Revival, which was a commercial success thanks to mandatory viewings for students and government employees.

Japan and Korea face their own challenges in the promotion of cultural exports even as they are by far the most successful in all of East and Southeast Asia. Both countries have state-sponsored initiatives to create and improve cultural exports, as though this was the sort of thing you could create in a lab. Of course, if you look at some of the musical exports or even some of America's film exports, it's clear that a formulaic product manufactured with as much calculation as a cell phone or a car can achieve commercial success. The problem, as Korea discovered with Psy, is that while success can occur alongside such initiatives, there might be absolutely no connection between the two.

Another problem with cultural exports is that people won't like what you'd like them to like about you. The things that overseas consumers like about Korea are not the things that Koreans would like them to appreciate, Robert Fouser writes. "The logical problem with official efforts to promote Korean culture is that Koreans want to claim ownership not only of the cultural product, but also of its reception", preferring high-end culture to low-end culture, and prioritizing out of pride instead of appeal to outsiders, as seen in the case of Hangul. Fouser writes that "[t]he solution is simple: the government should focus on efforts that create opportunities for foreigners to come into contact with Koreans and Korean culture".

China's weakness in this area is tremendous. It's hard to market your culture to outsiders while it's quite easy to make TV shows that people in your country like. China's consistent failure in this regard points to the paranoia of the Chinese Communist Party, which probably isn't going anywhere any time soon, but whose fall from power could be precipitated by something as mundane as a Korean drama, given the way in which these things can have unpredictable consequences, e.g. a craze for chicken and beer. Given the way in which the Communist Party prides itself on staying two steps ahead of people, banning words like 'today' and 'tomorrow' around June 4 in recent years, allowing for the vacuum in Chinese pop culture to be replaced by suitably censored, apolitical American B movies might be preferable.

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