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.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The vagaries of loan words and their forgotten equivalents, Korean-only movements in Korea

This post is actually a comment on this post, which I could have actually posted as a comment on the Marmot's Hole, but didn't because I'm too scared. That Marmot's Hole post comments on this BBC story about a Japanese man who sued NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, for "mental distress" caused by too many English words on the air.

He is a member of a Japanese group that advocates for the use of Japanese equivalents of English loan words. The comment thread, as is typical on the Marmot's Hole or any other open discussion on the Internet, mixes the uninformed with those who inform. Some people relished the notion, apocryphal as it may be, of young Koreans saying that they don't have any 계피 (the Korean word for cinnamon), but readily putting a dash of cinnamon when asked for 시나몬 (a transliteration of the English word). There's some bizarre joy taken by Internet commenters in stupid young, hip Koreans misusing English and moving away from the beauty of pansori and red bean (I have no idea how old the people commenting at the Marmot's Hole are, or where they live, but I hope for the sake of consistency that they're all Korea specialists in their 40s who have lived in Korea since at least before the IMF crisis).

I was sympathetic to the apocryphal story, though, because:

1) Something about living in Korea can make people more cut-throat about language in ways they might not be elsewhere. I feel it's related to the emphasis on native-speaker proficiency, usually related to English and usually coming from Koreans. The truth is that native speakers constantly don't know words in their own language. Would every 20-year-old working at a Starbucks know what cumin was? How about turmeric? Ask the nearest Chinese person to write down the Chinese character for 'sneeze'.

2) Sometimes it's easy to forget the equivalent word in your native language. Two examples I often discuss are from Urdu, where I can't think of a way to talk about chicken or being at work without sounding overly conservative or formal. I would add the caveat that my Urdu proficiency is only better than the Urdu proficiency of those who have none, but I'm pretty sure that you could easily stump university-educated speakers of Urdu or Korean by asking them for the native-language equivalents of common loan words which which they have no familiarity or which are seldom used. Start with blueberry if you're Korean, as this menu from the inter-Korean family reunions shows the native Korean (?) word for blueberries, 들쭉.

Korean has its own unique uses of chicken. The rough guide seems to be something like this: if you're eating Korean food, you use a Korean word for chicken, but if it's Western food, you use the English word. There are exceptions (파닭), of course, but it goes with things like 팝송 (pop song), which is just 'pop song' transliterated, but refers only to decades-old Western pop songs.

Finally, I'd like to touch on movements aimed at protecting the Korean language. Although Korea, like France, has a government body that manages Korean, there is comparatively little appetite for Korean-only movements in any sense of the word. One of the few noticeable concessions is that shops in the Insadong and Gwanghwamun areas have their names in Korean instead of English. Another is the ongoing movement for "pure Korean" (순우리말, literally "purely our language"), which reminds Koreans of Korean equivalents to words of Chinese origin, e.g. 씨밀레 for 친구 (friend). Of course, that the campaign is put on by broadcasters with names like EBS probably makes it more of a losing battle, as does the fact that so much of Korea's tradition is written in Chinese characters.

There is probably something to be said about a campaign, even one that doesn't catch on, for linguistic purity of this sort. It reminds me of angry letter-writers who wrote to Canadian newspapers chiding them for abandoning the Queen's English and spelling grey as gray, or their Quebecois counterparts who obsess over the status and positioning of the French language in Quebec, both figuratively and literally. What makes Korea somewhat odd is that protection of its language seems to be fairly compartmentalized.

There don't seem to be any laws or widespread movements against English-like gibberish or English-for-the-sake-of-it when it comes to marketing or products that are seen as being modern or even slightly Western. A typical example is this picture from a Starbucks, which uses the English word 'food' transliterated, despite the fact that it sounds nearly identical to the English word 'pooed', for no obvious reason. Another example is this ad from Hewlett Packard Korea, which is typical for advertising copy by being half in English (I once spent a bored hour at a cafe conducting a case study that indicated roughly 50-60% of the words on the cover of magazines or in advertising were in English or transliterated English).

Given that Korea is constantly importing English words into its own language and using them in ways, and with meanings, that are markedly different from the original, there isn't really much appetite for Korean-only movements of any sort. However, Koreans at the same time would widely support knowledge exporting their language and their alphabet to other countries, with the idea being that it is unique and individual. They would also, like someone who wants to buy books that look pretty on a shelf and don't need to be read, support a purer culture and language in certain official or ceremonial contexts (Hangul Day on October 9, or around Insadong), as long as it doesn't interfere with the salad bar at Mr. Pizza.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Belated review of Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military

In the past, I used to count and post about every book I read in this space. I did not read Imperial Grunts this year, so there is no number, but it is the book I wanted to write about. Imperial Grunts: The American Military On The Ground was written in 2005 by Robert Kaplan, a journalist I know best from The Atlantic. I found it surprisingly interesting as an explanation of what the American military does best and what it doesn't do so well, strangely comparable with Financial Times' Richard McGregor's The Party, as an explanation of one of the world's most powerful organizations about which I knew surprisingly little.

You may not know about all the places where the American military has a presence that are mentioned in the book, such as Mongolia and Kenya. Whether it's a small presence in those countries or a much larger one in Iraq or Afghanistan, Kaplan makes the case that the American military works best as a small, light and autonomous force that isn't weighed down by Washington bureaucracy. Kaplan makes a convincing case, pointing to countless cases where the sheer size and bureaucracy governing the army hamstrung its goals, but he can sometimes sound like a politician advocating small government as the solution to any economic problem, or a football fan who thinks the coach should "open the offense up" to allow the players to succeed.

Kaplan is probably right in arguing that two large government armies will never again face each other in a land battle. This is not to say that military strength is not needed, the sheer number of flags found on this page is evidence to the contrary, as is the number of flags that could have easily wound up on this page over recent tensions. Rather, the sort of military strength that is needed is profoundly different from what has been needed in the past, a cliche of which everyone is aware, but the American military was simply unable to put into practice until David Petraeus was put in charge of the multinational force in Iraq. The trend in all organizations towards increased formalization and bureaucracy, the US military being no exception, also works against the the need for a small, responsive, fighting force.

Kaplan is a very good writer, but we could have easily done without some of the cliches in the book as a Jewish intellectual from the US Northeast marvels at grunts, a very large percentage of whom are Christians from the South who never went to college, and reminds the reader over and over that they're different. This is something that the book could have done without, to be replaced instead with a more critical look at whether the presence of the United States military in more countries than just about anyone realizes is good for all those countries, the United States included.