When I was younger, Japanese video games, trading card games and manga were all the rage. Teachers fumed as their students neglected active games during recess in order to trade cards with images of cleverly designed creatures, such as a mole, three moles together, a magnet and three magnets together.
Quickly, teachers banned this “Pokey-man” craze at schools and it only became more frenzied. Some stayed with the cute art style Game Freak helped push, while other more badass children (and myself) moved along to Yu-Gi-Oh and started watching the accompanying manga. It was inherently more dangerous and edgy which pushed us into Dragon Ball and Naruto and the like.
And as we got older, Nintendo and Sony launched video games to the forefront, so they were no longer a toy but a full industry. (Sega did too, but that’s an American-sized caveat, not fit for this essay.) Video games and the community it enveloped evolved quicker than your Caterpie.
And I continued to consume these Japanese products: video games, cards, manga, which then grew into general interest in other products: TV set brands, cars, sushi, udon and so forth. In short, Japanese soft power was so strong that even a mere 50 years after WW2 in the early 1990s, most Americans view the Land of the Rising Sun in a positive light.
China, who was indeed our ally in said war against the aforementioned country, has spent over 70 years developing and most Americans still view them with hesitancy. There are myriad reasons for this, one of the primary of which I argue is soft power, or rather the lack thereof.
Even today, the Middle Kingdom lacks strong enough cultural exports and soft power to be viewed favorably among many populations, either Western or otherwise. So, in my humble opinion, what could be done?
What is soft power?
First, soft power is a country’s ability to exert influence on other nations in non-military ways. In the example above, it’s through TV and cards. It could be food, landmarks, literature, dramas, music, celebrities, myths, nature, virtually anything can be included under soft power if it doesn’t involve invasions or tanks.
One of the US’ most powerful forms of soft power is Hollywood. It seems bizarre to say but one could argue that a reason many countries don’t attack is because other nations adore our movies, cherish these world renowned actors. Would a government really go against the desires of most of its people, who care more about the day-to-day (watching movies) than for some ideological stand (hypothetical war)? Probably not.
We don’t get in tit-for-tat wars because of soft power. If it mattered not, the US would be in a lot more wars (than they already are) but because Americans care about cultural exports and other countries’ products, we the 330 million people probably wouldn’t stand for a war against most European or Asian partners, even if a war were justified otherwise. (Maybe. There’s not too much of a controlled test case for this.)
Soft power also includes economic pressure, but I will avoid that in this essay, leaving it mostly to cultural forms of soft power. Economic issues are certainly a player in why we avoid wars, as well, certainly.
So what is China missing in my view?
Pretty much anything, really. China does have cultural exports, but unfortunately they don’t always conjure up the best associations. The first one is food, which as I’ve said before, is absolutely incredible. It’s diverse, unique, flavorful and packed with history. Chinese food is one of the world’s best cuisines, improved only by the fact, that Chinese food is really eight different types of cuisine.
So what’s the problem? Chinese food in America is Chinese-American food and not Chinese food. There’s a difference – portion sizes, thickness of the sauce, ratio of meat and veggie, availability of ingredients, and most important, American consumer tastes dictating which authentic dishes are “good” and which don’t enter into most restaurants outside of Chinatown.
Chinese food in the US is thought of as a cheap alternative. It’s college grub. It’s Sunday Night Football food. It’s inexpensive. Or at least this is the prevalent view. And to be fair, loads of Chinese-American food (chop suey, moo goo gai pan, fortune cookies, General Tso’s) are crap. It’s engineered for American tastes, even if some approximate their brethren 12 time zones away.
So, in fact, one of China’s greatest cultural exports is bastardized and viewed dimly in the US. Good start. What else does China have?
China makes so, so many of our goods these days, even as production is moving to Vietnam, Bangladesh and elsewhere. Clothing, electronics, heavy machinery, agricultural products and so on. I don’t mean to say this sort of offshore production is bad (again that’s outside the scope of this essay), but it is thoroughly reality.
And what do Americans think of Chinese production? Look to our 2016 election for the answer to that. Most view it negatively or hesitantly. Look at the US deal trying to curb IP theft in China. Many Americans still remember lead paint. In fact, the quality of Chinese manufacturing has improved dramatically in recent years, but perception is reality and the damage is done.
Cuisine and manufacturing, ostensibly China’s two largest cultural exports and forms of soft power, may actually serve to hurt China’s image. So how can this be improved?
Other forms of soft power
I think the biggest area for improvement is akin to what Japan and Korea have done. Japan has been mentioned ad nauseum already. It can even be seen in free forms of marketing such as Kumamon.
Korea is slightly different in their products, but no less important. Psy’s Gangnam Style was YouTube’s most watched video ever. Korean TV dramas are absolutely massive in China, as is K-pop (Korean pop music). Even as Korea and China got in a tiff recently, many regular people didn’t really care, because they simply love Korean products.
Such is the influence of soft power.
This is what China could work on. Hong Kong music and movies from the 1990s are beloved in southern China and abroad, but they are all Cantonese; the government wants to push Mandarin-language films and music, as evidenced by The Great Wall, which was a decent enough flick. This is the direction it should go in.
Disney for the early decades made a living off lifting the general premise from old fairy tales and turning them into something new-ish. People watching action films and romances don’t care so much about anachronisms and historicity. Using motifs from Chinese culture, implanting them in the American mainstream as something exotic (a la Edward Said’s Orientalism) and running with it could be a successful attempt at this, and pretty low-hanging fruit for Chinese studios.
This is cheap and you could easily argue is selling out the disciple I aim to study (East Asian studies). This is also ostensibly the very realm soft power aim to operate in. It’s a double edged sword, for sure.
For cuisine, I think a top-down approach by the CCP could be effective. Market dynamics dictate that most authentic dishes don’t leave Chinatowns; average white Americans either don’t prefer them or are clueless to their existence. A few savvy businessmen or government officials could establish authentic restaurants in city centers stateside (and elsewhere).
Willing to take a loss, the upside to pushing soft power would easily outweigh a subpar balance sheet. These restaurants could serve as cultural centers of sorts, introducing non-Chinese to the delights of genuine Chinese food and the accompanying culture. It’s just a thought, but could work.
Lastly, for many countries, their language itself is the most powerful cultural export. Without completely extolling the benefits of bilingualism in this essay, a second language can be magical. It grants the wielder opportunity to understand cultures their mother tongue cannot grant.
Using your language as a cultural export does two things (if not more). It makes the users always cognizant of the given language and culture. It’s hard not to be speaking English as a second language and be aware of its presence in your being. As a foreigner speaking Chinese, it’s hard to speak that tongue and not feel like an outsider.
The Chinese language is obviously a major, international language; of this there can be no doubt. However, as I will heavily caveat, it will not be a world language in my life time. Let me qualify that statement.
It is a lingua franca within China, and it’s place in Chinese history is unprecedented since the Han dynasty first unified the written language thousands of years ago. Now spoken by 70% of China and 1/6 of the world, it’s clearly a useful tongue.
What I mean is fairly specific I suppose. If a person from say Costa Rica and Egypt get together, they are most likely going to speak English or Spanish. If a Chinese and an American meet, they will likely speak English. If a Senegalese and a Mexican meet, they would speak Spanish, French or English.
Clearly this is a biased subset, but extrapolate out a bit, and there’s only a few other languages that could be used on a grand scale like this, perhaps Russian, Portuguese and Arabic the others (if not some South Asian ones).
Chinese is becoming increasingly used, especially in the business world, but that all remains context-heavy in the Middle Kingdom only. English, Spanish and even French are used in countless other context.
I say this having studied Chinese a decade and I mean it with sincerity. It can even be evidenced by the government’s efforts to have English learned and spoken at an extremely young age in China (about 6 or so). They know Chinese is an inherently difficult language and one that’s hard to spread, even with the presence of Confucius Institutes around the world.
This was all a longwinded way to say Chinese is an incredibly, a difficult one and illogical one to become a lingua franca outside of Chinese contexts. Other cultural exports will be needed.
Virtually anything that takes away the negative perception of “Made in China” should be the aim. There’s a litany of amazing potential cultural exports, and it only takes a couple to alter preconceptions. I love much of what China offers, but the point of soft power is to expand into the foreign mainstream to improve perception. This could go a long way for the CCP.
Let me know in the comments below if you agree or disagree with my assessment!
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