Friday, January 20, 2012

China's Lack of Cultural Relevance in the West

An interesting column ran in yesterday's New York Times, noting China's "charm offensive" of recent years and their attempts to build up "soft power" that can counterbalance the US in much the same way as their economic, political and military strength. Unfortunately for them it's not working.

"[President] Hu was saying that China was under assault by Western soft power — the ability to produce outcomes through persuasion and attraction rather than coercion or payment — and needed to fight back."

"But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment… A poll taken in Asia after the Beijing Olympics found that China’s charm offensive had been ineffective."

This piece is very good at explaining the Chinese problem and noting how they've been trying to address it, but it doesn’t get into WHY Chinese cultural influence hasn’t been growing outside of China.

And that's, basically, because a lot of what is produced in China isn’t produced for the West. At all.

Building Confucius Institutes around the world and opening a 24-hour news channel is all well and good, but if cultural production is only being done for internal consumption then nobody outside of your market is going to buy into it.

Take films, for example. There is a prodigious movie industry in China, but other than the occasional crossover hit, such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", there really isn’t much that is coming out of China that appeals to Western audiences.

The same runs true for video games, music and TV. While the Chinese are busy gobbling up all of the World of Warcraft, western club dance hits and Prison Break that they can cram into their brains, there's precious little flowing in the other direction. The closest thing to a hit Chinese TV show that we've seen in the west has been Firefly. (And even that only lasted 13 episodes – stupid Fox network.)

And this is a shame, because Chinese culture is quite beautiful and rich. Unfortunately, the creative juices of a majority of the artists in Mainland China are being squashed by the government's need to censor content. The result is a tragic dearth of Chinese cultural products being consumed in the west.

But there are exceptions and proof that art and culture from China can be successful outside of the Middle Kingdom.

The Flowers of War, a recent film starring Christian bale, is a good example of how movies can be made with both a western and Chinese perspective. The film is about 40% in English and showcases a main character (and actor) who doesn’t speak Chinese. The filmmaking is first class and the result is a gorgeous, haunting film that is accessible by both Chinese and western audiences.

I've got some friends who would be really upset if I didn’t mention the Chinese music scene. There are a handful of bands and artists who are doing their best to mix elements of Chinese culture with western musical influences. And they are awesome. Among my favorites are Hanggai from Mongolia, who mix traditional throat singing with hard rock, and my good friend Miss Melody, whose songs combine classical Chinese poetry-inspired lyrics with western electronic beats.

Here's a sample of Hanggai:

And here's the lovely Miss Melody looking all sultry on the streets of Beijing:

I don’t know what the secret formula to getting more Chinese flavor to sprinkle into western culture might be, but with the government here not very permissive when it comes to pushing boundaries, it will be a while before you see any breakout stars from the Mainland start hitting it big in the west. And that's a damn shame.