Chinese are much jelly...
Why China Lacks Gangnam Style
It can take the uninitiated a minute to realize that “Gangnam Style” is satire. When the absurdly infectious single by Korean pop star PSY appeared in July, the video had all the hallmarks of earnest K-pop: highly engineered dance routines, over-the-top styling, and the Technicolor production values honed by Seoul’s hit-making industry, which my colleague John Seabrook describes in the magazine this week in his piece, “Factory Girls.”
But the most important thing that “Gangnam Style” has is a sense of humor about itself. (If you haven’t yet seen it, put down your surgical instruments or air-traffic-control headset or whatever else might be distracting you, and watch it now.) Its satire made it a viral phenomenon with three hundred million views on YouTube, surpassing and mocking the earnest K-pop products, and thus proving, as Seabrook says, that “cultural technology can only get you so far.”
In China, the Gangnam phenomenon carries a special pique. It has left people asking, Why couldn’t we come up with that? China, after all, dwarfs Korea in political clout, money, and market power, and it cranks out more singers and dancers in a single city than Korea does nationwide. Chinese political leaders are constantly talking about the need for “soft power”—they have dotted the globe with Confucius Institutes to rival the Alliance Franšaise, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news. Last year, the Communist Party even declared culture a national priority and vowed to produce its own share of global cultural brands.
So, should we expect a Chinese Gangnam soon? Don’t count on it. “PSY is a satirist, making fun, and having fun,” said John Delury, an expert on China and Korea who teaches international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Korea tends to have more irony and satire in its comedy than China, and there aren’t the impediments to exporting things that question or poke fun of Korean society, politics, etc. And I think somehow people all over the world feel invited to join in, despite a huge cultural difference, when someone from a foreign place is making a bit of fun of themselves. That’s inviting. But China, especially acting in its official, soft-power capacity, is only comfortable exporting things that show off the greatness of its ancient civilization or economic development. That’s not terribly inviting.”
In Chinese cultural circles there is a name for this: the “ ‘Kung Fu Panda’ problem,” named for the 2008 DreamWorks movie. It refers to the fact that the most successful film about two of China’s national symbols—Kung Fu and pandas—could only be made by a foreigner because Chinese filmmakers would never try to play with such solemn subjects. The director Lu Chuan, for example, once agreed to produce an animated film for the Beijing Olympics, but after he embarked on the project, he discovered he was not supposed to let his mind run wild. “I kept receiving directions and orders from related parties on how the movie should be like. An important part of the instructions was that the animation should promote Chinese culture,” he wrote later. “We were given very specific rules on how to promote it. And some were not flexible about ‘promoting the Olympic spirit,’ ‘promoting Chinese culture’ or ‘rich in Chinese elements.’ ” He went on, “Under such pressure, my co-workers and I really felt stifled. The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity. The planned animation was never produced.”
When “Kung Fu Panda” came out, one Chinese designer called for a boycott, saying it was insulting so soon after the Sichuan earthquake (pandas live in Sichuan). But Lu Chuan didn’t agree. “After watching Kung Fu Panda, I found the movie producers had given us an amusing and enlightening lesson on how to treat, interpret and show our traditional culture, and how to merge it with other cultures.”
The Korean satirist PSY might not put it in such solemn terms, but that’s exactly what he has done, and he has been rewarded for it. In China, some artists have looked on enviously. In a comic strip highlighted by China Digital Times, the cartoonist known as Peaceful House Pearl Shimao envisioned a Chinese-style Gangnam phenomenon he called “Shanghai Style.” Instead of being celebrated for his madness, the dancer ends up being sent to a mental institution for “involvement in multiple activities,” “running crazily all over the place,” and being a pig.
For now, China’s Gangnam moment seems far off. “In China, culture and the arts develop under the watchful eye of the government, and anything too hip or interesting gets either shut down or bought up. In Korea, by contrast, artists and entertainers thrive in a space that is highly commercialized but also pretty much free of the heavy hand of the state,” Delury told me, adding, “I kid government officials that the moment they understand why K-pop is so successful and try to replicate it, they will destroy it.”
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