Recently, an official Chinese paper, the International Herald Leader, carried a report on “sharpening contradictions” in various areas of Chinese society, including standards of living and culture. The report lists 50 types of what it calls “seriously strange phenomena.” For example, it mentions frequent mining accidents, wrongful convictions, adulterated food products and the way many women are becoming increasingly obsessed with money and willing to do anything to get it.
One of the more interesting things on the list is the trend for Chinese television programs to be made more and more like Taiwanese ones. In fact, the paper lists this as No. 1 among what it calls “strange” cultural changes.
The report says that Taiwanese entertainers have started pouring into China. Singers, actors, talk show hosts and even producers are going over there. The report also says that Chinese people have welcomed this, with ratings for such shows going through the roof. It notes that primetime television is now dominated by Taiwanese people who speak the softer version of Mandarin, referred to as Guoyu (國語), as opposed to the “real,” “standard” Chinese, meaning Beijing-accented Putonghua (普通話).
At almost the same time, at the end of last month, Taiwan’s Business Weekly magazine carried a cover story about how “China is going mad for Taiwan.”
Chinese television shows becoming more “Taiwanese” is of course a cultural phenomenon. The report says that China is “going mad” for Taiwan and that Taiwan is becoming extremely popular and trendy in China. It describes how people are lining up to eat Taiwanese dumplings at the Expo in Shanghai and how Beijing is going to build a “Taiwan Street” where food, drinks and clothing from Taiwan will be sold and are sure to be popular just because they are from Taiwan. The report also says that Taiwanese products like Ganso cakes, Johnson exercise machines, SunIsland Coffee, Giant bicycles, Uni-President drinks, Formosa-Optical eyeglasses and Wantwant snacks are are all becoming leading brands in China.
Stanley Yen (嚴長壽), president of Taipei’s five-star Ritz Landis hotel, has said that lifestyle and culture, rather than technological wizardry, are the true core values of Taiwanese brands. That is to say, Taiwanese manufacturers are selling not just products, but Taiwan’s brilliant culture.
Even better proof of this cultural phenomenon is the way Taiwanese chain stores such as 85˚ Coffee are mushrooming all over China, along with wedding photo studios, luxury stores and gift shops, while Chinese television is becoming more like Taiwan’s.
Words like “strange phenomena” and being “mad” about something usually refer to abnormal and undesirable things, and Chinese media did use this phrase to refer to how Chinese culture is being ruined and how this is a bad thing.
However, when the issue was discussed in Taiwan’s Business Weekly, going mad was used to refer to a good thing — an extremely good thing, in fact.
These are two vastly different ways of looking at the same issue.
US academic Joseph Nye once stated that the best proof of US “soft power” can be seen from the popularity of US popular culture around the world, including pop music and Hollywood movies.
Ever since the Cold-War era, from the time of Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) up to A-Mei (張惠妹) and more recently Jay Chou (周杰倫), Taiwanese pop songs have been popular all over China, and now drama shows from Taiwanese stations such as SET TV and TTV are all the rage too.
Following the entry of these cultural products into Chinese people’s everyday lives, they are now going crazy for Taiwan-made gifts and food. Taiwan’s previous economic boom was based on manufacturing to order for overseas companies, and the quality of the products met with customers’ approval. Now what is being well received is our culture, society and way of life.
What is interesting is that now Chinese people are going mad for Taiwan’s culture — one that has traditionally been viewed as peripheral to the “Central Chinese” mainstream, Taiwanese people themselves are waking up and embracing their own culture. After Business Weekly expressed surprise that Taiwanese brands have shot up in popularity in their homeland, the United Daily News noted the same trend. Taiwanese products that were taken off store shelves in the past are now being put back on display, with traditional snacks like “cow tongue biscuits” selling better than Western-style ones like potato chips.
Where we Taiwanese used to have an inferiority complex, we have now discovered that our own lifestyle is pretty good, as well as being within easy reach.
While many academics like to preach about how great and special China’s soft power is and how China can establish a “celestial order” by virtue of its culture, ordinary Chinese people are going crazy about Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. While these are cultures that China has traditionally viewed as peripheral to its own, the Japan Pavilion at the Expo in Shanghai has proved to be far more popular than those of Western nations.
Taiwanese author Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) put it well when she said that she hopes China’s rise in power will be based not on military strength, but on Chinese culture and civilization.
The real reason why the cultures of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are so popular is not because they are particularly superior to that of China, but rather because these countries’ modern cultures have been nurtured by free societies.
Freedom is something that just doesn’t fit in with China’s emphasis on authoritarian rule. The more Chinese people become disillusioned with the status quo, the more they will follow the cultures of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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