A Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon (Part 2): The power of popular culture

ak3 12 450x309 A Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon (Part 2): The power of popular culture

The global, the regional, the national, the provincial, the local, and the household aspects of social space can intertwine in innumerable different combinations, thereby injecting multiple dimensions into the geographical spectrum of increased cultural pluralism. Seemingly different paths of globalization are more desirable than the directions that have prevailed over the past quarter-century, therefore the expansion of the Chinese culture along an alternative path of globalization in the information age seems more likely than ever before.

Enter the Masses via Cinema

While high culture exports such as language and education have witnessed renewed popularity around the world, China’s popular culture through the mediums of cinema and television are also finding new audiences in the Pacific Rim, and increasingly in the West as well. At the turn of the twenty-first century, feature films such as Crouching Tiger, Kung Fu Hustle, and Hero, marched out of Chinese studios to simultaneously expose new generations of non-Chinese to modern and traditional Chinese culture as well as capture widespread acclaim from critics, audiences, and industry executives in the Western world.

In fact, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the first non-English-language film to gross more than $100 million in the history of the American box office. Moreover, the Chinese box office has grown twenty-five percent between the years 2003 and 2008, and Chinese annual movie production has risen from around 100 in 2002 to over 400 in 2007, making China the third largest film producer in the world after the United States and India. Encouraged by the critical acclaim and box office takes of those films, Fifth Generation luminaries Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have began producing historical-mythical extravaganzas including House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, The Promise, and Mei LanFang.

Driven in part by the unprecedented success of these artistic attractions, an elaborate shift is taking place as Hollywood moguls reconsider prior assumptions regarding the dynamics of transnational media institutions and the cultural geographies of media consumption and dissemination. Furthermore, the fact that Chinese studios have become responsible for their own bottom lines combined with domestic Chinese cinema journals such as Dangdai dianying (Contemporary Cinema) emphasising the importance of both entertainment and “profitable global commercialization” has motivated Hollywood studios to try and get in on the act by offering to coproduce a number of China’s forthcoming blockbusters.

However, as such glossy costume dramas have already garnered critical acclaim worldwide and turned their creators into major beneficiaries of China’s new market economy, at least for the time being Chinese studios and filmmakers intend to hold into the reigns to guide their own cinematic future. This shift from politicized mass culture to a consumerist culture of individuals can be identified as the most significant aspect of Chinese society’s transformation over the last decade, and the rise of the entertainment film is arguably its cinematic equivalent.

The Televisual

Although still partially controlled by the state, and therefore somewhat constrained by ideological and infrastructural limitations, China’s film and TV institutions are globalizing their ideological operational strategies, regularly taking account of commercial operations from abroad and aiming to extend their reach as far as the conditions of globalization permit. For example, in the realm of overseas television broadcasting, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television gave Chongqing TV in November 2006 the green light to start an international channel, and earlier that same year, the international Chinese channel of government-owned China Central Television (CCTv-4) held a conference to “better coordinate the dissemination of Chinese language content, and content about China into international markets”.

These recent changes in policy, coupled with those in trade, industry politics, and media technologies have fueled rapid expansion and transformation of media industries in Asia so that Chinese centres of artistic cultural expression and production through film and television have increasingly emerged as “significant competitors to Hollywood in the size and enthusiasm of their audiences, if not yet their gross revenues”. Furthermore, contemporary Chinese cinema presents the country in all its social, historical, political, ethnic, cultural, and economic facets, and provides a stimulating experience for viewers: aesthetic appreciation, emotional release, psychological fulfillment, philosophical meditation, cultural critique, and political intervention.

There are approximately sixty million ‘overseas Chinese’ in the diaspora living from Kuala Lumpur to Vancouver, and these aggregate numbers and relative prosperity make them, in the eyes of media executives, a highly desirable audience comparable in scale to France or Great Britain. Furthermore, although the diaspora is dispersed across vast swatches of Asia and around the world, this audience is now connected through the intricate matrix of digital and satellite media.

Since the 1994 launch of China’s first pancontinental telecaster Star TV, Asian media conglomerates have been springing up at an exponential pace to meet the burgeoning demand of both Chinese and Western audiences in Asia, Europe, Australia and North America. Among Star TV’s leading successors, TVB, a Hong-Kong based media conglomerate built on the foundations of a transnational movie studio (and now the most commercially successful television station in Southern-China), employs modern, state-of-the-art production facilities and far reaching satellite and video distribution platforms, which position it as a “significant cultural force in Europe, Australia, and North America”.

Due to these accomplishments, it is only natural that contemporary Chinese cinema has been eagerly received by film critics, literary scholars, cultural historians, political scientists, and anthropologists. Consequently, the rapid growth of academic research in, and the teaching of, contemporaneous Chinese cinema in North America and Europe over the past two-decades not only re-confirms the age-old Western fascination with China as a quintessential Other, but also lays bare the sensitive issues in cross cultural comparative understandings of East and West.

Accordingly, media executives, cultural commentators and policy analysts alike, can for the first time contemplate a globalising paradigm in which Chinese feature films and television programs begin to rival the substantial production budgets and lavish production values of their Western counterparts. Moreover, they can contemplate the inevitable shift (through the strengthening and extension of Chinese media’s distribution networks), towards a more complicated global terrain characterised by overlapping and intersecting cultural spheres served by diverse media enterprises based in cosmopolitan media capitals all over the world.

There is already widespread interest in Chinese culture. Many people around the world want to indulge in the popular aspects of cinema and television as well as study within the country, if not because of an intrinsic interest in the language, which is very difficult to learn, then because of its usefulness for doing business. However, much will also depend on how skilfully China can carry out public diplomacy externally, whilst simultaneously upholding integral aspects of its own culture internally.

Whether China’s soft power projection succeeds will depend on the particular audience. China may find it easier to win ‘friends’ (or solidify relationships) with developing countries with whom it shares political and economic values, such as other BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, and India, which are all deemed to be at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development). Indeed, public opinion polls show that China is generally viewed more positively in such developing countries. The greater question at hand is whether China will be able to build new constituencies in countries it has less in common with, including many in Europe and also the United States.


Stay tuned for Part III of III examining what the militarisation of culture means for the international arena as a whole.

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