The Korea Conundrum and Chinese Soft Power

By Austin Dean

Aarif Lee is a movie star. Born to a mother from Hong Kong and a father with Malay and Arab ancestry, he was Chinese super-celebrity Fan Bingbing’s love interest in the 2013 movie One Night Surprise. There were even rumors that he and the pop singer and actress were an off-screen couple for a time. He currently is one of the leads in the reality television show Huayang Jiejie that follows four older female celebrities and two younger male ones on a trip to Turkey.

One day, upon exiting the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a gaggle of young Turkish girls swarmed the group of Chinese celebrities hoping to get a picture with just one of them: Victoria Song, a Chinese singer and cast member of the show who is also part of the South Korean pop music group f(x). Apparently that group is popular in Turkey: the Turkish youngsters actually chased Song through the streets until she eventually found refuge in a hotel.

After witnessing the scene, Aarif Lee was dumfounded. Korean culture, he remarked, was really influential. On the streets of Istanbul the other Chinese stars went unrecognized (except by tourists from China) but the member of the K-pop group was a sensation.

Lee’s comment was not short of irony, for the entire premise of the Chinese travel show meets reality show is copied from a South Korean program. In the original South Korean version, Grandpas Over Flowers, four Korean celebrities in their 70s traveled around Europe together. The premise is based on the belief that putting a mix of celebrities who don’t know each other well in unfamiliar circumstances abroad and limiting the amount of money they are able to spend each day will create interesting television. Another South Korean show, Sisters over Flowers, tweaked the concept, featuring several middle-age female stars and one male star in his 20s backpacking through Turkey and Eastern Europe. This is where Shanghai’s Dragon TV got the idea for Huayang Jiejie.

This anecdote gets at the heart of a growing tension between the Chinese government’s desire for its cultural industries to “go out” to show China to the world, on the one hand, and the fact that most of the television shows and movies produced in China don’t do a very good job at accomplishing that goal.

In the likely case you do not devote much time to pondering what is popular on Chinese television, let’s review the role of Korean pop culture in the Chinese landscape over the past few years.

First are the Korean television dramas. These include The Heirs (Jichengzhimen), about life at an elite Korean high school and the conflicts among the offspring of powerful parents. It features actor Lee Min-Ho who shot to fame in China and even appeared on the annual Chinese New Year Gala, which draws enormous numbers of viewers. Another influential import, My Love From the Star (Laizi xingxing de ni) was a love story between an alien who arrived on Earth 400 years ago and a celebrity in modern day Seoul. It was a runaway hit in China. The male lead, Kim Soo-hyun, is now an inescapable presence on the streets of China as he endorses Samsung Phones, Pizza Hut, Häagen-Dazs ice cream and about half the products you will find at any Chinese mall. When trying to describe how her husband looked when he was younger, Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese president Xi Jingping, even said he resembled Kim.

Just as important are Korean reality television concepts. In the fall of 2013, one of these, Where are We Going, Dad?, aired on Hunan Provincial Television after the Chinese broadcaster bought the rights from the original South Korean version. The show features celebrity dads and their offspring, usually around age 4-7, as they travel to remote locations around the country to spend three days together without their mothers and, importantly, without cell phones, computers or any other type of technology. The fathers and their children have to accomplish a variety of tasks that usually center on finding food to cook meals.

The first season was a phenomenon. Everyone in China—from PhD students to convenience store clerks— seemed to have an opinion on the dads (who they thought had the best and worst parenting skills) and even more so the kids (who they liked the most and least). The children in particular became high profile celebrities. Tian Liang, a former Olympic champion diver, said he is more famous now for being the father of one of them than for his athletic accomplishments. With such a hit on their hands, Hunan television quickly came out with a movie including the parents and children from season one and put together season two, featuring a new cast, not long after.

In late 2014, the show Hurry Up, Brother based on the South Korean original Running Man began airing on Zhejiang provincial television station. This show is the hardest to describe. It is not much more than groups of celebrities dividing into teams to accomplish random physical activities. In one episode, they are locked in a building and have to find a way out within two hours. Still, it is popular. After its initial success on television, a movie followed.

These aren’t the only examples. There are plenty more. With the continued popularity of South Korea shows in China and the rest of East Asia the simple, lingering and worrying question from the Chinese point of view is “Why can’t we come up with this stuff?” Internet forums devoted to this topic advance a few explanations, including predictable ones like South Korean being more economically developed that China.

However, rather than fretting over these existential anxieties, maybe China should simply elide them.

Despite its South Korean origins, a show like Where are we Going, Dad? would do more to advance the image and understanding of China abroad then another martial arts film epic or a Communist Party-backed film that advocates accepting the official view of modern historical events. Small-scale and intimate, the show focuses on the universal relationship between parent and child. Everyone likes children doing and saying cute things. The locations of the show—from the harsh winter climate of the northeast to the tropical southwest—provides the viewer with a wonderful introduction to just how vast China actually is. The result is a program that displays unique features of China as well as its ordinariness.

The Ministry of Culture and Hunan Television station should get English subtitles on the episodes from season one and two and load them onto YouTube for non-Chinese speakers to watch. As for the show’s South Korean origins, well, they can simply fail to mention it. How many American viewers, after all, when watching “Big Brother” know that a Dutch television program with the same name and format came first?

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