“Why China Lacks Gangnam Style”

Evan Osnos with a good explanation for why China just can’t seem to put together any kind of cultural power for export:

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 Française, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news.

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.”

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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