Episode 169      24 min 24 sec
Waves of influence: Television drama as an instrument of soft power in Asia

Sociologist Professor Chua Beng Huat explains how serial TV dramas have become a soft power currency traded among China, Korea, Japan and other countries in Asia. With host Jennifer Cook.

"What China is gaining from this kind of co-production is really the technical competence in the quality of the production. At the same time, because it's produced within China, the content of the drama series is also subjected to Chinese ideological control." -- Prof Chua Beng Huat





           



Professor Chua Beng Huat

Dr Chua Beng Huat is currently Professor and Head, Department of Sociology and Cultural Studies in Asia Research Cluster Leader, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. His major research foci are comparative politics of Southeast Asia, urban and housing studies, consumerism in Asia and East Asian pop culture. He has held visiting professorships at universities in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and the US, including the Inaugural Distinguished Visiting Scholar Fellowship at Carolina Asia Centre, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA. He has published extensively in all the areas of his research interests. Professor Chua's His most recent book is Structure, Audience and Soft Power in East. He is also the founding co-executive editor of the journal, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER

Welcome to Up Close the research talk show from the University of Melbourne Australia.


JENNIFER COOK

I'm Jennifer Cook thank you for joining us.  American political scientist Joseph Nye once remarked that soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.  So why use bombs and money when pop stars, fashion and envious lifestyle exported to the rest of the world through all conceivable media can win billions of hearts and minds without casualties or fiscal blow outs.
But as today's guest will tell us the business of influencing people even with seductive soft power methods is not that easy.  Sociologist Chua Beng Huat takes us into the world of TV drama in East Asia and the battle between China, Korea and Japan for the region's soft power prize.  Professor Chua is head of the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore and is the 2011 McGeorge Visiting Speaker at the University of Melbourne.  He joins us via Skype from Singapore.  Beng Huat thank you for joining us on Up Close.


CHUA BENG HUAT

It's my pleasure to be here.


JENNIFER COOK

Now let's start by telling us what is soft power?


CHUA BENG HUAT

We can actually get fairly entangled in academic debates about what is soft power but if we just use a kind of working definition for this conversation, it is essentially the attractiveness of a nation's culture to other people so that they will aspire to the same kind of value and the same kind of lifestyle.  The point of the exercising of that soft power is that if the target audience is favourable disposed to the nation's culture then the ground for cultural diplomacy will be well prepared, and hopefully, that will translate into better conditions for international relations.


JENNIFER COOK

You just used that word that phrase cultural diplomacy - can you unpack that for us because it's a complicated phrase isn't it?


CHUA BENG HUAT

Yes it is.  Basically increasingly the use of military power and even economic power has become too blunt a kind of instrument for international relations.  So at another level below the level of the quarrelsome state, is the attempt to influence popular opinions and popular sentiments towards us, towards a nation and generates the kind of personalised relations between populations of both countries.  We want to achieve a kind of positive relations there that will contribute to the diplomatic efforts between two countries.  So in a sense a diplomacy is built on the cultural flows between the two countries.


JENNIFER COOK

You said that military options are too blunt.  That's a lovely way to put it.


CHUA BENG HUAT

Well especially now after the cold war, the kind of antagonism between so called communism and the free world is essentially gone.  So the military build-up is increasingly just gestural because no responsible nations would think about going to war over ideologies as it was before say the 1980s.  So increasingly the cultural front becomes more and more of an arena in which contest for influence is taking place.


JENNIFER COOK

So there are other routes to power and you're saying soft power those pathways include pop cultural but also drama and your focus is on TV drama - why is that?


CHUA BENG HUAT

Well of all the pop cultural medium including film, pop music and television, television is the in a way the most engaging medium for audience because in the case of say pop music it's a very short period of engagement of a few minutes.  In the case of a movie it may be two hours or so But there is no sense of a stable audience whereas in the case of television drama it engages the audience on a fairly sustained basis over the period of the run of the drama itself.


JENNIFER COOK

That can take years can't it?  A show can run for years.  Could you give us some examples of what people are watching, what TV dramas they are watching and I want to know titles of shows and storylines?


CHUA BENG HUAT

Well there's a very basic difference between television drama in Asia as opposed to American or British or even Australian dramas.  The dramas in the US particularly are very open ended and as you say they can keep running for years with each episode being relatively self-contained.  Then they keep running until basically it runs out of popularity and then they shut it down whereas in East Asian dramas they tend to be a fixed number of episodes.  A short drama could be as short as something like 20 episodes.  A long one probably will run maybe a year on a weekly basis - one episode per week.  So it's not interminable open-ended.  It's actually a fixed narrative.  You know it does end.
Some of the really popular ones, say Korean television dramas since about the year 2000 onwards the really, really popular ones were a show called Winter Sonata.  Winter Sonata is really your typical tragic romance story.  Then the other really big series was a Korean TV drama called Jewel in the Crown which fictionally chronicled the biography of the first female physician to the royal court in the Joseon dynasty around the 16th/17th century.  So that one is essentially a court intrigue plus romance with a kind of fairly generic historical backdrop and is a costume drama.
The Jewel in the Palace was an important series for the purpose of talking about soft power competition because in the particular series about Korean medical practice a lot of the practices are in fact practices that are shared between the Chinese and the Koreans historically but in the television drama itself the representation of the practices is treated as if it is exclusively Korean, even invented in Korea.


JENNIFER COOK

So how does that sit with a Chinese audience especially when China sees itself ideologically as the birth place of East Asian civilisation?


CHUA BENG HUAT

So precisely - the television drama really did not make an explicit claim that for example acupuncture is exclusively Korean but on screen it appears to be that way.  It created actually quite a lot of anger in China itself arguing that the Koreans were in fact involved in what the Chinese would call cultural theft - sort of stealing Chinese cultural and claim it as their own.  There was actually quite a lot of noise at the internet level among the netizens criticising the Koreans for doing that among other practices.
So you have because of the entanglement of history between Korea, Japan and China this kind of historical references sometimes get the public, particularly the internet public quite roused up.


JENNIFER COOK

So it's true then that Korea touts itself as some kind of bastion of Confucian values?


CHUA BENG HUAT

Yes.  Korea in fact claims to be the most Confucian society in East Asia at this point in time.


JENNIFER COOK

So how does China feel about this?  You say it does anger them but how is it played out in the TV dramas that each produce?  You've spoken about Korea - how does China combat that?  They actually don't produce a lot do they in terms of drama?


CHUA BENG HUAT

Actually China has been producing a lot of television drama.  China as you know - the media industry in China wasn't actually marketized or commercialized until the late 1970s.  But since then most of the television stations in China have to survive on its own ability to generate revenues from commercial programs and essentially from selling advertising spaces.  So it has actually been producing a lot of entertainment programs.
There are two broad categories of Chinese TV drama.  One category is mainly historical drama of dynastic history sometimes turned into comedy, sometimes serious such as for example the classic story about a bunch of bandits that rebel and resisted the corrupt dynasties - the book called All Men Are Brothers.  The historical novels and classics and actual historical events for example the novel called The Three Kingdoms.  There are a lot of stories that are serialised into drama.  So that's one category.
The other category is of course the urban romance conventional romance stories that are set in urban centres and very contemporary.  The Chinese have been very successful in exporting the historical drama but they have not been able to export their contemporary dramas largely because contemporary drama has a lot to do with consumerism as lifestyle and the presentation of the actors and actresses are very often also lifestyle suggestions to their audience.


JENNIFER COOK

Which is the heart of soft power isn't it?  Live like this, be like this.


CHUA BENG HUAT

Right.  And in the case of China the consumer culture really isn't as developed as Japan or even, say, Korea and Taiwan.  Japan of course is really far and away the most sophisticated consumer culture in Asia.  So because the representation of the Chinese urban dramas on screen doesn't really live up to that quality - to that visual quality of the lifestyle of Japan and Korea, so its ability to export to foreign audiences is fairly low at this point.


JENNIFER COOK

I'm Jennifer Cook and in this episode of Up Close we're discussing the relationship between soft power and television drama in East Asia with sociologist Professor Chua Beng Huat.
Beng Huat in this battle for soft power China has a trump doesn't it - that's a 1.3 billion potential audience?


CHUA BENG HUAT

Yes.  In fact the entire population is actually much more exposed to television than to any other medium.  So as a result of that huge market all the producers of television drama in East Asia have increasingly oriented this product to that market.  So you find that two things are happening - there are more and more co-production possibilities between the Chinese and the Koreans or Chinese and the Japanese or with Hong Kong and Taiwan.  And the co-productions are important to television producers because when it is co-produced then China considers the product as a domestic product which as a domestic product it is not subjected to state regulations of quota and of restrictions on screening time.


JENNIFER COOK

Look, do you agree with observers who say that China sees Korea as a stepping stone towards its goal to become a cultural super power?


CHUA BENG HUAT

What China is gaining from this kind of co-production is really the technical competence in the quality of the production.  So it's gaining from that and at the same time because it's produced within China the content of the drama series are also subjected to Chinese ideological control.  In China even though television has become commercialised the content is still fairly subjected to regulations of what can be shown and what cannot be shown.  So in fact for let's say a Korean producer co-production gives them access to the market but actually constrain their ability to tell the story the way they want to which is partly the reason why co-produced Korean TV drama are having difficulties finding audiences in Korea itself.
So it's a Korean TV drama that is produced inside China with Korean actors and technical skills and because it's produced inside China it can be screened in China freely but ironically when they try to sell it back to Korea they have a hard time finding its audience because the content would have been too China oriented for the Korean's audience liking.  So there's a kind of loss in that process.


JENNIFER COOK

Let's look at the impact of these TV dramas.  How has it changed these countries' perceptions of each other?  I mean we know of the Korean male leader arriving in Tokyo to be mobbed by middle aged female fans.  Can you tell us about that?


CHUA BENG HUAT

The reason why we can talk about television drama as soft power is precisely because we have fairly good evidence that they are quite influential on the attitude of the audience.  So in the case as you mentioned when this Korean television star of the very famous TV drama called Winter Sonata Bae Yong Joon when he first went to Japan 5000 middle aged fans of that drama turned up at the airport to welcome him.
Not only did they turn up, in the subsequent research of these fans we discovered that many of them are actually learning the Korean language and for many of them Korea used to be just an ex-Japanese colony in which the Japanese men went on sex tours.  So they had absolutely no interest in Korea and they were quite negative towards the second generation of Koreans that are living in Japan.
So after the exposure to the TV drama many of them actually changed their attitude and began to want to know more about the colonial history of Korea and also their attitude towards the second generation Koreans in Japan has changed fairly radically from being quite discriminating to thinking of themselves as potentially bridging the two cultures.
So the influence is actually quite significantly to avid fans of the TV drama.  The payoff to the Koreans is actually quite significant.  In the larger picture until what we now call the Korean wave which is the popularity of Korean pop culture since early 2000 - until 2000 Korea really was not at all a tourist destination for most Asians.  But now Korea is regularly one of the most popular tourist destinations for leisure.  Sometimes these tours are organised around sites which they have seen on a television drama series.  So the drama series themselves have actually expanded into much more important - economically into expanding tourism for Korea in the entire Asian region.


JENNIFER COOK

Beng Huat what happens when pop culture collides with nationalism?  Can you give us specific examples of how nationalists have used soft power for their own ends?


CHUA BENG HUAT

Yes precisely because this pop culture has significant influence on its audience it often creates tension within the reception nation.  The popularity of imported pop culture is fairly often at the detriment of local entertainment - local mass entertainment, local pop culture productions.  So in one level already you generate this kind of competition among the artists themselves but in a larger context very often this kind of imported pop culture is seen as a cultural invasion by another country into your space.
So for example for a long time in the 60s and 70s a lot of Asian countries were very concerned about American - so called American cultural imperialism through Hollywood.  So the same kind of phenomenon is now taking place with the regional powers.  For example in Taiwan the popularity of Korean pop culture is often written in the media as the invasion of Korean culture.
So pop culture - imported pop culture fans are always rubbing up against their own compatriots who are not consumers and always kind of ideologically losing the battle because the non-consumers can always use the idea of - defence of the nation - a national culture against the consumers who are traitors to their own national culture so to speak.


JENNIFER COOK

Beng Huat let's look at these dramas in terms of exporting language.  When they're made and produced and sold are they done in the language of the country they're aimed for or are subtitles used?  How does that happen?


CHUA BENG HUAT

That's an extremely important question.  When you look at the contrast between Korea, Japan and China what you find is in fact a very unequal flow of material.  It's mainly from Japan and Korea into the Chinese speaking world.  Now the Chinese speaking world is bigger than just China of course. It includes China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore by virtue of its 75 per cent Chinese population.  So in fact the Chinese consumer market is even bigger than the 1.3 billion in China itself.
What happens is the Korean and Japanese material is usually dubbed in one of two Chinese languages either in Mandarin or in Cantonese.  In any case in both instances the dubbed program will also carry Chinese subtitles regardless of your Chinese dialect.  If you can read Chinese you can always watch it because of the subtitling.  Once it is subtitled then it is available throughout the entire Chinese speaking world which makes subtitling and dubbing financially viable of many, many TV dramas.
In the reverse the Japanese and Korean consumer population is too small for them to regularly dub or subtitle Chinese material either from Hong Kong, Taiwan or China.  So that's why that part of the inequality of flows is precisely because of the economics of dubbing and subtitling.
In fact dubbing is also a process of domesticating the foreign elements of the imported drama because in the dubbing process many of the reference objects and idioms in the original language cannot be actually literally translated because it will be meaningless.  So they would have to be substituted with the local reference - the target audience language references and idioms.  So that also reduces the foreignness of the product and makes it much more friendly and consumable for the target population.


JENNIFER COOK

So does that mean that consumers watching TV dramas in China never hear the Japanese or Korean language?


CHUA BENG HUAT

Well the television system allows you to have dual sound.  So there are quite a lot of audiences who prefer to hear the dialogue in the original sound even if they don't understand it but they could still read the subtitles to get a better sense of authenticity, so to speak.  So you can actually watch it with subtitles only or you can watch it with dubbing.


JENNIFER COOK

Beng Huat, thank you so much.  That was so interesting.


CHUA BENG HUAT

You're welcome.  It's been fun.


JENNIFER COOK

That was Professor Chua Beng Huat from the National University of Singapore and he was speaking to us via Skype from Singapore on the nexus between soft power and pop culture in East Asia.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne Australia.  This episode was recorded on 25 October 2011, and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm Jennifer Cook and until next time goodbye.


VOICEOVER

You've been listening to Up Close.  We're also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2011 the University of Melbourne.


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