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A Tale of Two Songs

Tyler Cohen got his B.A. from McGill, is starting his J.D. at the University of Toronto, represented Canada at 汉语桥 in 2010 and has been plagued with dreams/nightmares of Yunnan monkeys stealing peanuts from his pocket since 2007. He’s worked as a translator, researcher and marketing manager, and also put in his time in the wilderness of ESL. Tyler’s new blog, The Yamen, will be opening soon.

Interest in the ‘Soft Power’ question in China seems to have hit an all-time peak. From the Bo Xilai scandal to the ongoing hassling of Ai Weiwei, from Chen Guangcheng to Shanghai Metro’s recent double down on the ‘she was wearing a short skirt’ defense, 2012 has been no less disastrous a year for the China PR crew than any other. As necessary and plainly fun as it is to point out how events ranging from the tragic to the absurd take a toll on China’s ability to develop soft power abroad, I’d like to turn back to one question on cultural soft power often answered superficially.

Soft Power & Art (and I use both terms lightly…)

The reason most often cited for China’s struggles in producing art that makes people overlook self-immolations in Qinghai is “censorship”. Whether it’s Joseph Nye or the NY Times, articles often begin and end with, ‘How can Chinese artists produce great art with the censorship regime?’ I find this a rather unsatisfying question/answer – while all art may intrinsically be political and in some sense subversive, love of God, State or the authorities has produced great and/or popular art in every corner of the Earth. Gospel can draw the most ardent atheist to a church, and Pearl Harbor somehow pulled in over $250 million outside the States. The difficulty the Chinese state has with its contemporary artistic offering to the world is, at least in part, more basic and subtle than the censorship question.

When poor Jack asks wealthy Rose to close her eyes and feel the wind in Titanic, he’s asking her to see the commonality of their experience – despite coming from “two different worlds,” they share humanity. When Jagger complains about not getting no satisfaction, it’s not “British” satisfaction that he lacks, but the base urge to have hoards of satisfying groupies that we all feel. Even Pearl Harbor, for all its inane nationalism, tries hard to communicate the usefulness of American values to world goals. In their soft power offerings, America, Britain, France, Germany, etc. hope you realize you are part of the same human experience they have, and that you find their cultural norms and forms the best tools to explore that experience. The art that the Chinese state has chosen to put forward to represent itself sends a very different message. Instead of asking you to find the shared humanity you have with China and then explore that humanity through Chinese tools, the art put forward by the Chinese state asks you simply to marvel at Chinese tools. (To be fair, they do hope you find yourself having something in common with China – a love of China.) A quick comparison of the two most recent Summer Olympic songs shows the stark difference in the two approaches.

Say what you will about Muse’s Survival – I’ll wait till the laughter dies down. One thing it can’t be accused of is being about Britain. The official video accompanying it makes this even more radically clear, as images of Britain don’t even appear. The video and song are about sport – the pain, the heartache, the glory, the determination, the abject tears of loss and startled triumph of victory. It’s in English, obviously, and has an implied link to Britain. It hopes that through recognition of the commonly shared experiences of pain, glory and all the rest, the viewer will (a) watch the Olympics and boost ad revenue, (b) understand that you and Britain share the human experience of sport in common, and that Britain’s representation of it is awesome.

Nothing could be more the opposite of this than the video for ‘Beijing Welcomes You’. Most obvious is the fact that it has almost nothing to do with sport, being entirely about China. It is essentially an ode to the belief that China is a great marvel to see, that you will enjoy being its guest,that everyone runs around in cheongsam writing poems, and that the air quality is totally fine, trust us, it’s cool, we’ve taken care of it.

The Muse video does a number of things inconceivable from the point of view of the Chinese state. First is the aforementioned lack of Britain in song and video; were the CCP or SARFT in charge of London’s video, I would half expect to see Shakespeare jumping hurdles as a chorus of Dickens’ characters led by Mr. Bean sang atop the Tower of London. Beijing’s video is about traditional poetry and calligraphy, clean air and Chinese hospitality. Britain’s video is actually about sport. Where London’s offering could be the video for any other country’s Olympics, ‘Beijing Welcomes You’ could be the video for any other Chinese event.

Second, it puts the pain and hardship of loss in the same frame as the glory of victory. When two bikers spin out of control after a crash, there’s an implied recognition of the fact that victory doesn’t come without loss. Chinese artists couldn’t get away with that in anything made officially for the Beijing Olympics – (a) the gold medal push was so important that anything implying Chinese athletes might not win was quieted, (b) loss seems to fall under the same category as ‘negative news’ in Chinese state thought. Instead, ‘Beijing Welcomes You’ says, bluntly, that “as long as you have dreams, you’re awesome” and “as long as you have courage, miracles will happen”. The idea that one can try hard and fail is not part of the narrative Beijing would allow about itself, let alone celebrate.

Third, whatever attraction towards Britain it tries to create in viewers – the soft power feature – is done through an overt claim to the universality of experience overlaying an implied claim that Britain is a great place to explore this experience. Viewers are encouraged to revel in the eternal glory of sport, and because you already know the Olympics are in London, to associate that emotional connection to sport with your connection to Britain. China’s offering was an overt claim to Beijing being a great place to explore…Beijing, overlaying the suggestion that all of us being together is pretty cool. The video and song work hard to make viewers feel they would be welcome and comfortable guests in the home of something amazing – the eternal, though changing, China.

That more subtle thing that the Chinese state has yet to get, or doesn’t wish to get, is that cultural products become effective soft power resources only when they first appeal to the commonality of human experience. It’s not, as Nye says, trying to make others find your values attractive,but trying to show them that they always were shared values. You can call this surreptitious or slimy marketing or genuine faith in universalism – the point is that it’s effective. Titanic works because we all want to be allowed to marry above our pay grade or find someone who cares about us rather than our family background. After accepting Jack’s fundamental wish, we’re then open to the suggestion that good old fashioned (American) straight-forwardness and honesty of emotions is the right way to fulfill that wish.

So the answer is still, in some sense, ‘censorship’. But censorship takes many forms and has a wide array of effects, not all of which constrain the ability to create art effective as soft power. All religious institutions are involved in censorship, and a Baptist church would likely ban any song that doesn’t overtly glorify God. So gospel appeals first to our shared concerns: that life is painful, that answers are hard to come by, that the personal future is unknown, and that the world can be beautiful. And then it makes sense of these emotions by way of its own answer (God), inviting you to adopt its approach. Gospel sells itself as human-first, Christian second, and Titanic as human-first, American-second. Chinese soft power makers will struggle as long as they put China first and humanity second.

Update: I was as happy to see Mr. Bean appear in the opening ceremony as I was disappointed to not see Shakespeare competing in track and field. The opening ceremony, as opposed to the song, is traditionally, and since the 1980 Olympics increasingly so, intended to celebrate the local country’s culture and history. I don’t argue that the U.K. or U.S. aren’t ever capable of crappy ‘soft power’ products with lame themes, just that the Chinese state both makes an art of it and seems incapable of the human-first approach.

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