The Korea Conundrum: Why South Korea Has Greater Global Cultural Impact Than China. Part 1


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 11, 2012

Questions worth pondering:

Why does China, with a population nearly 30 times larger than South Korea’s and with a government cultural budget that dwarfs that of its tiny neighbor, have so little comparative cultural influence and global soft power? Why are Korean movies, TV shows and pop music so widely distributed and enjoyed, while China’s equivalents are ignored? Where is China’s Gangnam Style?

For most of its history China was one of the world’s great cultural exporters, deploying its art, ideas, language and political values across a huge cultural sphere that included Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and other Asian territories.  You could say that China was a soft power superpower.

Nowhere was China’s influence more profound than in Korea. Although Korea maintained its own distinct language and traditions, its immediate proximity to China and its relatively small population made it a virtual catch pool for the torrent of culture that flowed forth from China over the millennia.

When the Korean peninsula was bifurcated by war in the 1950s, North Korea was drawn more tightly into China’s cultural orbit, while the South pulled away. As its economic miracle unfolded and it became an export powerhouse, South Korea drifted culturally toward America and the west. Relations between South Korea and China remained cordial but aloof, and the cultural exchange between the two countries slowed to a trickle.

And then, starting in the early 1990s something unexpected began to happen. What had been a predominantly eastward transmission of art and entertainment started to flow the other way, from South Korea to China. Suddenly Korean movies, TV dramas, and pop music became hugely popular in China and beyond. Filmmakers like Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook and Im Kwon-taek were winning major international awards, and K-pop bands like 2NE1, Super Junior and Girls Generation were sweeping Asian radio and music video channels. The trend hit China with such rapidity and force that Chinese journalists dubbed it the “Korean Wave” (한류 or hanryu in Korean).

From almost the beginning, the Korean Wave comprised an astonishing breadth and quality of culture, ranging from the dark, disturbing depths of movie dramas like Oldboy to the goofy and endearing comedy of My Sassy Girl; from enthralling TV soap operas to the ridiculously infectious beats and sexy dance moves of hyperkinetic girl bands. The New Yorker recently wrote of the K-pop phenomenon:

South Korea, a country of less than fifty million people, somehow figured out how to make pop hits for more than a billion and a half other Asians, contributing two billion dollars a year to Korea’s economy… No country is better positioned to sell recorded music in China, a potentially enormous market, should its endemic piracy be stamped out.

The hanryu created much more than just an economic boon for South Korea; it gave the country political clout, the very sort of soft power that China’s leaders have openly craved for years. As The Economist noted:

The Korean Wave’s worldwide cultural influence translated into soft power for South Korea, increasing its voice in the global political arena. Due to the wave, South Korea’s national image improved noticeably from a war-stricken, poor country to a trendy and advanced one. A survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2008 found that about 80% of respondents from China, Japan and Vietnam (three of the largest markets for hanryu) look to South Korean culture with high respect.

How did this happen? What lessons can China learn from the Koreans? We’ll explore these questions in Part 2.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com