Mediating Nationalism and Modernity: The Transnationalization of Korean Dramas on Chinese (Satellite) TV

Lisa Leung. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Editor: Chua Beng Huat & Koichi Iwabuchi. Hong Kong University Press, 2008.

News has been out recently that some kindergartens in USA are teaching Mandarin to American kids. Footage of American kids writing Chinese characters is the finest epitome of the extent of cultural global flows (and hybridity) at our era of intense media and cultural circulation. Ultra-forward-looking parents commented: ‘By the time these kids grow up, China would be a world economic power, so knowing how to speak and write Chinese is a definite plus in enhancing their employment prospects.’ That China is a goldmine, an untapped vast market that is set to steal the international limelight to some extent also forces China to rise to this expectation.

Amid this rampant economic growth and promise as future political and economic power, there still exists a lag in China the corresponding liberalization in political control in social life. Although political power has gradually been decentralized, there are also signs of tightening political grip on national press and flow of information. News of the authorities banning newspapers which have been more vocal about government policies, websites being forced to close down, and reporters being arrested for ‘illegally leaking classified national secrets’ often remind concerned audience that the one party state has never gone too far from its authoritarian roots. This disproportionate growth between economics and politics, as well as part freedom, part restriction creates potential tension and conflict, but also opportunities for manoeuvre and situational collaboration.

It is against this backdrop that this story of media globalization and transnationalization takes place. At the point of writing, the Korean wave is still sweeping strong across China, a ‘western’ neighbour with whom Korea has from ancient times embarked on a complex and obscure relationship, at a time when China is rapidly flexing its diplomatic and economic muscles in the international stage. The blockbuster success of ‘anything Korean’ in China has been in the headlines, yet little systematic research nor academic writing has been done so far. A story of why and how the Korean media content made it in China at this current state will not be complete without an examination of the processes involved at the site of production/industry that enabled this transnationalization in the first place.

Studies in media globalization have largely focused either at a textual level, or at the reception end of the ‘global’ at the site of the audience. Little has been done, however, to examine the role of the industry in bringing forth this transnationalization. Even less attention has been given to the industry at the local. Partial blame has been put on the local industry, where the latter was seen as either accomplices or dupes to dump global media products onto the local audience, thereby assisting in the brainwashing of their compatriots by the global perpetrators. Or, rationalization of the process at the industry level just naturalizes or brushes it off as a mere technical process of importing global media by the local industry, with a simple and sole objective of profit maximization, by bringing the most audience to the advertisers.

Given the fluctuating political and economic context in China, the challenge and appeal for local media industries lie in the ability to move within/exploit the space between the national and the global. This is a story of resistance of the periphery against the core; it is also a story of exhausting the provincial cultural tradition for entertainment, but more importantly the popularity of the ‘global’.

The relative (academic) oversight of the role/significance of the local industry in the process of media transnationalization is coupled by the assumption of the local as a homogenous whole/monolithic entity. Who is the local? How does the politics of transnationalization play in a context where there are multiple locals at play? The failure to ask these questions has resulted in the failure to recognize/problematize the complexities involved even at the reception end of media transnationalization — the site of the local — where Korean media could be used as a weapon of competition/contestation between the national local and the provincial (sub)locals. It has also led to the glossing over of the contextual elements that might affect local-global interactions.

Perhaps the question of Appadurai is poignant here at this intervention: ‘…. what is the nature of locality, as a lived experience, in a globalized, deterritorialized world?’ (1996). Here, he was referring more to the objectives of ethnography in the study of audiences of globalized media. But while ethnography might not be applicable in the study of media industries, the same question could be asked of the challenges and problematics that the local corporation faces in the transnationalization of global media, in the local context which is ‘disorganized, volatile and fluid’. How does the process of transnationalization articulate the tensions as well as the dynamics between the local, the national and the global?

This chapter, then, seeks to examine how the local media plays a role in the transnationalization of Korean wave, in the process of struggling for survival and success in a complex national and geo-political context where multiple political, economic and cultural forces converge. It also examines the tensions as well as respite along the way. Despite the vast literature on media globalization, little has been focused on the role of local producers as mediators in the globalization. Still less has examined from their subject positions the interplay of diverse spaces: political, economic and cultural forces at both the national and global level. Hunan Satellite TV recently went down history with having successfully bid for Dae Jang Geum — one of the most popular Korean TV dramas in recent TV history to have travelled to East Asia. I hope to chart how a local TV station fishes through imperatives of government regulation as well as economic imperatives to commercialize, to rise up to being one of the ‘hottest’ TV station in China, with the help of ‘global’ (regional) media products. Through the experience of Hunan Satellite TV, I wish to throw light on the dynamics involved at the point of mediating media and cultural flows in the increasingly intensified ‘globality’ of the East Asian region, and whether the local has opened up new spaces within the transnationalization of the media. At the end of this chapter, I hope to contribute to the reflection of how the current rampant transnationalization of media in East Asia triggers industrial, economic, political and cultural forces at work across cultural and national boundaries.

Finding The “Local” in Media Transnationalization

We have already reached an era where media circulating across national and cultural borders have become a habit, almost a ritual that challenged earlier approaches to media globalization studies. The perception of the local being susceptible to ‘cultural imperialism’ by imported ‘global’ media is long rendered outmoded. The flow of media products across East Asia in the recent decade has accelerated the discussion of the rise of ‘geo-cultural’ markets/circuits’ defined by regions, such as Latin America and Asia. Having benefited from market, cultural and linguistic proximity, different (regional) circuits of production have emerged. Within these ‘circuits’, we also witnessed not just one, but several, national centres that dominate the flow of media and cultural products, as a result of their supremacy in financial and technological resources. The extent of transnational media circulation has already reached the stage of co-production, where the market, site locations, labour and expertise at the local/national level could be best exploited. Notions of hybridization between the local and incoming ‘global’ in terms of cultural content are partially based on the assumption that local industries do not just have their local markets in mind. Economic and technological advancements have strengthened local media industries so that, even though they may still be less developed than the global media, they are able to ‘cannibalize’ (to coin Appadurai’s terminology) or consume global media for its financial gains, as well as boost its national and international status.

However, the process of importing global media is not at all smooth sailing for the struggling local industry. The biggest obstacle comes from nowhere but the national local. National media, in meeting the challenges of media transnationalization, often find themselves caught in the ‘national hegemony that comes from within’, including legal and regulatory mechanisms. This is most prominent in authoritarian/socialist regimes where the centre legitimizes and perpetuates its political and ideological domination and economic prowess over the local as the periphery through restrictive broadcasting and financial policies. It then becomes a double risk, as well as imperative/challenge for the local to strive for its own survival, even at the political peril of winning over the national in this race for economic success. In the following, I would like to use the case of Korean wave in China to illustrate the gossamer hurdles and problematics that the local(s) encounter when importing foreign media product, because of its relative positioning, as well as the dynamics and opportunities it exploits to veer its way ahead.

Walking on a Swinging Tightrope: The “Locals” In China

Among the extensive research on the media situation in China, Donald and Keane analyzed the challenges that Chinese media face in response to the country’s rapid marketization and economic liberalization, while negotiating (uneasily) with the ideological forces at work. Perhaps Zhao best explicated the current state in China where the party enmeshes political and economic prowess, accommodating private and foreign media capital, while limiting areas of operation and politically containing them through the carrot and stick strategy.

The full steam drive towards capitalist commercialization but still trying to maintain its ideological foothold has caused the Chinese media system to increasingly become a platform for profit-making, while speaking in the voice of the ruling Party elite and the rising business and urban middle class. The role of the media in China has come a long way from the inception of the Communist Party. Under the new hospice of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, there has been more obvious adoption of Western style media management techniques as well as media formats. Media outlets underwent rapid process of commercialization in the 1990s, which influenced the nature of media formats; commercial propaganda has ‘rivalled, if not replaced political mobilization speech’. Advertisements filled the prime time airwaves, as consumerism acquired the political and ideological overtone of supporting the state’s vigorous economic marketization policy.

The ‘liberalization’ in media formats and management, however, has not equated a relaxation of freedoms on media practitioners. Censorship, in both active and passive terms, is still rampant. Journalists who have covered stories on the government are being imprisoned, and newspapers known for their more critical views (such as Nanfang Weekend) are being closed down; at the same time, news about farmer and worker protests is being suppressed. These gestures go to show that while the ruling ideology might be replaced by economic (and capitalistic) state hegemony, ‘socialism’ might be just a synonym to justify the state’s ever tightened stronghold on social, cultural and economic life in China.

While a stronger grip has been seen in the newspapers, similar structural problems prevail in the broadcasting sector. For one, television production has been central in the realization of China’s experiment in authoritarian market-driven modernization, both in policy terms and in the ‘making visible’ of often precarious efforts to balance breakneck economic development with the social conservatism and political dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Television production which used to be one of the institutions under heavy surveillance by the party has gradually been relaxed as the country slowly moves towards marketization and internationalization. While television production is still heavily regulated under the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the ‘four modernization policy’ that drove the country towards more liberalized economic reforms under Deng Xiao Ping in the 1980s, translated into a gradual commercialized view on media policy. In recent years, state inability to finance the growing number of TV stations at the national, provincial and city level resulted in a slight decentralization of power in broadcasting. However, these financially independent TV stations are still owned by the government at various levels.

Cable and satellite TV were put at the forefront of this media liberalization policy, at the time when state policy on TV production turned in the 1990s from ‘literature and arts’ to ‘entertainment’. A few years on, the state even allowed independent firms to create shows for state television, giving 34 provincial networks permission to launch a satellite channel each. The rapid development of cable and satellite TV was partly due to the growing technological imperatives, but despite the country’s determination to modernize, there still exists an interlocking administrative-versus- state, ideological-organizational system. Power conflict between two ministries meant that the development of cable and satellite networks have always been a result of the tension between modernization (and hence more outward looking) and ideological control (satellite TVs being more exposed to ‘foreign elements’). The conflict that prevails around satellite TV also includes the fact that satellite TV’s cross-territory broadcasting clashes with government vision that the medium should assist in nation-building. The skeptical, if not suspicious, attitude towards ‘foreign elements’ has resulted in the STARTV incident, as well as campaigns against illegal foreign TV reception.

TV stations in China, hence, are constantly in negotiation with the part-relaxed part-tightened attitude of the authorities towards TV production, which is paradoxically seen as a significant ideological apparatus, but also a symbol of China’s recent modernization and liberalization. The role for the media to be the state propaganda machine might thus be even stronger. The commercialized media system is encouraged to proactively sell to the advertisers their maximized consumers, rather than create social division. Mass entertainment, therefore, assume a more important ideological role, not only serving to mobilize consumption, but is seen as politically safe and financially rewarding.

Foreign Form, Local Use: Importing and Cloning

The development of television dramas in China has been seen as central in the witnessing of China’s balancing between market-driven modernization on the one hand, and social conservatism and political (and ideological) dictatorship on the other. Rampant marketization and economic reforms has also rendered Chinese producers to look towards profit maximization as their prime motive in programming. Foreign programmes, thus, becomes easy target and favourites in Chinese TV stations, for a spectrum of practical reasons: 1) imports are much cheaper than local productions; 2) adopting more ideas from foreign television systems which are low budget, e.g. live talk shows, dating programmes; 3) exploiting formats of foreign TV programmes such as ‘copy-catting’. Cloning seems to be a habitual phenomenon for local Chinese media towards foreign media, where Hunan Satellite TV has actually been cited as a fine example of ‘successful format adaptation combined with self-reliant management strategies’, adopting Shanghai TV’s programme to produce an apolitical entertainment show. The example illustrates a growing trend in Chinese TV media of ‘cloning’ as ‘proven formula to gain ratings, as well as introduce new technologies to appease audience desires’.

It is at this juncture that Korean TV dramas entered and scored overwhelming popularity in China. The later sections of this chapter shall elucidate that the success of Korean wave is a convergence of various political, economic cultural factors (including the work of the local media industry), but for now it is worth having an overview of the extent of Korean wave in China.

Hallyu of Television Dramas in China

The ‘Ha-han’ fever spread like wild fire across provinces, ethnicities, and permeated different walks of life in China, at a time when the avian flu is raging in the country. The first Korean drama, Jealousy, appeared on CCTV in 1993, but it was What Is Love broadcast in 1997 that officially announced the onset of the Korean wave. Later purchases included Stardust Love [sic] and Repeated Watching in 1999. Since then, a diversity of media and cultural products from Korea flocked into China, such as popular music, internet technology and online games, and electrical appliances such as mobile phones.

The surprised success of the drama sparked off a stream of Korean imports into Chinese TV stations. In 2002 alone, 67 Korean dramas were broadcast over various Chinese provinces. Among the many imports, a majority fell in the genre of romance stories in an urban setting: Fallen Angel, or stressing family, filial piety, friendship and loyalty, such as Miss Mermaid. There are also variations as to the ratio between terrestrial broadcasts and those shown on provincial satellite channels. Among the figures, Guangzhou terrestrial stations have the highest broadcast of Korean dramas than Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and Chengdu. The amount of Korean dramas shown on satellite TV stations, on the other hand, are relatively the same, a result of government control over the percentage of foreign imports on satellite TVs. While the amount of Korean dramas imported varies across provinces, the popularity of these various dramas seem to also differ across provinces.

Enter Dae Jang Geum — and Hunan Satellite TV

A lot of discussion has been focused on the content of Korean TV dramas that succeeded in capturing the hearts of Chinese audience: beautiful settings, idolized characters, melodramatic romances, unrequited love which necessitates tragic endings. This portrayal of an urban, capitalist, modern, upwardly mobile society, however, serves only to clothe an otherwise traditional melodramatic genre about what human relationships used to be.

The above comments referred predominantly to the majority of Korean TV dramas termed as ‘trendy dramas’ — productions that focus on contemporary urban life. Dae Jang Geum, broadcast in September 2005, was the first epic drama to be broadcast on Chinese channels. Ratings for the debut reached 8.6%, and even 10% for cities like Shanghai and Changsha, which ranks first of all ratings at the same slot over the country, even topping the record made by urban based dramas.

For Hunan Satellite TV, the decision to buy such an epic drama in early 2004 was a cautious one: it was largely due to the popularity of the drama in Korea. But it was not until the drama became blockbuster in Taiwan that eventually caught the notice of Hunan’s senior officials at the TV station that they approached Taiwan’s TV8, who had copyright ownership to Dae Jang Geum. Negotiations over buying that right was a painfully lengthy one, according to Programme Director of Hunan Satellite TV, Ms Xiao, which finally closed on 10,000USD for one episode (amounting to 10 million yuan for the whole set). The reason why Hunan won the bid was largely due to the expertise and reputation of the CEO, Mr Eoyang Chang Lin, who in his six years of presiding over the station, has adopted a policy of providing ‘new entertainment’. After winning the exclusive broadcasting rights all over China, Dae Jang Geum was eventually broadcast on Hunan Satellite TV in September 2004. Ratings peaked at 180 million viewers, equating 14% of viewership in China, which was very high in terms of satellite TV ratings. High ratings also rendered unprecedented financial returns for the station, over 35 million yuan. The other immediate benefit came from advertising, where it was reported that the broadcast of Dae Jang Geum brought 150 million yuan of advertising revenue for the first quarter of 2005, a record 37% higher than the same quarter last year. The record profits of Hunan TV made the TV station a legend of Chinese television industry, and make the station rank top among the 38 provincial level satellite TV stations.

Manufacturing the Hype

The overwhelming success of Dae Jang Geum triggered a nationwide discussion into how Dae Jang Geum, the first such epic Korean drama to be broadcast on Chinese soil, managed to push the Korean wave to newer heights. Before Dae Jang Geum, Hunan Satellite TV has been importing popular TV programmes from Korea and Taiwan, including Gong Taiwan’s hottest epic drama. I will discuss at a later stage how the drama is discussed on newspapers and on the websites, and what the audience and netizens perceive of as cultural reasons for the drama’s success. What I wish to focus on here is the institutional aspects involved in fabricating this Dae Jang Geum phenomenon. During my interview with programme directors at the Hunan Satellite TV station, I learnt that they, while feeling proud at having won the exclusive rights to the nationwide broadcast of Dae Jang Geum, boiled the success down to several institutional factors. One is a ‘cross-programme’ publicity before and during the broadcast, which involves capitalizing on other popular productions of the station. Another boxoffice/brand programme, which became another phenomenon, titled SuperGirl, had the contestants compete by singing the themesong of Dae Jang Geum (even before it was aired), thereby creating a hype for the drama. The station also planned a series of programmes paralleling the content of the broadcast, such as culinary and herbal medicine programmes, history programmes including those explaining the monarchical hierarchies in the Chosun Dynasty, programmes that apply the politics depicted in the drama to real life (such as office politics), and even animation programmes further explaining the episodes. Apart from publicity programmes, the station also published booklets detailing the story, cast, historical background and commentaries about the Korean drama. One of the booklets encapsulates the commodity aesthetics behind the drama: the good-looking characters, details about the main cast, anecdotes in the drama (often about romance of the leading actress and actor), or the sisterly love among the characters in the Korean palace. Cuisine was another theme brought up in the booklets, along with the shooting locations of the drama which became famous tourist sports in Korea. According to Ms Liu, Vice Director of the Chief Editor Office, plans have been made to invite Liang Mei Jing (Han Sanggung in Dae Jang Geum) and Lee Young Ae (the eponymous heroine) to pay a visit to Changsha, although the plans have not materialized.

Appropriating the Foreign: Importing and Cloning

Such careful marketing planning must have come from a station experienced in creating hype around popular TV programmes. Hunan Satellite TV, despite being a provincial station amid a wave of satellite TV stations throughout China, struck its mark with a more progressive and a more international outlook. With the recent nationwide blockbuster such as Super GirlShining Anchor, and The Story Behind,, Hunan TV has been dubbed the ‘whiz-kid’ of Chinese (satellite) TV industry specializing on ‘popular entertainment’. While Super Girl has become a nationwide talking point, and a trademark for the future of popular culture in China, it would be beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the phenomenon of Super Girl. Yet it should be emphasized that the show is epitome to the station’s drive to constructing a popular culture geared towards youth and consumerism, something symptomatic of the whole drive for modernization and trendiness.

Besides drumming up ratings boosting popular entertainment programmes, the station has also been at the forefront of importing foreign programme formats and ‘cloning’ them. Dating and match-making shows such as Romantic Meeting (2000) and Citadel of Happiness were remakes from the Taiwanese version Special man and woman. The mainland Chinese version was seen to be adopting many of the ‘formal characteristics’ of its Taiwanese counterpart, but different in aesthetic elements, namely including more blatant self promotion.

Exploiting the Indigenous: The “Legend” Of Hunan Satellite TV

The reasons for Hunan to have acquired such vision gearing towards popular entertainment are both geographical and also cultural. According to programme director of Hunan TV station, Ms Xiao, it is in Hunan people’s blood that craves for entertainment. ‘We Hunan-ians have a “Sing-Song Club Culture”.’ Indeed, the Hunan people would recommend any foreigner to see this for themselves at any music parlour. The populistic idea of public entertainment is also facilitated by the weather in Hunan, which is (relatively) warm and humid whole year round. Such practice did not seem to have died down despite the emergence of mediated forms of entertainment such as TV, films, and more recently VCDs and DVDs, which were favourite among the younger population. The former, on the other hand, have precipitated the need for, and predicted the popularity of, variety shows and song competitions like Super Girl.

The geographical location of Hunan might have also paved the way for the locals’ reliance on satellite TV and the outward looking policies of the station. Situated in the heart of the mainland, the province would be best accessed by cable or satellite TV, which has provided an impetus for the local satellite station. The remoteness from anywhere else also prompted the station to pursue a more ambitious outward looking policy. Since satellite TVs have in theory a nation wide reach, the station has in their programme planning a policy that caters for the most general interested audience.

Defeating the Central

Aside from these material benefits of broadcasting Dae Jang Geum, Hunan gained for itself the honour of having won over the ‘big brother’ CCTV. When commenting on the success of Dae Jang Geum, much discussion adopted a ‘David and Goliath’ perspective when mentioning how a ‘small unbecoming provincial TV station’ wins the bidding war with other stations and CCTV, and went on to win a second time over the ratings. The CCTV which has also been injecting a regular dosage of trendy urban Korean dramas such as Miss Mermaid and Watch Again and had been riding high on sustaining ‘Hanliu’ on TV, is seen as having suffered a setback to be won over by Hunan TV, thus embarking on a TV war with the station ever since. It was reported that having lost the battle over Dae Jang Geum, CCTV quickly bought another blockbuster from Taiwan, Mist in Imperial Capital. There was a metaphor of ‘Mu Lan vs Janggeum’, as the female lead in the latter was called ‘Yao Mu Lan’. Although the ratings of ‘Mu Lan’ surpassed that of Dae Jang Geum at a later stage in Beijing, it still suffered a setback in more southern cities, where Dae Jang Geum still maintained a stronghold.

Such success over a centralized national TV station, for the peripheral media, was a victory next to being able to challenge centralized power and authority. Besides the war with CCTV was a commercial as well as a political one, as provincial satellite TVs have long been struggling through heavy handed political control which have been relaxed only recently. The sensitivity towards ‘foreign elements’ also resulted in the rigid policy that no foreign TV programmes are allowed to be broadcast during prime time, hence Dae Jang Geum had to be shown at 10pm, outside the ‘golden slot’. An indignant Ms Yao, officer of the Chief Editing Department, Programme-Purchasing and Editing office of the Hunan TV commented, ‘well, as long as we comply by the rules handed down, why couldn’t we import TV dramas that could sell?’ (interview transcript 2005). There was also a quota imposed on the percentage of foreign imports, which amounted to 20%.

“Depoliticized, Culturally Correct” Nature of the Transnational

The distrust on foreign programmes also meant stringent measures imposed should local stations wish to buy in foreign programmes. Local stations are not allowed to approach foreign distributors directly. (Which explains the heavy dependence on Hong Kong programmes, also because of the proximity of the two places). In the case of Dae Jang Geum, Hunan Satellite TV resorted to going through TV8 to buy the exclusive rights for broadcasting throughout China. Ironically, this measure of ‘going through back door’ also puts Taiwan as an interesting intermediary for the local mainland Chinese stations.

Despite its foreign status, Korean dramas managed to escape the heavy scrutiny that the Chinese authorities imposed on other foreign programmes. Apolitical sensitivity also provided another added advantage for Korean dramas. Newspapers in mainland China, besides explaining the reasons for the popularity of Korean dramas, mentioned also that the products, which focus on family values and rivalry in the commercial world, are politically de-odoured. This is confirmed in an interview with the Programme Director of the Shanghai TV Station (member of the SMG), who admitted that Korean dramas ‘seem to be able to squeeze through the administrative screenings because of this.’ Censorship is especially strong in television stations, and among the different programmes, especially contemporary dramas seem to be one of the most closely watched types (after news and documentaries). This could explain for the uneven development in the production of epic dramas and that of more contemporary dramas in China.

Rather than their de-politicized nature, cultural proximity could be most often quoted as the reason for the success of Korean dramas in China. This is even more pronounced in the case of discussions around Dae Jang Geum, which is seen to have caused ‘a new Han-liu’ (Korean wave). In another study, I discussed at length the cultural reasons behind the success of Korean dramas in China. What I wish to focus here, is how the local TV station gets caught up with the discussions around Korean dramas. The vast popularity of Dae Jang Geum seemed to reflect and be fueled by the torrent of discussions on newspapers, on-line discussion groups and blogs. The avid fans tend to embrace the drama for the universal virtues it depicts: ‘the characters of Jang Geum [sic] bring out the highest of human virtues, her toughness, courage, and perseverance. TV producers should follow the example of Dae Jang Geum to fulfill their social responsibility to give our kids a bit more sunshine and fresh flowers.’ Others commented about the ‘all-roundedness’ of the drama, satisfying the ideals of different segments of the audience: ‘To everyone the spirit to strive, love and compassion to humanity; to women the ideal man, to men the ideal woman; to housewives the finest cuisines, to young audience pretty faces and glamourous fashion; to white collar workers the innuendoes and bickering in everyday office politics.’

More supportive comments, however, focused on the elements that pertain to cultural proximity between Korean and Chinese cultures, such as the use of ‘Han characters’, the similarity of Chinese and Korean cuisine, as well as the development of herbal medicine, including acupuncture. As one critic commented, ‘The identification Chinese audience has on Dae Jang Geum reveals a recognition of Chinese culture, an acknowledgement of the Chineseness in the Korean culture depicted in Dae Jang Geum.’

Mediascape Versus Ethnoscape: Cultural Ownership and Patriotism

It is at this point that the broadcast of Dae Jang Geum courts a wave of criticism. The ‘anti- Dae Jang Geum ‘ voice was started off by a producer who collected fame with his production of epic dramas in mainland China — Zhang Kuo Li. Zhang criticized Dae Jang Geum ‘s content as ‘boring, slow tempoed, and lack of creativity.’ He did not only lay his criticisms on the drama itself, but also on those who watch them, calling them as ‘favouring the foreigners at the expense of local productions’. Most importantly, he accused the drama of ‘cultural theft’, having claimed as Korean what should be originated from China — acupuncture, herbal medicine, culinary methods. As one netizen, obviously in favour of Zhang’s criticisms, remarked:

what Dae Jang Geum is doing is stealing others’ cultural heritage and claiming them to be one’s own! And somebody has the nerve to praise Dae Jang Geum as having preached goodness, kindness and beauty. This is absolute deception! Koreans deceived themselves, and think they can fool the world. They think they can use a kind and innocent Janggeum to construct an illusion (and easily accessible cultural products) for what was used to be China’s subordinates — Korea! They even went on to try to convert the world’s belief and identification that China is the core of Asian traditional culture, forcing one to think that the Koreans are in fact the finest, in order to satisfy their own ethnic self esteem and vanity.

Patriotic responses on the web went to the extent of accusing all Ha-ru and Ha-han fans as having ‘singlehandedly tarnished the face of Chinese traditional culture’, laying the few thousand years of national prestige that China earned onto the shoulders of popular culture fans. These waves of patriotic protests were responded with equally vociferous defense for Dae Jang Geum, which retorted that nowhere in the drama was acupuncture, herbal medicine and cuisine claimed to be Korean. Others criticized the meaninglessness of raising the discussion of a mere (fictitious) television drama to such ideological and patriotic levels, but pointed out the (ironically) growing xenophobia of the Chinese, at a time when China has entered the WTO. The critical voice, coming mainly from the industry, is seen to contradict that of ‘lao bai xing’ (the common folks), who in the majority tend to embrace the Korean dramas, bypassing the nationalistic sentiments churned out by some industry people. Some comments even called on those hardline patriots (with their vested interests) not to go against the wishes of the public.

Arguments like these exemplify what has been discussed as ‘cultural nationalism’ that are engaged in popular culture. Caught in the midst of these arguments was Hunan TV (and all the other Chinese TV stations), who have been condemned by Zhang as the panultimate ‘traitor’ who ushered in this cultural invasion. Zhang’s calls were somehow echoed by Hong Kong-turned-Hollywood megastar Jackie Chan, who in his latest Hollywood blockbuster, Legend, also had Korean bombshell Kim Hee Sun co-star with him, called on Hong Kong audience to ‘resist Korean wave’.

Bearing the brunt of ‘selling China to Korea’, indirectly encouraging the latter to plunder and loot China of its national cultural treasures, Hunan is almost accused of bringing China back to its dark age in late Qing dynasty — the invasion by eight foreign powers. Except that this time the loss of face is even greater, that the perpetrator was once the ‘grandson’ of China. Amid the surprise over the wave of criticisms that Dae Jang Geum attracted, Ms Xiao and Ms Liu somehow welcomed the responses as ‘helping to boost the publicity of the drama’. While defying the claims that they were being ‘traitors’, they seemed affected by those claims, and throughout the interviews, I had the impression that they would try to be more cautious in selecting and promoting Korean dramas, at least for the time being, to let the voices die down.

However, one side-product of this war of words was the wave of critical reflection on the local TV industry. On one camp were people like Zhang (and Jackie Chan), who called on a ban against Korean imports; on the other, critics and industry figures urged an immediate step up on the cultural industry in China. Even more so, some others called on the country to embrace popular culture as a response to impending globalization. Producers, clearly inspired by the Korean drama formula, had the following four suggestions.

Address the ‘Cultural Deficit’ between China and Korea

Some discussions focused on how the Korean wave results in the uneven trade balance between Chinese and Korean media products. The recent marketization and liberalisation of Chinese trade led China to be riding the trade surplus wave with other countries. However, China suffers a trade deficit in terms of cultural products, which is as low as 10:1 in terms of the I/O of media products to foreign countries.

Improve the Quality of Local Production

National Chinese TV production is seen as formulaic, often featuring complicated power struggles, multiple relationships, innuendoes, which bring out the worst in human beings.

Fully Exploit One’s Cultural Heritage to Promote One’s International Image

The success of Dae Jang Geum is seen as exhibiting the ‘creativity of the (Korean) cultural industry’, which, as exemplified by the Korean case, is able to turn something as mundane, rigid and bland as historical facts, into something so ‘attractive, virtuous and affectionate’.

Find a Way of ‘Getting Closer to the People’

In an article titled, ‘Let Cultural Products head towards the World’, the contributor accused local productions as not being able to capture the hearts of the audience. ‘At an age of massive economic and social transformation, people succumb to mounting stress, they lose their sense of balance. What they need is some channels of escape and relief through popular entertainment, and a reminder of the virtues of traditional values.’

Liberalizing National Policy on Foreign Imports

Seen from the above, there have been mounting calls within the industry of the impending need for local TV production, in order to be more competitive, not just internationally, but nationally. With the immediate pressure from many national TV stations, individual TV channels resort to buying in foreign dramas to boost ratings and thus sales. At the outset, there was also a need for local channels to redress the ‘cultural deficit’ as a way to combat the ensuing ‘invasion’ by Korean media and cultural products. CCTV, which has always played the dominant role in national TV industry (bearing the status as the top party mouthpiece and opinion leader), was taking the lead to expand its ‘foreign drama hour’ at 10 pm into the ‘variety show hour’ at 11 pm. This enhances the flexibility of extending the broadcast of (Korean) dramas, and bringing in more diverse variety shows, in a move towards expanding its popular entertainment. The station was also importing serials from the US, such as Desperate Housewives, in a pioneering bid to increase foreign imports. The war over foreign imports looks set to wage on among different stations.

Parallel with the extension of foreign imports, there is also competition in terms of ‘modernizing’ the station. CCTV, for example, was publicizing their ‘three modernizations’: professionalization of the channel, characterization of items, and glamourization of programmes. In the bid to ‘streamline’ the structure of the station, more ‘modern’ programmes are designed, for example programmes about business, or fashion. Programme designs were especially geared towards garnering advertisements.


What I have been trying to do through the case of Hunan Satellite TV is to illustrate the many forces the local media has to negotiate in the place of transnational media circulation, at a time of shifting political, economic and cultural paradigms in the local and the regional. The case of importing Korean dramas revealed the process of how the local ‘transnationalizes’ foreign media products to enhance its local national status: exploiting the indigenous, negotiating the political and the national, and fabricating the modern. Situated in a local political context where state policy over TV production is obscured and unpredictable, the local is faced with the daunting task of cautiously juggling with state policy. This is also a time and space where the state itself is juxtaposed uneasily between the rhetoric of marketization and economic liberalization (hence internationalization) on the one hand, and maintaining political and ideological control on the media on the other. Where the media is gearing towards modernizing its programming policy, increased foreign imports are often made the symbol for trendiness and modernization. Conversely the local media’s outward looking policy could be charged as cultural traitor.

The insight gained from the case of Hunan Satellite TV, that might benefit a rethinking of transnationalisation in East Asia, is twofold. First, it revealed how the political, economic and cultural could be so entwined in the habitat of the local; the ideological role of mass entertainment, plus the multifaceted use of foreign media in this process. When consumerism and economic progress could be elevated to the level of national ideology, the use of mass entertainment and importing (as well as cloning, in this case, Korean TV dramas) of ‘healthy’ foreign elements might serve a dual political function of appeasing the authorities as well as advancing the national and financial status of the local station. Second, the case exposes the multiplexities of ‘the local’ which is far from monolithic. It shows the intricate interplay of politics between the provincial and the national local. While the latter assumes the constant support of the central authorities, the former as a satellite medium attains national (and international) success by toeing a popular entertainment direction, and internationalizing its television content and format. The success of Hunan Satellite TV has sparked off a trend of ‘one-off broadcast drama’. which puts it in direct competition with CCTV, which is so far the only station which could afford the purchasing expenditure needed to acquire this exclusive right. However, the intensified rivalry has also sparked off fellow provincial satellite TV stations to form alliances (mainly pooling financial resources) to combat ‘the hegemony from strong stations’. The 4+1 alliance includes Zhejiang Satellite TV, some Shanghai terrestrial stations, and another 3 satellite TV stations. As the competition between the national and provincial local, and amongst different locals, exacerbates, the tightening of political control over the stipulation of more stringent media regulation, would be juxtaposed with unrelenting import of foreign media, ideological debates over cultural nationalism, and economic liberalization. Appadurai’s notions of the conflicts and dynamics of the different ‘scapes’ are well demonstrated in the case of Dae Jang Geum. Tension among the ethnoscape, mediascape and ideoscape are wonderfully explicated here, when modernization is becoming an ideological imperative in a continuously paradigm shifting context in China. Amid the shifting planes, the local seizes/capitalizes on the gaps and fissures, exploiting the ‘transnational’ as the epitome of modernization, with Korea as the more short-term goal in terms of economic development, as well as advancement of cultural economy.