On Creativity, Taiwanese Soft Power, and 'Cultural Bonds Being Reknit'

By James Fallows

In the most recent of my frequent paeans to Next Media Animation of Taiwan, I mentioned that the relatively small population of Taiwan was enjoying considerable creative and pop culture influence now -- especially compared with mainland China -- with resulting "soft power" benefits for Taiwan in general. (The latest NMA animation, by the way, is about the pending SF ban on circumcision.) A reader with a Chinese name has an explanation.

First, why do I say things like "a reader with a Chinese name"? It's because when I get a message from someone with a name like Zhang Ping, I have no idea whether the writer grew up in Beijing and still lives there; grew up in Hangzhou but now lives in Paris; grew up and still lives in New Haven; has always lived in Taipei; etc. On the other hand, the Chinese-name ID seems significant, versus someone named John Smith. So now you know.

This Chinese-named reader, wherever he or she is writing from, says the following, which I think is worth reading to the end:

>>With regards to NMA news and Taiwanese soft power, I have a couple thoughts, in no particular order.

1. NMA news is quite unique in that it is the one sliver of Taiwanese pop culture that is readily visible to the American public. It's not the tip of the iceberg, it's a small chunk of ice that fell off the iceberg and started drifting in the opposite direction. Taiwan has a virtually hegemonic grip on Mandarin popular culture. The viral status of crazy animation clips was an entirely unplanned side effect of the HK-Taiwan tabloid industry. It's interesting to ponder the implications of a direct line of communication between Taipei yuppies and the Jon Stewart/Conan-watching American young elite. In the event of cross-strait unrest, an NMA video humorously pleading Taiwan's case might have some effect.

2. The rise of Taiwanese cultural exports can be traced to two events. The return of Hong Kong, and the indigenization of Taiwanese culture and history. In the lead-up to 1997, Hong Kong was a supernova of cultural creativity, showing what Chinese modernity could look like. There is something about existential crisis that breeds creativity (the US in the Vietnam era, W. Germany in the 80s, Taiwan today). After 1997, the baton passed slowly to Taiwan. Secondly, there was a conscious political movement to cultivate Taiwanese culture. In the 80's, it was verboten to even say a good word about the Japanese publicly - it would be like complementing the Nazis. This was loosened in the 90's, and after the pro-independence DPP took power in 2000, the floodgates opened. There is a full-blown re-dredging of Taiwanese history underway, which is reflected in movies, books, music, everything.
3. There is a nascent but rapidly growing integration of the Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese entertainment industries. If you compare the level of interaction now to what it was ten years ago, it really is staggering. To give you one example, recently a Japanese TV show hosted both a Taiwanese and a Korean pop idol group in the same episode. The two groups immediately recognized each other and gave each other hugs and high-fives. When the Japanese host asked how they knew each other, the Taiwanese said they had hosted the Koreans on their TV show, in Taiwan, and that they had done some filming together in Korea. The Koreans were in Japan to promote their new music album, the Taiwanese were there to promote their new TV drama series. Given another 10 or 20 years, things like this will have real geopolitical impact.

4. The Taiwanese government is slowly awakening to the potential of soft power, but its heavy-handed and tone-deaf approach means that it will be irrelevant for now. The only recent notable event is that Taiwan gave a massive donation for Japanese earthquake relief - over 14 billion yen, more than any other country, and even more impressive if measured in per-capita terms. This has sparked considerable surprise in the non-state Japanese media, and led to the highest-level government contact between Taiwan and Japan since the 1970s. Of course, Japan remains wary of Chinese wrath.

Pondering the strange charm of NMA news is like looking through a door peephole at the party inside - there's a lot more going on. Ancient cultural bonds are rapidly being reknit.

I'll just say that from my less closely informed perspective, this seems true, and perceptive.

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