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Pop Culture Goes Global
2004/10/27
With remote controls in hand, Chinese TV viewers have almost too many choices of shows to watch.

They can surf different channels for a wealth of programmes, ranging from a hit TV soap opera on extramarital affairs or a South Korean pop idol drama to a quiz show, Japanese cartoon or cooking competition.


And the programmes change all year round - some disappearing, some emerging, and still others getting a facelift.


But they all reflect underlying trends in TV culture in the new era of Internet and telecommunications.


The interplay between social reality and TV programmes makes the study of Chinese pop culture both fascinating and surprising.


Times change


Researchers of popular culture accept that Chinese culture has been transformed since the 1990s.


So they focus their efforts on gaining an in-depth understanding of the changes that have taken place.


In the early 1990s, some Chinese popular culture researchers tried to identify the differences between the so-called "new-period culture" of the 1980s and the "post-new-period culture" of the 1990s, as conspicuous changes took place in China within that 10-year period.


The "new-period" Chinese culture that started in the late 1970s was coming to an end in many different fields. The "post-new-period culture" of the 1990s saw the idealism and cultural enthusiasm of the 1980s wane, and ushered in a new era of economic development.


As the 21st century begins, the move from a planned to a market economy has had a major impact on cultural systems.


The flow of capital, information, technologies, people, cultures and ideas has reached unprecedented levels.


The emergence of a new TV culture is generally seen by academics as a key sign of the birth of a new "popular culture of the new century."


Popularity of TV


Television sets began to become popular in the early 1980s and spread into most households by the late 1990s.


In the winter of 1990, the TV drama series "Kewang (Yearning)" became a smash hit among millions of Chinese audiences.


Thereafter, drama series became the fastest-growing, predominant form of entertainment for ordinary Chinese.


In the mid-1990s, many provincial TV channels gained access to satellite transmission, further stimulating the domestic TV industry.


The popular game show "Kuaile Dabenying (Happy Citadel)" on Hunan Satellite TV, for example, also greatly helped to push forward Chinese TV culture.


Television in China is not only a platform for news and information but is now also the single, most popular source for family entertainment.


The popularity of television has helped boost related industries such as VCD and DVD manufacturing.


TV has become the undisputed leader of the so-called "cultural industries" which are based on copyrighted, creative assets such as literature, music, TV and film.


And TV culture is considered to be the basis of the "new culture of the new century."


New masses


The transformation of Chinese popular culture in the 1990s from "post-new-period" to "new century culture" paralleled the development of what we call the "new masses" and "new aesthetics" in TV culture.


The new masses consist mostly of middle income earners in cities, who have played a central role in producing and consuming popular culture in China.


They show a keen interest in all new trends, ideas and experiments in society.


Their lives are also reflected on screen. One example is the TV drama series "Lailai Wangwang (Busy Life)," adapted from Chi Li's novel.


The work, like many others, centres on the story of a middle-aged career man whose extramarital affair triggers a crisis in his career and family. Eventually, the seemingly happy and harmonious family collapses and disintegrates.


These "crisis" stories have a common theme - all the shaky marriages were formed, often with political overtones, during the planned economy and torn apart in the new era of the market economy and globalization.


"Busy Life" recognizes the legitimacy of marriages from the old era. But at the same time, it also shows the family in crisis as the main character is seduced by his desires, against the backdrop of a consumerist society.


Unlike the extramarital affairs depicted in films and TV dramas of the 1980s, which romanticized the cause and effects of betrayal, the one in "Busy Life" is portrayed in a much more realistic and worldly manner.


No abstract, idealistic expressions are used in portraying love and marriage. Instead, the narration reveals the characters' desires and their pursuit of bodily pleasure.


The show attaches no significant meaning to the affair. It does not stem from the fight against traditional social norms or reflect the conflict between stifling "feudal values" and modern love. Instead, it tells the characters' personal stories - the specific and difficult problems their families face.


In "Busy Life," Kang Weiye and Duan Lina's wedding coincided with the end of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).


At the beginning of their marriage, the wife Duan took the leading role as she came from a politically-influential family.


But Kang's influence grew with his success in the newly emerging market economy.


Kang is attracted by another woman and tries to break away from his marriage. Meanwhile, Duan has lost much of her power as her family influence wanes.


The shifts in power and influence in the family may be read as a metaphor for the social changes in China over the past two decades, according to researchers of Chinese pop culture.


Another dimension of the new masses phenomenon includes changes in the values of low-income Chinese.


The successful TV drama series "Kong Jingzi (Empty Mirror)," which was screened late last year, portrays two sisters who take vastly different paths in life.


The elder sister Sun Li tries to break free while younger sister Sun Yan chooses to live as her parents did, in a relatively isolated but more stable and peaceful environment.


Sun Li achieves certain material success but is considered by many to be relentless and unscrupulous.


The TV drama series vividly depicts people's moral panic in the face of globalization.


Another popular TV drama series "General Manager Liu Laogen," which has been re-run a dozen times on different channels over the past few months, shows the growth of private enterprises in China's countryside.


The development of Liu's Longquan Villa resort can be read as a symbol of the stumbling and torturous movement of Chinese private investment as the country becomes part of a global economy.


New aesthetics


The changes in media culture, especially in TV culture since the late 1990s, have resulted in a new aesthetic in Chinese popular culture.


One feature of this new aesthetic is that cities have replaced the countryside as centres of cultural imagination.


Over the past few decades, the contrast and conflict between countryside and city, in line with the obvious economic disparity between farmers and urban residents, have been a pivotal concern of Chinese popular culture.


However, the lives of middle income city-dwellers today have nothing in common with those of rural Chinese. They are born into the web-like societies of bustling metropolises that are part of the globalization process.


As a result, urban life has taken pride of place on television.


Examples of this trend are the overwhelmingly popular pop idol soap operas and Japanese cartoon series, as well as TV game shows, clothes and hairstyles "imported" from countries and regions such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.


Asian audiences seem to share pop culture products, which may be a consequence of globalization.


In Japanese, Korean and Chinese pop idol soap operas, viewers find similar love stories, similar depictions of luxurious lifestyles, pretty faces, chic clothes, big houses and flashy sedans, all elements of the city life Asian youth dream of today.

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