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A Rise Without Shine: The Global Weakness of Chinese Culture [渠成水不到]

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We cannot ascribe American disinterest in Chinese popular culture to disinterest in China, for interest is high, nor to American cultural xenophobia, which is real, but not dominant. The Chinese title of this paper, 渠成水不到, reverses the Chinese phrase 水到渠成 to suggest that the fault may lie with Chinese popular culture itself. 水到渠成 (when water comes a channel appears) means that when flood waters cross a plain, they will find a channel even where none can at first be seen. By extension, the phrase means that success will come when conditions are ripe. In the case of Chinese cultural transmission to the United States, however, the channels are clearly delineated—America is ready—but no water flows. No cultural nourishment from China reaches us. Again, what explains this failure? What makes Chinese popular culture ill suited to American tastes?

A Rise Without Shine: The Global Weakness of Chinese Culture [渠成水不到]

This article was originally published in The United States and China: Mutual Public Perceptions

To discuss culture is to slog through a heavily mined swamp.  We get bogged down after a few steps in the insoluble problem of definitions.  Hegel thought that culture was “the spirit of the people,” which gets us nowhere.  T.S. Eliot dared only call his book-length treatment of the subject “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture” (emphasis mine).  It is well to ask for definitions, but the request leaves us flailing hip-deep in the mire, saying nothing.  The swamp of cultural analysis is also a minefield because, while ideas about culture are idiosyncratic and frequently incoherent, they are nevertheless fiercely defended.  This is especially so when we discuss the cultures of China and the United States.  Many of us are ready to explode—to take off a leg, or at least a toe—if our culture is insulted, even if we cannot say what our culture is. 

The task is simplified by the question at hand: How does the popular culture of the People’s Republic of China influence American perceptions of that country?  Popular culture is here understood narrowly as referring to contemporary novels, movies, fashion, music, games (digital and athletic), design, the visual and performing arts, television, and so on.  The term also comprises Chinese traditional culture[ii] as it is commonly experienced in China and the United States.  Chinese literature, painting, and poetry were not popular in their origins; they were the creation and province of elites.  But they trickled down, as elite culture always does.  They have been vulgarized.  This is not a criticism of Chinese tradition, any more than it is an attack on Van Gogh to observe that many people know his work only through Starry Night refrigerator magnets.  Regardless of its past glories and its capacity to inform the present, traditional culture lives in China today primarily as a cherished, but stagnant[iii], fragmented, and fetishized element of popular culture.  It is in this form that most Americans know it, if they know it at all. 

The short answer to the question is that the popular culture of the PRC holds scant attraction for Americans and therefore has little influence on American perceptions of China.

This may seem like a discourteous assessment, but let us quickly survey the field.  No Chinese television program has yet made a mark in the United States[iv].  Chinese film had an American art house following in the late 80s and early 90s, thanks to the work of directors Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang[v], but none of their movies have found an American audience since Zhang’s “Hero” (2002).  Even at the height of their popularity in the U.S., Chinese movies did little to shape American opinions of China.  Much of the American interest in these films was due to the excitement of discovering that directors, actors, and cinematographers in China enjoyed some creative scope to reflect on the upheavals of modern Chinese history and the status of women.  American reviews of these works focused on the political aspects of production, censorship, and distribution, rather than treating the films as entertainment or as reflections on the human condition.  American critics, clearly at a loss as to what these visually stunning, but slow and self-serious films were about, would summarize the historical background of the story, note once again that the actress Gong Li was “luminous,” and leave it at that.  But the vogue for Chinese film did not last, and no Chinese movie seemed to influence American views of China as deeply as news reports that a director’s work had been banned,[vi] that censors had refused permission for a movie to be shown at an international festival[vii], or that a director had been forbidden to make films at all.[viii]  The politics of filmmaking in the PRC still trumps the entertainment value of Chinese film in shaping American views of China.[ix]

The Chinese popular music industry rivals that of the U.S. in scale.  Cantopop, Mandopop, rock, hip-hop, folk-pop fusion, and Maoist ballads that pack the nostalgic punch of American Doo-wop classics fill the airwaves, are belted out in karaoke bars, and are downloaded as ringtones.  My Chinese friends and relatives love their music more ardently, and sing it far better, than do my American friends.  But no Chinese melody has yet made it to the American radio or been covered by an American musician.[x]  Americans admire the technical mastery of Lang Lang and other Chinese musicians who perform in the States, but their concerts have done little to spur American interest in Chinese music.  Chinese dramatic and musical theater are likewise without voice or influence in the United States.  Peking and Kunqu Opera troupes tour the U.S., but their audiences are small.  The Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium is a typical venue for these performances, many of which are subsidized by the Chinese government as part of its growing cultural diplomacy program.  This is fitting, as classical opera is a museum art in China, kept alive for a shrinking number of connoisseurs and a growing number of tourists, largely as a matter of cultural pride.  It is not a vibrant contemporary form.

The impact of Chinese literature on American readers is similarly slight.  Memoirs by victims of political violence still find an audience, continuing the tradition of Life and Death in Shanghai and Wild Swans, but few Americans, even readers who seek out translations of world literature, can name a contemporary Chinese fiction writer who resides in China.  Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for his widely unread Soul Mountain and Ha Jin won a PEN Faulkner Award for Waiting, but Gao lives in Paris (he emigrated in 1987) and Ha, who writes in English, has resided in the United States since 1986.  Their well-known exile and the Chinese cultural bureaucracy’s hostility toward Gao[xi] undoubtedly have a stronger impact on American perceptions of literary China than do the works of either writer.  Recent Chinese best-sellers like Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, Yu Hua’s Brothers, and Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby, have been published in English, but made an impression only on China watchers who read these books to understand their popularity in China rather than for literary pleasure.  Most of the limited American interest in these books, like the limited American interest in Chinese film and music, belongs to the realms of Sinology or Cultural Anthropology, rather than to cultural connoisseurship per se.[xii]

Contemporary Chinese narrative arts (films, teleplays, novels, drama, lyrics, and librettos) have a nearly indiscernible cultural presence in the United States.  The visual arts fare somewhat better.  Chinese paintings fetch high prices in New York’s top galleries.  Chinese aesthetics continue to influence American fashion, furniture, packaging, and garden design, much as they did during the Chinoiserie vogue of the 17th and 18th centuries.  As in that earlier period, Chinese aesthetic influence often comes to the United States indirectly and in an altered form from Europe and Japan.  It is largely limited to the realm of decoration, however; it has little impact on American thought.  Most of this aesthetic influence, furthermore—the mandarin collars and qipao hemlines on New York runways, the Chinese character tattooed on Allen Iverson’s neck—derives from Chinese traditional culture rather than from anything created after 1949. 

To put it starkly, there is nothing new in Chinese culture from which Americans draw inspiration or which shapes American views of China.  Americans are, of course, deeply in China’s cultural debt, though they may not realize it.  From the design of the fences and pathways at Monticello, to the State Bird of South Dakota, to the poetry of Pound, Cummings, and Williams, to the paintings celebrated in the Freer Gallery, to the design of the civil service, to the fireworks displays on the 4th of July, to the peaches of Georgia, to the explosion of interest in Chinese-language studies, to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Panda Express, China is part of our cultural DNA.  But despite its successes in manufacturing, education, and public health[a1] , China is in the midst of a “Rise Without Shine”—an increase in standards of living, educational attainment, and commercial and political power that is unaccompanied by the cultural flowering that should be expected from a nation whose historical cultural attainments are unsurpassed.  The weakness of contemporary Chinese culture is lamented not only by foreign observers, but by China’s own cultural critics.  What are the reasons for this failure?

One answer commonly offered by Chinese analysts is that their contemporary culture has no presence in the U.S. because Americans are not receptive to it.  Americans are said to disdain or ignore works from China and other nations because we are too self-regarding, disinterested, or hostile to look beyond our own borders for inspiration.  The American appetite for foreign entertainment and ideas cannot compare to that of China.  China’s cultural openness is one of her great strengths and we would do well to emulate it.  But I reject the notion that Chinese popular culture fails to gain traction in America primarily because Americans ignore China.  On the contrary, the American fascination with China is strong and growing.

Evidence of an American obsession with China is easy to find.  As early as 1990, in his forward to Perry Link’s “Evening Chats in Beijing,” Liu Binyan wrote “I wonder if any country in the world publishes more books about China than does the United States.  At its peak, I am told, the American output of China books reached an average of one per day.”  Earlier this month, David Pillings, Beijing Bureau Chief of the Financial Times, began his review of China books by noting that “books about China are coming off the printing presses faster than Guangdong factories can churn out iPads. If the world was mesmerized by China's rise before the global financial crisis, then that fascination is all the more intense following the dislocations that have cascaded across the western world.”[xiii]  A quick glance at the China section of any Barnes & Noble confirms the American interest not only in Chinese history, economic policy, and current events, but in Chinese culture as well.  Books on Fengshui, Tai-Qi, Chinese Medicine, and The Art of War[xiv] have become ubiquitous.  The number of magazine articles, newspaper stories, and web sites dedicated to things Chinese, the rush to build Confucius Institutes and China gardens, and, most importantly, the rising enrollments in Chinese language and culture courses[xv] among students of all ages demonstrate the falsity of the now hackneyed claim that Americans don’t care about or “don’t understand” China.

Americans do care.  Chinese motifs and narratives abound in American popular culture.  But most interpretations of Chinese themes are provided by American, not Chinese, artists.  In children’s television we have Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat (PBS) and Ni Hao, Kai-lan (Nickelodeon), both of which present a wholly positive view of China and are self-consciously infused with “Chinese values.”  American children’s books on China have always been popular, from Kurt Weise’s illustrated versions of The Story About Ping (1933) and The Five Chinese Brothers (1938), to Meindert DeJong and Maurice Sendak’s Newbery Award-winning The House of Sixty Fathers (1956), to Arlene Mosel and Blair Lent’s Tikki Tikki Tembo (1968), to Ed Young’s contemporary Caldecott Medal–winning renditions of Chinese folk tales.  For teenagers, there are episodes of The Simpsons (“Goo Goo Gai Pan,” 2005) and South Park (“Conjoined Fetus Lady,” 1998 and “The China Probrem,” 2008) that focus on China in irreverent but (mostly) affectionate ways.   The 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, a co-production filmed on location, pays an admiring tribute to Beijing.  Seinfeld fans got a regular diet of Chinese characters, including a takeout delivery man who hawked baldness cures (“The Tape”, 1991), a maître d’ who wouldn’t seat guests (“The Chinese Restaurant,” 1991), and an American woman who pretended to be Chinese for the mystique and sexual allure that Chineseness was assumed to confer (“The Chinese Woman,” 1994).   Major American operas (Nixon in China, 1987), plays (M. Butterfly, 1988), superheroes (Marvel Comics’ Jubilee, introduced with fireworks powers in the 1990s), rock bands (Guns n’ Roses Chinese Democracy, 2008), museum exhibits (The Maryland Science Center’s Chinasaurs, 2008, and The National Geographic Society’s Terra Cotta Warriors, 2010, to name but two), have all drawn on Chinese history and Chinese tropes.  In 2009, the Washington Post’s prestigious marshmallow peeps diorama competition featured three China-themed winners.[xvi]

China is clearly on America’s mind.  It is worth noting, particularly to cultural commissars in Beijing, that in the absence of Chinese representations of China in American popular culture, American artists and entertainers are presenting China in a positive light, even if their portraits are critical, ironic, formulaic, or silly. 

Americans welcome American pop cultural depictions of China, but have no interest in Chinese popular culture itself.  Do the language barrier, political hostility, or an inability to appreciate foreign styles and viewpoints account for this?  No.  Americans are not deterred by foreign origins or unpleasant politics when they find something they like.  American receptivity to Japanese culture, even when anti-Japanese sentiment is high, makes this clear.  There have been a smattering of American films that demonize Japan, like 1989’s Black Rain,[xvii] but fear of a Japanese rise and American fall did not prevent Americans from enjoying and imitating the films of Kurosawa and Miyazaki, or from praising the novels of Tanizaki, Endo, Murakami, and other writers.  Nintendo (Pokemon & Mario Brothers), Bakugan, and anime are now a more formative part of American childhood than Peanuts or baseball.  Examples of direct cultural influence from Japan and other nations are plentiful.  Americans may not watch subtitled television programs, but they are not thoroughgoing cultural xenophobes. 

We cannot ascribe American disinterest in Chinese popular culture to disinterest in China, for interest is high, nor to American cultural xenophobia, which is real, but not dominant.  The Chinese title of this paper, 渠成水不到, reverses the Chinese phrase 水到渠成 to suggest that the fault may lie with Chinese popular culture itself.  水到渠成 (whenwater comes a channel appears) means that when flood waters cross a plain, they will find a channel even where none can at first be seen.  By extension, the phrase means that success will come when conditions are ripe.  In the case of Chinese cultural transmission to the United States, however, the channels are clearly delineated—America is ready—but no water flows.  No cultural nourishment from China reaches us.  Again, what explains this failure?  What makes Chinese popular culture ill suited to American tastes?

China’s top blogger, Han Han, answered the question in his May 20, 2010 speech at Xiamen University, “Why China Cannot Be a Cultural Power.”[xviii] The answer is censorship.  The point may seem too obvious to make.  It must be made nonetheless, for there has been a lot of loose talk on both sides of the Pacific about China’s growing “soft power” which glosses over the inevitable loss of competitiveness, attractiveness, or quality that censored art faces in a free cultural environment[xix].  Censorship takes its greatest toll on the narrative arts—novels tend to be more declarative and direct than paintings—which is why China’s visual arts have enjoyed more rapid development than literature, theater, and film.  But it is the narrative arts—stories driven by conflict, including political and social conflict, and characters who are psychologically complex, flawed, and often at odds with the value system of the majority—that capture our attention and do the most to shape our perceptions.[xx]

It is in this regard that censorship—and China’s acclimatization to censorship—prevents Chinese pop culture from attracting and influencing American audiences.[xxi]  Americans will respond to fictional characters and songwriters whose psychologies and circumstances differ from their own, but not to those who are constrained by forces external to the novel or song.  They will search for coded protest in such work.  If they can’t find it, they will dismiss it as sincere but fatally hobbled, or as propaganda.  In an attempt to skirt this problem, Chinese cultural diplomacy focuses on spectacle, decoration[xxii], the politically safe past, or vague discussion of values.  But song and dance troupes, acrobats, photo exhibits, and lectures on Confucianism cannot wholly compensate for the absence of free Chinese artists and entertainers, even when the expertise of the contortionists or Confucianists is unassailable.  

This is not simply an American critique of Chinese cultural policy; many Chinese are aware of the issue, as their reactions to the 2008 American movie Kungfu Panda made clear.  DreamWorks’ comedy quickly became the highest grossing animated film in Chinese history.  Although one Chinese artist tried to sue DreamWorks for its depiction of China’s national symbol as a bumbling loser fathered by a goose, his objections were scorned or ignored by most Chinese viewers.  A debate broke out among Chinese bloggers about why a terrific film built on Chinese motifs and values was made in the United States and not in China.  The consensus was that cultural bureaucrats would have drained all life from the Panda in an effort to make him a worthy representative of China.  As one Chinese film executive put it, “all the censors can think about is how to teach children… And they don’t seem to understand that edgy, hip entertainment can actually result in some pretty effective teaching.”[xxiii]  The cost of Beijing’s insistence on perfect protagonists and execrable villains is a popular culture and, most absurdly, a children’s culture, peopled by insipid, predictable characters.[xxiv]  It is the problem that F. Scott Fitzgerald warned of in The Rich Boy: “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing.”  ‘Nothing’ doesn’t have a big following in the U.S.

It might be argued that it is unfair to describe Chinese popular culture as weak on the international scene, because the forms of global pop culture, like the terms of international trade, are set by the West and favor its products.  This would explain the derivative nature of most Chinese pop.  It is true that China’s charms are best experienced not in theaters or on television or computer screens, but on side streets and in parks, parlors, and the studios and garrets of artists who don’t care about the popularity of their work.  The argument also offers the exciting prospect that China may introduce the world to new cultural forms, as it has before.[xxv]

But this approach ignores the PRC’s vast and unforced output of movies, pop ballads, and game shows.  It also asks that we overlook China’s “popular” literary and artistic accomplishments prior to 1949, Japan’s dominance of many forms of popular culture, and the appetite of the Chinese for popular entertainment from South Korea, Japan, the United States, and China itself.

Global cultural weakness of the sort described in this essay is a price that Beijing seems willing to pay for what it calls stability.  The price is high, even from Beijing’s point of view.  In the absence of creative voices from China that could make Americans more sympathetic to China’s challenges, Americans base their perceptions of China on (1) American academic and cultural depictions of China, which are critical, but rarely hostile; (2) interactions with Chinese in America, which are usually positive; and, most notably, (3) news reports on China, which are mixed, as are the facts on the ground in China.  Chinese popular culture’s failure to engage Americans yields the field to U.S. commentators and to the media.  This does not serve China’s interests.  Nor does it serve those of the United States, as Chinese censorship deprives us of the creative energies of one fifth of humanity.

This is not a call for greater output of entertainment with “Chinese characteristics,” whatever those may be.  It is a lament that Americans are not enriched by contemporary art and entertainment that originates in China and is good.[xxvi]  A literary or cinematic masterpiece might occasionally emerge from China even under current political conditions, and China will continue to produce superb cultural ambassadors like Lang Lang, Yao Ming, and the figure skaters Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbao.  But no positive cultural impression that they create will overcome American’s political awareness that China is not free, even if Chinese enjoy far greater freedom than most Americans realize.

[i] Prepared for The U.S. and China: Mutual Public Perceptions, a July 19-20, 2010 conference co-sponsored by the Kissinger Institute on China and the United Sates and the Tsinghua University Center for U.S.-China Relations.

[ii] By which I mean primarily China’s high culture.  No slight is intended to China’s magnificent folk cultures, which still thrive in Chinese villages.

[iii] As opposed to dynamic and living.  I do not mean to imply that China’s pre-modern philosophy and cultural practices could not be reinvigorated to become a source of moral guidance and aesthetic enjoyment in China and beyond.  They could be, but prospects for such a renaissance are dim at this writing.

[iv] And there are many of them. There are over 3,000 television stations in China, most of which produce original programs.

[v] Martin Scorsese called Tian’s The Horse Thief (1986) the greatest film of the 1990s (the film was not released in the United States until the 1990s), but few Americans saw it.

[vi] Zhang’s Ju Dou (1989), named Best Film at the Chicago Film Festival, was banned in China until 1992, as was his Raise the Red Lantern (1981).

[vii] Zhang’s Shanghai Triad (1995) was pulled from the New York Film Festival by the Chinese Government when it was announced that The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, would be screened.

[viii] In 2000, the Chinese Government banned actor/director Jiang Wen from filmmaking after he took his Devils on the Doorstep to the Venice Film Festival without approval from China’s Film Bureau.

[ix] Nevertheless, excellent films by China’s Sixth Generation of directors, most notably Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Zhang Yuan, have been made and shown in China and the United States with little interference from the Chinese government.  The dark and often obscure work of these directors has not won large audiences in China or the U.S., however.

[x] As did Kyu Sakamoto’s ,Sukiyaki, which topped the Billboard Top 100 in June, 1963, in which position it was preceded by Leslie Gore’s It’s My Party and succeeded by Easier Said Than Done, by the Essexes.  A Sukiyaki cover by A Taste of Honey, with English lyrics, was Billboard’s top soul single in May, 1981.

[xi] His works were banned in China after the 1989 publication of his play, Fugitives.

[xii] Needless to say, I haven’t read every novel published in China over the past 25 years.  What I have done since 1986 is ask Chinese friends who are professors of English and Chinese literature whether anything has been published that is worthy of attention purely as great literature and not as examples of what can be published or what is enjoyed in China.  The answer remains a regretful “Not yet.”

[xiii] David Pilling, “The Chinese Way; More than ever, we must understand a country that is the only serious challenger to the US for superpower status,” Financial Times, July 3, 2010.

[xiv] I stopped counting Art of War books on at 35.  These included volumes on the art of war for writers, women, and investors.

[xv] See, for example, “French not ‘fini’, but Chinese challenging its place in language classrooms,” Michael Lollar, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN, June 11, 2010 on the rise of Chinese in Tennessee public schools. (

[xvi]Peepa Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First EmPeepOr, Chinese Olympeep Women Gymnasts Win the Gold, and Goodbye Year of the Rat; Hello Year of the Peeples

[xvii] There has been little demonization of China in American pop culture to date.  Watch for the remake of the Cold War schlock film Red Dawn, this time with China invading and occupying the U.S., which may be released this fall.


[xix] The same problem dampens the prospects of China’s worldwide media initiatives and plans for a 24-hour English-language news channel.   

[xx] This is true in China as well as in the U.S., where the most beloved characters, both Chinese (The Monkey King, San Mao the 1930s Shanghai street urchin, and San Mao the Taiwanese bohemian writer) and American (Scarlett O’Hara, Maria Von Trapp, Jake Sully of Avatar fame), are naughty individualists who buck the system.   

[xxi] There are other factors beside censorship—China’s predominant consumer culture, an educational system that stomps out the creative impulse, a lack of leisure, a paucity of subcultures—but censorship is the primary culprit.

[xxii] Including video travelogues of Chinese scenery and display of minority costumes and customs.

[xxiii] Mark Magnier, “China’s Imported Panda,” Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2008

[xxiv] See China’s most famous State-sponsored cartoon characters—Blue Cat, Pleasant Sheep, and the Fuwa of Beijing Olympics fame.

[xxv] See Simon Leys, “One More Art,” The New York Review of Books, April 18, 1996, which opens with the sentence: The discovery of a new major art should have more momentous implications for mankind than the exploration of an unknown continent or the sighting of a new planet.

[xxvi] Geremie Barmé is right in insisting that what matters is not Chinese culture, but a cultured China.


About the Author

Robert Daly image

Robert Daly

Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

Robert Daly, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, has compiled an unusually diverse portfolio of high-level work: He has served as a US diplomat in Beijing; as an interpreter for Chinese and US leaders, including President Carter and Secretary of State Kissinger; as head of China programs at Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, and the University of Maryland; and as a producer of Chinese-language versions of Sesame Street. Recognized East and West as a leading authority on Sino-US relations, he has testified before Congress, lectured widely in both countries, and regularly offers analysis for top media outlets.

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Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people.  Read more