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Does China Lack Gangnam Style?

Posted in Recommended Reading

I admit to a bit of fascination with the viral Korean pop video, Gangnam Style.  My fascination stems from the following:

  • It has nearly 400 million views on YouTube.  Some kind of record.
  • I have been going to Gangnam 4-8 times a year for at least 15 years. It’s the wealthiest and trendiest part of Seoul and of Korea, but there really isn’t a lot of there there and that is what I see as the theme of the song/video.
  • I am a huge fan of Korea and whenever people talk of the China miracle, I start talking about the Korea miracle.  Korea was the second poorest country in the world in the 1950s and it is now a wealthy developed country.  In addition to its economic miracle, it also has become a full-fledged democracy.  I can remember ten years ago walking through parts of Busan or Seoul that had open sewers.  No more. I was in Busan a few months ago and what struck me was how everyone seemed to be at least middle class. Korea deserves credit for having “made it.”
  • I think a video like Gangnam Style almost has to come from a country that has made it and has confidence in itself.  I can remember ten years ago having only one Korean friend who I felt was truly honest about Korea — both its good and its bad.  My other Korean friends were overly protective of their country, refusing to admit it had any real faults. That sort of protection is disappearing and I see that as a good thing.

But what about China? I just read a really good piece by Evan Osnos, a top-notch China journalist for New Yorker, on how China is just not capable of producing a video like Gangnam Style.  Not because China doesn’t have tens of thousands of very creative people, but because it is just not there yet in terms of being able to poke fun at itself.  The article is called “Why China Lacks Gangnam Style” and I recommend that you check it out.  Whether you agree or not, it certainly makes for an interesting read.

But do you agree?  Is Osnos right that China could not produce such a video, or is he selling China short?

  • Paul STL

    China, still under the communists. That’s problem.

  • Phil H

    Agree 100% with this. I find the people around me to have very vigorous and subversive senses of humour, but none of it is ever represented in the media. It’ll be a long time before the censors let much funny stuff through.

  • http://www.facebook.com/laodand Lao Dan

    You rightly summed up the situation in the following sentence: “I think a video like Gangnam Style almost has to come from a country that has made it and has confidence in itself.”
    Absolutely.

    China has still a long road to travel for its society to feel at ease in modernity. But I nevertheless think that we’ll not have to wait 20 years for hearing and seeing stuff produced by Chinese who radiate confidence from seeing in the mirror that their country has made it.

    Evan Osnos’ piece, to me, feels unfair. Korea 20 years ago was a very different place than what it is today and I’m certain that China will look a whole lot different from how it looks now in far less than 20 years. My take is that we should avoid this incessant comparison between countries being at very different stages of their development.

    The culture of modernity matures in individuals’ minds from their observation and immersion in the growth and maturation of capital, industry, services and, yes, also politics. This is a process and comparing countries at different stages of this process makes no sense.

  • Roberto

    Around 10 years ago I arranged a meeting with a middle manager at the headquarters/factory of a large U.S. automobile manufacturer on the outskirts of Shanghai. The guy I was supposed to meet had forgotten about the meeting and was actually back in Puxi, but when I called, he apologized and said he was on his way, suggesting I have lunch at a trucker cafeteria not far from the gatehouse. I did, and it was horrific (nearly everyone who works out in that area can rely on a company cafeteria), so my Shanghai general manager and I headed back to the gatehouse to wait.

    In the gatehouse were three guards behind a desk, and a half dozen plastic chairs facing them. My Putonghua is poor, but this was before smartphones, so I thought I’d pass the time in conversation with one or more of the guards. One guy had no interest at all in us, another guy – while one of the handsomest men I’d ever seen, with astonishing Hollywood teeth (on his salary, presumably natural) – didn’t appear to have two brain cells to rub together, and the third guy was smart and interested in a conversation. I asked my general manager, an Australian-educated Chinese woman who had worked for me for a couple of years, to interpret, and we had an interesting and wide-raning conversation.

    We talked about the Hainan Island incident (which had occurred only a few weeks before), and this uneducated son of peasants, when I asked him what he thought (at a time of aggressive central government rhetoric) said, “I don’t know what to think: I don’t believe what your government says, and I don’t believe mine either.” Sign the man up as a foreign policy analyst or give him a job with the National Security Agency!

    Most fun for me was when it was our man’s turn to stand outside and operate the barrier. My general manager and I walked outside with the guard to continue our conversation, and not long after, one of the senior presumably American executives returned to the plant in his chauffeur-driven car. The guard saluted, and standing next to him, I saluted. The exec saluted both of us back with a smile. The guard then said to my general manager, “Ask him [me] what he thinks the difference in the senses of humor of Chinese and foreigners is?” I replied, “Why do you think there’s a difference?” He said, “I stand here every day watching people, and I can see that there’s a difference. I’d like to hear what you think.”

    So I thought about that, and replied with something along the lines of Osnos’s observation: “I think that for the most part, Chinese are able to laugh easily at others, but not at themselves.” He mused on that for a few moments, and said, “I agree.”

    It’s insecurity, of course, which is also one explanation for all the (yawn) nationalistic posturing (and today, the – yawn again – excessive celebration of Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize.

  • Lucifer

    You know, you are on the cusp of a bigger issue, but your feelings are spot on. Do you remember the Olympics Opening Ceremony in Beijing in 2008? China was on the world stage for the first time and everything had to be perfect – which meant the message to be conveyed had to be of a perfect and powerful, sophisticated China. Then we found out that the young girl who actually sang the song used in the ceremony was considered “not pretty enough” so they used as stand in to lip sync, who was considered “cuter.”

    Flash forward to the opening ceremony at the London Olympics, and the national anthem, which pays homage to the Queen and the sovereign, was sung by a choir of handicapped children who were deaf or hard of hearing…..there was no attempt to portray a false image, but instead an overt attempt to show the achievements of children despite their handicap. I am not British, but that not only showed the imperfectness of mankind, but did not attempt to hide it and instead glorified societies attempt at inclusiveness. I am not sure what a UK during its industrial revolution would have done, but this is a sign of a mature society who has no problem airing out its dirty laundry .

  • Fivespice Girl

    You’ve obviously never heard of Mandopop.

  • Eric Meng

    There are a lot of Chinese videos and memes that poke fun at life in China, Chinese culture, and even the Chinese government. But the difference between those and something like Gangnam Style is that the Chinese videos and memes are of extremely limited interest to almost all non-Chinese, because they’re so self-referential and inbred in their humor. And the phenomenon of the separate Chinese internet doesn’t help things either.

  • Brian L

    Despite the silliness of the Gangnam Style video; this post poses a very interesting question. 60 Minutes did a fascinating story on China last year and the reasons why American manufacturers and designers flock to China for production purposes. They are outstanding at taking developed ideas and plans and producing them in mass quantities at low rates. However, the same story went on to say that many of the same Americans are astonished at the lack of creativity and improvisation that their Chinese manufacturers show.

    Perhaps, this is also true of something like Gangnam style. Without being fully knowledgeable on modern Chinese culture, I hesitate to say that the populace of China is unable to produce such a viral hit. However, I wonder if there is even such a desire to do so. In the meantime, I’ll continue to check YouTube for “Beijing Style.”

  • Dan (another Dan)

    I see Osnos point, but I’m also inclined with Eric Meng’s comment.
    Some of my mainland friends and acquaintances (of different generations and hometowns) have sent me material where Chinese folks have made fun of themselves and they find amusing. A lot of that humor is quite insular and isn’t transferable, like it’s really not funny for people outside of that circle. But you know what? It’s fine, because humor like beauty, has always been value only in the eyes of the beholder.

    So, there probably won’t be a Chinese version of Gangnam style, but like do a lot of people care or even want one? It won’t be alike in many ways, and the humor might not reach everyone. Here’s another thing to think about, most people around the world who have watched that video don’t even get the parody. They’re just amused and interested in the aesthetics.