A Commercial for China
If you stopped by Times Square between January 17 and February 14 this year, you couldn’t miss China’s bright red commercial for itself. Yes, I am talking about the one-minute video that was played 300 times a day on a giant screen there in the heart of Manhattan. The video has two parts, both of which end with the punchline “Chinese friendship. China.” It is a simple slideshow-like presentation of Chinese celebrities posing for the camera, accompanied with a line of text in English containing the word “Chinese,” e.g., “stunning Chinese beauty” and “extraordinary Chinese people.”
But, when I watched the video, I failed to sense the “Chinese friendship” mentioned in the punchline.
If images of women in Mandarin gowns representing “beauty” isn’t a little off the theme of “Chinese friendship” (despite being a little sexist), images of the Chinese space travel team and noted Chinese scholars sure are. Why the heck are they there? Promoting friendship with America, or scaring the Americans by tapping into American anxieties about China being a rival in these fields?
Given my tendency to over-analyze everything in life, I wrote down the rest of the lines in the video and tried to make sense of it. What the video seems to convey is indeed not “friendship.” Rather, it tries to present China as an independent cultural entity, with four cultural forces being uniquely “Chinese”: media, technology, money, and the “beautiful,” “brave,” and “extraordinary” people in everyday life.
For instance, the uniqueness of Chinese media. The video claims China excels at not only media presentation itself (e.g., TV shows and films), but also the things that make up the content of media stories (e.g., sports and art events). It shows “Thrilling Chinese athletes,” “Enchanting Chinese art,” “Aesthetic Chinese design,” “Trend-setting Chinese supermodels,” “Captivating Chinese dialogue” (talk-show hosts), and “Award-winning Chinese talent” (Chinese film directors).
Through listing the different aspects related to the media and using emotionally charged adjectives to describe them, these lines assert the superiority of the capabilities of Chinese media when it comes to producing and distributing information (“captivating” and “award-winning”), as well as the quality of the images related to China in the media (“thrilling”, “enchanting”, “aesthetic,” and “trend-setting”).
Next we have statements related to technology and science, including “Leading Chinese agriculture,” “Thought-provoking Chinese scholarship,” and “Chinese space travel.” The three fields — agriculture, scholarship and space travel — are also marked as both “Chinese” and advanced (“leading,” “thought-provoking,” and the modernity that “space travel” itself implies).
The last instance is the statement about money: “Influential Chinese wealth.”
Though with only one line, this phrase was displayed longer than most other lines with alternating images of different Chinese entrepreneurs. Together, they send the message that China has money.
So, basically the video is claiming that China excels at media, technology, money, and having wonderful people. Why these four? Well, in an increasingly globalized world like the one we live in, they are the very cultural flows that cross national borders. For instance, if you think about Americanization, my dear reader, what comes to your mind? The globally distributed Hollywood movies, the omnipresent Facebook in different languages, Steve Jobs and the ubiquity of Apple products, or the people in front of you in line at McDonald’s? Probably all of them. Obviously, it wouldn’t be a good idea if the United States were to make a video with these images, insert a line saying “American _______,” and then show it around the world to “promote friendship.” But that’s unfortunately what this video is doing. By marking media, technology, money, and people as distinctly “Chinese,” it is trying to distinguish itself from other cultures in the globalized world.
So let me ask you, do you think such a move of “territorializing” achieves the claimed purpose in the punchline, to promote the friendship between Chinese and Americans? Probably not. Instead of “Chinese friendship. China,” a more accurate punchline would probably be “China dominates cultural forces and says ‘no’ to Americanization.”
But, dear China, who denies your control over the media? And who doubts the fact that you have modern technology and lots of money? Is this just another symptom of your post-colonial insecurities when presenting yourself to America and the West? It’s already 2011. Move on, okay?
If you want to know more:
- Norman Fairclough has a book titled Language and Globalization, which gives a framework to critically examine discourses related to globalization. As I wrote this post, I was thinking about the different agents and voices he identifies in his work.
- Globalization and different cultural flows are ideas that Arjun Appadurai, a socio-cultural anthropologist, has explored in great depth. His article “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” gives a thorough analysis on this topic. Related, but on a different topic, is David Harvey’s paper, “Time-Space Compression and the Rise of Modernism as a Cultural Force.”
- Cultural flows and ethnic identity in the age of globalization are topics that have interested many discourse analysts and applied linguists. For example, Alastair Pennycook has analyzed language use in the realm of popular culture in different localities. David Block and Deborah Cameron also edited a book discussing emerging issues related to language teaching and learning in the age of globalization.