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A Commercial for China

February 21, 2011

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?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Johnstone permalink
    February 23, 2011 3:25 am

    Very strange film, I agree. Couldn’t they think of an adjective for “Chinese Space Travel”? Or why else does the parallelism break down with this NP?

    • February 23, 2011 11:34 pm

      I honestly don’t know, but I really like your question. My speculation is that “space travel” as a phrase takes up two words (which already violates the parallel structure). Parallelism is a common rhetorical device in Chinese, as a way to make the language sound more powerful. Yet it requires more than three sentences sharing strictly the same number of words and identical syntactical structure. Although the video is in English, I think the idea of parallelism is still a very Chinese one.

      Maybe I should have written about that!

  2. Chenchen Huang permalink
    October 14, 2012 1:34 pm

    Being a Chinese myself, I could understand the presentational strategy and concerns of the Chinese government while designing the commercial. Since the one-minute advertisement is sponsored by an official apparatus rather than some private enterprise, it has to show, like what you wrote, the best of China’s cultural heritage, technological advancement, agricultural innovation and newly-gained wealth. It’s the pride and nationalism that matter (remember how China prized itself as “Celestial Empire” in the Qing Dynasty and even before that). On the other hand, the Chinese government must be concerned about what to cater to the American/Western audiences. They simply can’t project the party as the savior as they usually propagate domestic Chinese populace. Americans won’t buy! But the trickiest part is that most of Americans don’t know about Chinese celebrities (as well as Chinese culture and development) that well. The commercial and the people standing and posing in the commercial fail to make any sense. Then here lies the contradiction, the whole point of making this commercial is to reach out for a global audience to respect, or at least to know China. So, it is undoubtedly a poorly-crafted commercial. For me, I felt somehow alienated when I watched the video. I was thinking “wait a minute, are you suggesting that I am not qualified enough to represent my own country because I am not a Chinese who are extraordinary?” I guess this also reflects the ideology of Leninist-elitism deeply embedded in Chinese leadership nowadays. Do you think so?

    • October 17, 2012 12:56 am

      They might call it “Leninist-elitism with Chinese characteristics” instead. 🙂

      Anyway, thank you for the comment. I’m glad that you share feelings of alienation and contradiction too. I think whether the root being Leninist-elitism or something else that is more native to the Chinese society, it probably has something to do with the post-colonial sense of victimhood, especially if you think about the extravaganza they put on for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 2010 Shanghai Expo. However, this eager to show a “rising” China is exactly what would unnerve some Americans. Did you not hear how much Gov. Romney already hates China? — Okay, the last sentence is off my point, but you know what I mean.

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