Satire Style, or Evan Osnos needs to watch some TV

In the wake of the astronomical global success of Korean pop singer PSY’s hit song “Gangnam Style” – which now has over 450 million views on YouTube alone – a debate has arisen over “how Korea did it” and whether or not China can “do it too.” In last week’s New Yorker, Evan Osnos argued that China lacks Gangnam Style:

In China, the Gangnam phenomenon carries a special pique. It has left people asking, Why couldn’t we come up with that? China, after all, dwarfs Korea in political clout, money, and market power, and it cranks out more singers and dancers in a single city than Korea does nationwide. Chinese political leaders are constantly talking about the need for “soft power”—they have dotted the globe with Confucius Institutes to rival the Alliance Française, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news. Last year, the Communist Party even declared culture a national priority and vowed to produce its own share of global cultural brands.

So, should we expect a Chinese Gangnam soon? Don’t count on it. “PSY is a satirist, making fun, and having fun,” said John Delury, an expert on China and Korea who teaches international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Korea tends to have more irony and satire in its comedy than China, and there aren’t the impediments to exporting things that question or poke fun of Korean society, politics, etc. And I think somehow people all over the world feel invited to join in, despite a huge cultural difference, when someone from a foreign place is making a bit of fun of themselves. That’s inviting. But China, especially acting in its official, soft-power capacity, is only comfortable exporting things that show off the greatness of its ancient civilization or economic development. That’s not terribly inviting.”

In other words, China could not currently produce Gangnam Style because its culture does not value satire and is so insecure with itself that it is only willing to produce cultural products displaying its own greatness.

Osnos points out that, at the same time as it mocks itself (see the lyrics in English here), Gangnam Style has all the characteristics of “earnest K-pop: highly engineered dance routines, over-the-top styling, and the Technicolor production values honed by Seoul’s hit-making industry.” What made Gangnam Style internationally successful, he claims, was not these factors, however, which are shared with the dozens of other K-pop groups that have failed to gain any traction outside of East Asia, but the fact that it’s clearly a self-critical joke.

This certainly is a large part of Gangnam Style’s success, but it clearly isn’t everything. As I’ll discuss in a moment, China has its own share of self-mocking cultural products, despite what Osnos seems to believe about the lack of a Chinese sense of irony and satire. What, then, are the reasons for Gangnam Style’s incredible success?

I believe there are several:

  • It’s amusing (ironic, self-mocking, or otherwise)
  • The dance is easily replicable
Yes, it’s a catchy tune; yes, the production is very flashy; yes, the chorus (“Oppan Gangnam Style”) is easy to remember and simple for non-Korean speakers to pronounce. These factors, however, are present in hundreds of other K-pop videos that were nowhere near as successful overseas (the nearest any video has gotten is probably SNSD’s Gee, which has only 88 million views, and I’m willing to bet an amount of money equal to the cost of Taeyeon’s plastic surgery that the vast majority of those views are intra-East Asian). I’d also argue that Gangnam Style’s success was also boosted by PSY’s supposed similarity to the American group LMFAO, the sex appeal of Hyuna (who appears in the video), and (some might also argue) PSY’s overall non-threatening nature, but these are not the point of this post.

Chinese culture is certainly not lacking in satire or unable to mock itself, however. Anyone claiming so hasn’t read their Lu Xun, at the very least. Official (government-produced or -funded) cultural products are certainly censored, and probably take themselves too seriously, as Osnos points out, but there is a whole world of cultural products created in China every day, over which the government exerts very little influence.The Chinese Internet is a large source of unofficial cultural products, but many are still produced for more traditional media such as television. A prime example of this is the popular television program 非诚勿扰 (If You Are the One, pronounced Feichengwurao).

Fei Cheng Wu Rao, which translates literally as “if not sincere, don’t bother,” is a dating show in which a male, normally between the age of 20 and 35, is brought on stage with 24 women of a similar age, each of which has a light that she can turn off at any point if she is not interested in the male. The show’s host, Meng Fei (who is commonly referred to as “Teacher Meng” by participants), facilitate’s the young man’s introduction of himself through a series of videos about his personality and interests, his work, his past romantic engagements, and his friends, occasionally interrupting with questions or allowing questions from the young women. Ultimately, if he lasts until the end of the introduction and questions and there are still women with their lights on, the young man gets to choose one to go on a date with, expenses paid by the television show.

If you think this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Check out part of an episode (with English subtitles) here. My observations of this show lead me to the conclusion that the people on the show are very materialistic and concerned with appearances. I’m not alone in drawing this conclusion; the majority of people I speak to about the show who have also seen it, both foreigners and Chinese, agree. And yet, the show remains as one of the most popular programs in the country and the highest rated program on its station. Why could this be?

Watch a few episodes and pay particular attention to Meng Fei, to the questions he asks and the comments he makes, and you’ll realize that Fei Cheng Wu Rao is really satire. I believe the contestants on the show are very sincere about being on the show, for the most part, but I don’t think the producers of the show are serious about hosting them. Ultimately, Fei Cheng Wu Rao is mocking the materialism and moral degradation that many Chinese feel has crept into their society in the last thirty years.

I believe Fei Cheng Wu Rao proves that it’s not fair to say that Chinese culture is unwilling to critique and mock itself. Why is it not as popular as Gangnam Style, then? There are dozens of reasons, most of them similar to the reasons why, say, The Goonies was popular in the United States but was not a large international success. Linguistic and cultural barriers can be difficult to overcome, and a catchy beat, easily replicable dance moves, and some goofy acting can go a long way in tearing those barriers down.

Is China going to have a “Gangnam Style moment” in the near future? I don’t know the answer to that question. Will it have one in the future? I can confidently say, yes, it will.

Update 16/10/2012: For more proof that China is capable of satire, check out these two articles by the Global Times (which is a subsidiary of People’s Daily, and nominally state-run): Why We’re Staying In China and Ask Alessandro