The First Taste of Korean Wave in China
By Jian Cai

In the last few years, Korean films, TV dramas and pop music have become immensely popular abroad, a phenomenon known as the Korean Wave. This is the 31st in a series of essays by a select group of scholars and journalists looking at the spread of Korean pop culture in Southeast Asian countries and beyond. - Ed.

In recent years, Asia has seen a boom in Korean influence: from television dramas, film and music, to food and fashion. In Greater China (which includes the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan), Japan, Southeast Asia, India and even in Turkey, whenever you turn on the television you are sure to see a Korean drama.

While loyal fans watch Korean films and dramas attentively, love and even shed tears for the characters, business people make money from advertisers. On the streets of major Asian cities, it is easy to spot girls wearing clothes, makeup and hairstyles popularized on Korean television. The boom has spread to food, fashion and computer games as well as boosting tourist arrivals to Korea. Even learning Korean has become fashionable.

The term "Hallyu," Korean for the Korean Wave, was coined by Chinese media in 2001 to describe the rapid rise of Korean pop culture. It refers to Korean popular culture spread to other countries primarily through the mass media. The tag is applied to Korean television dramas, movies, internet games, fashion and popular music.

Though the word "Hallyu" did not appear until 2001, the history of the Korean Wave goes back to 1997, when "A Wish upon a Star" - a story of a poor woman courted by two wealthy men - was broadcast by Phoenix TV in Hong Kong and its popularity extended into the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Though the Korean Wave has spread to many Asian countries there is no doubt that it has found greatest success in China, especially when Korean TV drama "Daejanggeum" aired in 2005.

When General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Hu Jintao met with the leader of Korea's Uri Party, he told the visiting guest, "It's a pity that I cannot watch 'Daejanggeum' everyday because I am so busy." Vice President of China Zeng Qinghong also said he had watched several episodes of this drama. Another high-ranking Chinese official, Wu Bangguo, said that both he and his wife watch the show when they have time, which then led to a flurry of Chinese media reports on the surge in popularity of Korean culture in China.

Why the popularity?

As the Korean Wave became increasingly popular, more scholars and journalists paid attention to it. They wrote about it in academic journals, newspaper columns and magazine articles, asserting many reasons for the emergence of Korean popular culture. Some said the most powerful push for the Korean Wave came from the Korean government. They argued that after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the Korean government had begun targeting the export of Korean popular culture as a new economic initiative.

President Kim Dae-jung, who informally called himself the "president of culture," established the Basic Law for Cultural Industry Promotion in 1999 by allocating $148.5 million to this project.

Others argued that international circumstances were the engine behind the Korean Wave.

As globalization develops and cultural exchanges become more and more frequent, Asia is no longer dominated by American popular culture. Asians are choosing what they consider to more closely resemble their culture. They choose Korean entertainment because it contains Asian values and sentiments. However, apart from these reasons there are three other main forces behind the Korean Wave in China.

Similar cultures

The first and most important reason is that China and Korea share a similar culture. Over thousands of years, China and Korea have had a long historical relationship and have shared a common cultural background. Both China and Korea belong to the East Asian Confucian circle of culture. The civilization of Huaxia or Han not only has deeply influenced Korean language and values, but also Korea's etiquette, customs and social structure. So the similar expression of feelings, similar philosophy and values and similar thoughts make it easy for Chinese people to accept Korean dramas and culture. In addition, the Korean Wave is also related to the temporary lack of traditional culture in China. In the past century, the May Fourth Movement and the Great Cultural Revolution diminished the influence of Confucianism, resulting in a lack of traditional culture in China.

But in Korean dramas Chinese people saw traces of their traditional Confucian culture. They found these dramas full of familiar Confucian-based values, such as family-centered behavior, respect for the elderly, and preference for sons. Some have said that Koreans are more like the Chinese than the Chinese themselves.

But while Chinese people sighed over the loss of their precious cultural wealth, they also felt proud of their traditional culture. From these dramas they found that ancient China was powerful enough to receive tributes from neighboring countries. They followed the Chinese calendar, they read Chinese books, and they took part in Chinese imperial examinations. All of these made the Chinese feel proud of their traditional culture. Chinese people admire Korean culture because it awakens the distant memory of their own traditional civilization. Some people have said that the Korean Wave could encourage the Chinese to reassess their traditional culture and might give rise to a renaissance of traditional culture.

Economic reasons
The second reason is based on the economy

From the very beginning of the new China, it has barely searched for the road toward modernization. In the 1950s and 60s, China blindly followed the USSR, but after it adopted an open-door policy in the 1980s China learned Western style thoroughly. As this occurred, China failed to balance traditional culture and modern Western thought. On the other hand, Korea presented a model of rapid modernization while retaining its traditional culture. The Korean Wave blends Confucianism and Western industrial culture.

However, Chinese understanding of the Korean Wave is not limited to TV shows. Nowadays, the lives of Koreans integrate the traditional factors of Confucian culture with the West's modern thoughts and ideologies. Many Korean TV shows vividly depict the fates of common people - and their affections, friendships and love - through their daily lives. Integrated with traditional virtues, Korean shows also reflect the thoughts and ideas of modern people. Their thoughts, in fact, are related to the thoughts of Westerners. Due to historical factors, Korea has been deeply influenced by Confucian culture, and it has also been baptized in American culture. Through Korean pop culture, viewers experience how Koreans manage to keep traditional values while incorporating Western elements into their culture. Korean pop culture has borrowed the best of Western popular culture and recreated it according to Korean tastes. Therefore, Korean TV shows, which integrate both Oriental and Western cultures, act as a mirror and provide a lot of experiences and lessons to Chinese people.

Apart from that, Chinese people were also attracted to the "modern image" seen in the fashion, hair styles, and lifestyles of Korea. Despite more than 20 years of reform, China's per capita gross domestic product is still far behind most developed countries. Compared with Korea, the gap is not very big, especially in bigger coastal cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen. Chinese people consider the views and items portrayed in Korean dramas, such as tall buildings and fancy cars, as something they can have in the near future.

Another economic factor has been that at the beginning of the new century, Korean products were cheaper than Japanese products. In 2000, Korean television dramas were a quarter of the price of their Japanese counterparts, and a tenth of the price of Hong Kong television dramas. The lower prices also made the Korean products more competitive.

The third reason lies in diplomacy.

After the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Korea in 1992, the relationship between the two countries developed quickly. The two countries share common ground on some important regional issues, such as the North Korean nuclear crisis. They base this diplomatic consensus on their own interests. Because they share the common experience of Japanese invasion, they remain wary of Japan. In addition, Korea is gradually distancing itself from the United States and is increasingly moving close to China, which makes Chinese people more comfortable with Korean culture.

The backlash and the future

Although many people believe that the Korean Wave is growing, some argue that the Korean Wave is slowly fading away, especially because of a backlash against the Korean Wave in some countries.

The future of the Korean Wave remains a topic of debate. Many observers believe that it will not sustain its popularity; others argue that its popularity is already fading away. Some people even disparage the quality of Korean popular culture, which, they argue, spread only as a substitute for Japanese popular culture after the sudden economic drop of the 1990s. By my observation, from 2006 the Korean Wave in China has been gradually losing steam due to several factors.

First, the trade of cultural products is unbalanced.

According to press reports, China's trade deficit in cultural products trade with Korea is much bigger than that in industrial productions. The ratio of the industrial trade deficit to the cultural trade deficit is 1:10. The trade deficit is very big. In the past decade, China has imported a lot of Korean dramas and films and granted approval to a lot of Korean singers to hold concerts in China, but did not receive the same in return. Chinese dramas rarely break into the Korean market and the three biggest Korean TV stations don't often air Chinese dramas. The Korean government imported several Vietnamese films purposely to balance the cultural production trade between Korea and Vietnam, but did not do the same with China.

Second, Korean dramas came as a big shock to the Chinese market.

From 1993, the prices of Korean dramas imported into China have increased gradually. The Korean Wave reached its peak when "Daejanggeum" aired in China in September and October 2005. After that, Chinese officials, celebrities and the media began to criticize the excessive influx of Korean culture. According to statistics, in 2004, there were about 12,000 episodes of dramas made by Chinese producers, but only airtime for 5,000 episodes. The financial loss amounted to 3 billion RMB ($427 million) every year.

The famous actor Zhang Guoli said that China was becoming "a giant in importing foreign culture." In history, China has been invaded by militaries but never by culture, and the stations airing Korean dramas were accused of "selling out the nation."

China's State Administration for Radio Film and Television also said in December 2005 that China had been too generous with the import of Korean TV dramas and called for a stricter screening process. It said China should limit airtime for Korean dramas to 50 percent.

Soon after, China Central Television said it would gradually reduce the amount of time allotted to soap operas from Korea. Beijing TV said it was pondering a similar move and could start showing more Hong Kong and Taiwan-made soap operas.

Provincial stations are also paying keen attention to the decisions by nationwide networks and the government and are considering changes to their Korean-soap-heavy schedules.

Third, the price of Korean dramas has risen sharply.

According to a report, the price of Korean dramas rose massively in recent years. A few years ago one episode cost $1,000-$2,000, but because of the success of "Daejanggeum," the price rose to $8,000-$20,000 per episode. Some TV stations could not afford Korean dramas, which resulted in the reduction of their airtime.

Fourth, the negative impact of nationalism.

Generally speaking, relations between China and Korea have been good over the past 15 years. But there are also some exceptions, including history issues, the Dragon Boat Festival application for world cultural heritage status, the exclusive economic zone in the Yellow Sea and agricultural trade. Also, some Korean historical dramas provoke a reaction of Chinese nationalism.

Though the Korean Wave is gradually cooling off, we cannot say that the future of the Korean Wave in China is gloomy. Both the Chinese and Korean governments should adopt a long-term strategy, encourage cultural exchange and increase mutual understanding. Korea should establish the Korean Wave in a broader sense if it wants to counter the backlash. It should promote what is "truly Korean" and improve the image of Korea and its people as well as call for efforts to reach Chinese people and let them know more about Korea by way of books and other materials.

There should also be more funding for Korean Studies departments in Chinese universities and for research on Korea. China should also overcome its narrow-minded nationalism and ethnocentrism by learning other countries' cultures. Without that, China cannot create a Chinese trend of its own to influence East Asia and the world in the future.

Jian Cai
Associate professor at the Center for Korean Studies of Institute of International Studies, Fudan University of China.