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China? Where the hell is China?

August 9, 2010 – 10:39 am

What surprised me for quite a while is that people are completely not interested or at least uninformed about anything related to China. I’m talking about random people here in Germany, but I guess it is also true for other people from Europe and maybe other places as well. If they know something it’s probably some untrue prejudice. Or they have heard something, but they heard it from a friend who heard it from his friend and so on. So the story is totally different from the reality.

1914 map of China. Source: Wikipedia

When I go to a party or to a bar I sometimes go there with friends, but sometimes I go alone. When I’m going alone I make a lot of new friends there. I talk to many people and of course a typical question is how I spend my free time. I have a number of hobbies. I like to do a barbecue with friends, I like snowboarding and I like other things. Mentioning one of these can unfold in good and long conversations. However, if I mention that I learn Chinese, the other person most often doesn’t know what to say. Sometimes they state that Chinese must be a very difficult language to learn, but then the topic is pretty much over.

I’m also registered with a few social networks (facebook, etc.) and there is one network which is rather popular here in Germany and there are two items of particular interest in people’s profiles. The title of the first is: “Places I have been to previously” and the other is “Places I want to visit in the future”. And so far I have to find a single non-Asian person, except myself, who either has been to China or wants to go to China. In fact people want to go to many places all over the world, but very few want to go to Asia at all. Only Japan, Thailand and Bali (Indonesia) are mentioned by a few people. A handful people have visited or want to visit Israel and Dubai. A single person wants to visit Vietnam. But that’s it regarding Asian countries. Note that I have looked at a limited number of profiles.

If China was as big as Paraguay or if China had as few inhabitants as Finland I wouldn’t be surprised. But it’s not like that. In fact China today has a lot of weight in many ways. Now China is regularly present in the mainstream news media. Of all foreigners studying in Germany, Chinese people are the largest group. So I kind of assume, people must have heard of this strange place called China. I do not expect everyone to know things about China. But the reality is, most people are completely uninterested in China, if not even ignorant.

So I have been thinking,
how is it possible that hardly anyone knows about China.

And I think the answer is pretty simple. Countries are not well known by default. They are only well know if they offer something for the typical ADD victim (Attention Deficit Disorder). Many people, if not a majority of people today suffer from ADD. They need a lot of attention by others and only can give little attention to others. Political news won’t cut it for them, they need Britney Spears and Michael Jackson. They need something that makes their life more fun.

Looking at China I can hardly see anything that the typical ADD victim could possibly be interested in. Apart from the fact that Chinese music is mostly boring it is also sung in Chinese and thereby very inaccessible. Chinese music has no edge at all. There is no Chinese Eminem yet. Although I do not understand a word of French I still listen to French Hip-Hop, simply because it sounds good. But Chinese music that is pleasant to the ear? I haven’t heard any so far. (My examples feature Hip-Hop, but I do see the same problems with Chinese Rock, Metal, Jazz, Techno and other music genres) They only have cheesy love songs.

How about movies? The situation is pretty similar to the music situation. There are very few movies or TV series in the mainland that I can bear to watch. When it comes to Hong Kong and Taiwan the movies are much better. In fact a few HK movies have been translated and exported overseas. While Taiwan and HK movies are better, the audience in these countries is rather small and publishers have a hard time evaluating if these movies can also succeed overseas. So they rarely make their way to the Western world.

Violence but no love. This is what I think when I see movies from the mainland. Last year when I was in Shanghai, watching TV in the evening, I saw some pretty disturbing war movies during prime time at 8 in the evening. But did I see any love? I have to think very very hard. No kisses. Kisses are also often cut out of Hollywood movies. Maybe a hug here and there. The lover of violent war films might find something interesting, but that’s not for me and I think many other people will agree.

Pornography is also completely of the map when it comes to China. Japan is well known all over the world for their steamy movies, especially amongst the male population. Although opinions on pornography vary, it has previously successfully promoted the CD (compact disk) and DVD (digitally versatile disk). It has probably promoted Japan to some degree and China is clearly missing out here.

Furthermore, there is no special well known alcoholic beverage coming from China. Japan has Sake. Many countries have their own special alcoholic product. Where is China’s special alcohol? Baijiu? I think baijiu could earn a name as a cleaning product. So how about Mijiu or ricewine? This one could become famous if some Chinese company makes an effort. Mijiu has a unique flavor and I have tasted a few bottles that feature a very pleasant and probably mainstream compatible taste. Maybe if they can make it a little bit sweeter to get it popular amongst young drinkers it could become a success story. It just hasn’t happened yet.

Beautiful beach in Sanya, Hainan, China. Source: Wikipedia

So what is left? Japan is well known for its Anime culture. Personally I’m not interested, but I do know a few people who started learning Japanese just because they like Anime stuff. Thailand and the Philippines are notorious for sex tourism. China also has its fair share of the red light business, but for some reason word hasn’t spread out all over the world. This is another missed chance for China to be well known. Then there are the beautiful beaches in many places of South East Asia. China has Hainan and I heard it is also very nice there. Yet it seems completely inaccessible to Western tourists.

I have my personal reasons why I’m interested in China. Namely great food, can’t live without my regular Hot Pot, attractive women and a challenging language. But China lacks products suitable for the average Joe and it also needs to ramp up the marketing for those things that already exist in China.

Does China intentionally behave this way to be the unknown, mysterious place?
Do you see a potential world class mass-compatible product coming from China?
If you come from a non-Asian country, what do your fellow people say when you tell them that you are learning Chinese?

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  1. 18 Responses to “China? Where the hell is China?”

  2. Oh, you missed the point. China is famous for cheap products and counterfeit goods. It’s famous for censoring the internet, for limiting freedoms and rights to its people, for being the most populated country in the world (soon to be surpassed by India), for the one child policy, for oppressing Tibetans and Uyghurs, for Chinese food, for kung-fu, for massive economic growth… all the things I mentioned here you can read in news every day. So I’m surprised, that Germans “know” that little about China ;)

    By My Kafkaesque Life on Aug 9, 2010

  3. I feel that the average Germans’ knowledge about these rather negative topics is vague at best.
    Most Germans have no idea about Chinese food. Yea, we do have those Chinese food made for Germans restaurants. But real Chinese food? That’s very rare.

    Kung-Fu is indeed one positive example. And Buddhism comes to my mind right now, although Buddhism isn’t strictly a Chinese thing. It can be found in many parts of Asia.

    Still looking for easy, simple, funny, entertaining, popular topics about China. Topics which help people to feel connected.

    By Hendrik on Aug 9, 2010

  4. I think it’s a home made problem in China. Chinese don’t understand foreign cultures and usually don’t speak any foreign language, so it’s also hard for foreigners to interact with them.

    Personally, I only know very few about arabia and india – so there are also certain black holes on the world map for me (although I must say, I don’t particularly like India… Arabia is interesting, tho).

    By Aremonus on Aug 9, 2010

  5. So how about Japan? Japanese people rarely learn foreign languages. The Japanese language is difficult to learn for Westeners, yet I see a certain impact of Japanese culture here in the West. I can buy a lot of Hello Kitty themed stuff, Sushi bars are all over the place and pretty much anyone knows Sake. Voluntary Japanese courses at my university are full, while Chinese courses regularly fail to reach the minimum number of participants in order to take place.

    India is another of those places that seem to be non-existent, despite having quite a few inhabitants.

    By Hendrik on Aug 9, 2010

  6. Well, most people hardly seem to really know that there is a diffrence between China and Japan. They just consider japanese guys as other Chinamen…
    But of course, Japan had some cultural impact, at least during the short time the country’s GDP per capita was the world’s highes in the late 1980ies. However, I know a lot of people around 20 who don’t really know the diffrence between China and Japan and think it is for about as big as the diffrence between the USA and Canada. Also, they seem to think that Chinese understand Japanese and vice versa^^

    I’ve also started to learn Japanese myself once, but I had to give it up soon as the teacher was advancing far too fast for my taste and I was busy with other stuff (at that time, I was studying business and physics, so I technically had a 100 hour work week). I then just signed up for Chinese exam and it worked out. Anyway, most people couldn’t understand why it is same difficult for me to learn Japanese as it is for them – they thought that as I know Chinese, Japanese must be easy for me -.-

    By Aremonus on Aug 10, 2010

  7. Yea, I kind of experienced the same once. A friend showed me some piece of written Japanese and asked me to read it for him. He thought that written Chinese and Japanese are all the same.

    By Hendrik on Aug 10, 2010

  8. I’m a non-asian from America who’s just starting to learn Chinese. So you’re not alone!
    I love China, and I can’t quite tell you why. There’s a few reasons, but I’ve never really been able to tell anyone. The conversation simply stops when I say I’m listening to Chinese music, or learning Chinese. A simple comment like, “oh, good luck.” or “That sounds hard.”
    As for Chinese music, I think you’re right. There’s a lot of cheesy love ballads and it seems almost bland…
    Then again, I’ve tried Korean music, which is almost nothing but r&b/pop and girl and boy groups. So every country seems to have it’s own music niche.
    Though I do like some Chinese artists. There’s 蔡依林 (a great dancer and great pop music, try her song 舞孃, there’s also 美人計), 杨丞琳 (she has a few love ballads I actually like), 韋禮安 (he has some nice acoustic songs), 魏如萱 (ethereal indie singer), 周杰伦 (rapper, piano-playing singer songwriter, I’m sure you’ve heard of him!), and alan dawa dolma, a Tibetan-Chinese ethnic singer active in Japan and China.

    I’m also interested in Japan, but not for the anime or manga (I don’t read or watch it) but for the music.

    I almost feel like the reason Japan has more “takers” (as far as interest and language go in foreign countries), is pop culture. If you want an electro-pop singing trio, you’ve got Perfume. Hard, yet somehow mainstream rock? An Cafe, GACKT, VAMPS. Any Chinese pop stars, singers, dancers, etc. are almost all from Taiwan, and they don’t have a lot of exposure in the West! There are tons of websites out there for Japanese and Korean pop culture/news, but Chinese/Taiwanese is hard to come by.

    And I have that problem too, it seems like no one in my country can distinguish Chinese and Japanese.

    By Emily on Aug 18, 2010

  9. OK, this is my racy theory: China has no “soft power” (I think that’s really the name of this game) because its leaders are too eager to build some. When peoples’ attention spans lasted longer than now, China had both a horrible and a fascinating image here. To most, Maoism was horrible (but it was fascinating and appealing for some), and for most, Chinese Kung-fu, the National Circus, and Chinese people-up-top culture (the culture Maoists tried to destroy) was fascinating. Exactly the stuff China’s leaders didn’t like back then, but what they tried to promote.

    China doesn’t sell because the Confucian model (the ideology to replace communism) is boring and repressive, rather than appealing – all the stuff MKL has pointed out in cmt #1. When a product sucks, and the seller makes even bigger efforts to sell it (think of the Confucius institutes – they are everywhere, they are costly for a “developing country”, and without a big impact here), the result is that the target targeted audience will be bewildered, but not be charmed. If there is an impact at all, they may feel bullshitted, rather than impressed.

    Some more Taoism could do China a lot of good. It is unintentional, it gives a rat’s ass about what other people think, and if a lot of people at home loved what the party has to offer, chances are that people abroad would love it, too.

    By justrecently on Aug 18, 2010

  10. Hi Emily,

    I’ll check out your music recommendations. I already have two CDs with 周杰伦 music.

    Taiwan has a lot of contact to the Western world, because for a long time the China-Taiwan relations were really bad. So Taiwan had to find other partners in the world and they got connected to Western countries. These political connections to the West also resulted in cultural connections. If I have time I want to read more about this part of the Taiwan history.

    Does this mean, only those countries which adopt Western culture will be popular in the West? And if yes, is it because Westerners are that narrow minded?

    Thanks for your post, feels good to know that there are others who experience the same.

    By Hendrik on Aug 18, 2010

  11. Hey justrecently,

    I have to think about your answer, will answer when I have more time (maybe weekend).

    By Hendrik on Aug 18, 2010

  12. I feel like (at least in America) we’re less connected to Taiwan and China, and more to Japan than any other Asian country. It’s not hard to find anime and manga, as well as Japanese music if you live in the West Coast of the USA. But anything Chinese? (besides the small, cramped stores of the local Chinatowns) is hard.

    The only other connection we really have with Chinese culture is through movies, but those are stereotypes, like Jackie Chan in Rush Hour. Japanese is more common, for example, The Karate Kid and Inception both have Japanese elements or language.

    European things are more prevelant everywhere, and even then as a whole everyone seems ignorant to that, unless they have close European heritage.

    I feel like Westerners are really that narrow minded in general, for the most part. I feel that more on the East Coast than the West, because the West Coast has more Asian and Hispanic immigrants, so more varied culture.

    By Emily on Aug 21, 2010

  13. Sorry for the extra post, but I forgot to recommend another Chinese-language band…
    F.I.R is from Taiwan (as is most Chinese-language I’ve found), singing in Mandarin. The singer is a girl, and their music is mostly rock. I recommend Revolution and Lydia.


    By Emily on Aug 21, 2010

  14. Hey justrecently,

    What about Egypt? Pyramids, the Red Sea for diving, yet Egypt has a very tough dictatorship.

    A number of countries on the Arabian peninsula became popular recently. Places where women have no rights.

    Morocco. Tourist destination and source of quality weed for smoking. Yet another country with limited human rights.

    Russia is not the place to look at when you search for human rights and low crime rates. But who doesn’t enjoy a shot of Vodka?

    I know that the government of China is not the most popular in the world. But a country that size should have developed at least something that has fans throughout the world.

    By Hendrik on Aug 22, 2010

  15. I’m not going to say that all countries around the Mediterranean share the same civilizaton, because that would look like an over-simplification to me. But maybe we share two sides of one civilization – more post-enlightenment here, north of the sea, and more pre-enlightenment south of it?

    When we discuss human rights with Egyptians, Moroccans, or Syrians, we usually encounter no barriers in terms of concepts of what people and their rights mean. There may be Arabs who prefer rule by the Muslim Brotherhood or some kind of caliphate, but they will still know without explanation what a European will rather be up to.

    Same with Israel, another country bordering on the Mediterranean. We all know each other better. It’s a matter of proximity, but of an old common narrative – the Old Testament -, too.
    If the Pyramides were there without all the other context, we’d probably admire them, just as we’d admire the Great Wall or Xi’an. But we wouldn’t really feel that they have something to do with us.

    Also, the Arab world strives for unity among themselves, rather than for projecting global power. They have their totalitarian streaks, too. But they usually feel self-sufficient. Arabs, so long as they aren’t islamists, seem to demand respect for themselves, before they’d demand respect for their nationality or religion.

    Another bit is that information flows much more freely between the Arab world and us, than between us and China. There is no limitation on what kind of satellite tv a Syrian can watch – the internet is controlled, but his satellite dish isn’t, even though Syria is known as an Arab country with quite a draconian dictatorship. The government there wants to control peoples’ behavior, but has no great ambitions to control their minds.

    It may be easier for us Europeans to compare the Arab countries and India with each other on the one hand, and China and Japan on the other, rather than cross-comparing all these countries which each other.

    By justrecently on Aug 23, 2010

  16. There’d be greater likelihood that we appreciated somethng which is fashionable these days if the intersection between our civilizations was greater. Personally, I don’t find Turkish music tv boring at all, for example.

    That said, what in China builds on tradition in whatever kind of way? Not the movies, not the music. Beijing Opera is mega-out. Basically, a country or people needs to appreciate its own fashions, before others can start loving them.

    The relative foreignness of Chinese cultures or fashions here,even when much of the language barrier has been removed, probably has two reasons at least, and probably more than these two.

    By justrecently on Aug 26, 2010

  17. So, we do not know much about (mainland) Chinese culture because it has never been influenced by Western culture, while Japanese and Taiwanese culture was (and still is) influenced by Western culture.

    As for the Muslim/Christian comparison I’m not sure. The Koran and Bible have quite a few things in common, so they might even be just two variations of the same thing. On the other hand I have a certain impression of those countries in the middle east, that they are pretty backward and disconnected from today’s Western culture.

    Maybe the Chinese language is more of a barrier than I initially thought.

    By Hendrik on Aug 27, 2010

  18. Your comment at LoveLoveChina about that You-Tube video made me smile :) Hope you’re doing fine.

    By My Kafkaesque Life on Sep 11, 2010

  19. All fine here :) Looking at your blog I assume you are also all right :)
    Let’s put another smiley here :)

    By Hendrik on Sep 11, 2010

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