Last month, San Francisco offered two exciting film festivals – one showcasing Taiwan films (Taiwan Film Days), and the other, Chinese films (Chinese Film Festival). Even though Taiwan and China share a common cultural heritage, it is Taiwan which continues to dominate the Chinese world in pop culture.
Big movies vs. small movies
In a review of the festivals by the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper described the difference between the films offered by each country. “Mainland China makes films with a collective bent and Taiwan makes smaller, more independent and individualistic movies.” The article also noted, “The Chinese movies are bigger in scope, but the stories are contained within the Mainland borders. By contrast, the movies in Taiwan Film Days look outward.”
The review took a look at The Founding of the Republic and Red Cliff II, the latter is supposedly the most expensive film in Chinese history. Screened at the Chinese Film Festival, these two big movies had huge casts and production costs, while the Taiwanese movies were smaller and delicate, with diverse and international characteristics.
According to Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, “Contemporary Taiwanese films – like the society and culture from which they spring – are full of warmth and engaging vitality.”
Creativity exploded with the opening of society
It is an undeniable fact that Taiwanese pop culture really shines in the Chinese market through its music. The songs of Taiwanese singers A-Mei and Jay Chou can be heard from Beijing to Guangzhou in China. In Shanghai, Cheer Chen’s concert moved 10,000 concert-goers to tears.
Superband, a 70’s band consisting of Lo Ta-yu and three veteran Taiwanese singers, has performed over forty live concerts all over the Chinese world. With an estimated sale of 800,000 to 1 million tickets, its total box office sales total US$62 million. In Commonwealth magazine, Taiwanese music producer Chang Pei-ren explained Superband’s success. “The Taiwanese songs performed by Superband are all related to human emotions, interpersonal relations, or personal feelings.” It satisfies the common desires of all the Chinese people.
In the 1980s, Taiwan’s creativity exploded with the gradual democratization and opening of the island. Pop music flowered with Taiwan’s economic growth and political liberalization. The sweet gentle folk songs of the late Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng soothed the hungering souls in Communist China, resonating with the listeners there. Lo Ta-yu’s lyrics of social criticism also hit a chord with mainland intellectuals.
Kevin Chen, Director General of Shanghai Insight Communications in China, said in an interview with Commonwealth that he grew up listening to the songs of Teresa Teng and Lo Ta-yu. “Taiwan’s pop music in the 1980s led us away from a closed society like a refreshing feeling in the spring… The cultural impact hit us from all directions. ” And Teresa Teng and Lo Ta-yu continue to have a solid fan base in China. According to a report from the Hong Kong-based newspaper Wen Hui Po, a web opinion poll conducted from 24 million Chinese internet surfers in July and August, 2009, showed that both singers were among the top people named as the most influential cultural figures in new China.
It is a difficult task to measure the size of Taiwan’s pop music output since pirated products account for about 90 percent of the Chinese pop music market according to Chang Pei-ren. Based on this reasoning, Chang estimated there have been at least five billion bootleg music CDs produced in China in the last 10 years.
Chang explains the strength of Taiwan’s pop music because the island’s musicians are generally well educated with a good command of the Chinese language as well as cultural insight. They have a great appreciation for romantic delicacy, entrepreneurship, and a broad view of the world.
Why Taiwan’s pop culture triumphs in China
Taiwanese scholars in general believe that Taiwan’s pop culture enjoys advantages over mainland Chinese pop due to three factors:
1) By adopting traditional Chinese characters, Taiwanese are more naturally influenced by traditional Chinese culture, enabling them to develop a better understanding and appreciation of it and enriching their creativity. In mainland China, the use of simplified Chinese characters along with a lost generation caused by the Cultural Revolution makes them feel more detached from traditional Chinese culture. There are still lingering negative influences in their understanding of culture and arts.
2) Since 1949, Taiwan has been evolving from the early stage of “complete absorption” of Western pop culture to a level of integration with local culture, and finally transcending to a new creative world. In mainland China, Western cultural exposure has been possible for only about thirty years and they are still at a stage of “adoption.”
3) Also, Taiwan had been under Japan’s political rule and cultural influence for fifty years. The delicate nature of the Japanese national character and its artistic styles has been implanted in Taiwanese pop culture. The mainland Chinese are generally anti-Japanese, rejecting the invasion of Japanese culture.
Chinese censorship limits broad storytelling
Taiwan’s television variety shows and idol shows are also very popular among Chinese people all over the world. “Here Comes Kangxi,” “Everybody Speaks Nonsense,” and “One Million Stars” have become the must-see programs by all Chinese around the globe. Kevin Tsai, the host of “Here Comes Kangxi,” is the number one Taiwanese figure getting the most hits on Chinese web.
The godfather of Taiwan’s variety show producer Wang Wei-chung explained, “Pop video culture develops well in a more free and democratic society which provides ample space for creativity. Chinese media must follow orders from the government. Most mainland programs are produced with serious consideration for government officials’ attitudes, unable to fully cater to the general audiences. Therefore they are disconnected from the market trend.”
He continued, “Traditionally, Taiwanese attached more importance to family values. There are a lot of family elements in Taiwanese dramas and television programs. They are full of delicate individual emotions.” However, due to China’s one child policy, young Chinese people have few brothers and sisters, decreasing interaction among family members. So the family elements produced in Chinese television series are not as “humane” and “interesting” as those in Taiwan.
There are extra marital affairs, single mothers and homosexual content in Taiwanese idol shows, which violate the official rules of China’s government and are not allowed on China’s television channels. Taiwan’s programs contain this type of content, allowing it to exercise potential influence over the young Chinese who watch them via bootleg DVDs and the internet, the Commonwealth noted.
Expanding influence throughout Southeast Asia
Southeastern Asia, including Hong Kong, has been the major market for Taiwan’s idol dramas. In 2008, Sanli E-Television (SET) produced an idol show “Destiny Love,” which grabbed a record high license fee of US$85 million in the global Chinese market. Later, Chen Ming-chang, the director of the show, was given big monetary incentives to work in China. Chen Yu-shan, director general of drama in SET, said, “Taiwan’s idol shows are a kind of dream weaver for the Chinese world.”
Well-known idol show director Tsai Yue-hsun said, “The modern sense, fashion style and the rhythm of Taiwanese idol shows have caught up to the levels of those in Japan and Korea.” She said, “A drama is a combination showing human life and social life. It is not easy to expect a mainland Chinese actor to enact delicate feelings, or to expect a Chinese director to use a camera to shoot these kinds of feelings.” Mainland Chinese video producers are good at making epic dramas and those about political struggles, while Taiwanese are superior in family dramas and love stories.
Although Taiwan’s singers and idol dramas might be known throughout Southeastern Asia, the island’s filmmakers have managed to make a name for themselves further abroad. “While there is a generation of legendary auteurs, like Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming Liang, whose works are known far and wide.” In Leggat’s opinion, “The new generation of Taiwanese filmmakers are making smaller and arguably more personable and accessible films that bridge the gap between popular and art cinema culture in a new way.”
According to the Commonwealth magazine, China’s current environment has not been able to breed people like Lo Ta-yu or Jay Chou. The pop culture of the Chinese world still depends on Taiwan’s lead for certain things.