Taiwan Pop Culture Invades China
Sat Aug 10, 9:15 AM ET
By Benjamin Kang Lim
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Lu Jing, a 21-year-old stowaway from China, paid 20,000 yuan (US$2,400) and hid for three days in a flimsy Taiwan-bound fishing boat before being caught by the island's coast guard in March.
But Lu, from the southeastern city of Fuzhou, was no defector from communist rule to freewheeling democratic Taiwan.
She told astonished Taiwan interrogators that she wanted to steal into the island to get a glimpse of F4 (Flower Four), a Taiwan boy band that has swept fans in China -- and indeed much of the rest of the Chinese-speaking world -- off their feet.
China's cultural Czars had pulled "Meteor Garden," a hit soap opera featuring the band's four tall and handsome heart throbs, off the air, fearing that the decadent lifestyle portrayed in the drama would corrupt the minds of the masses.
Taiwan pop culture has permeated China since the world's most populous nation opened up in the late 1970s. But China's cultural mandarins remain on guard against what they call "peaceful evolution" -- the gradual undermining of communism by Western cultural, commercial and ideological values.
"Orthodox Communist Party leaders see pop culture as a kind of threat," said Hou Dejian, a Taiwan composer-singer who was welcomed by China with open arms when he defected in 1983.
"Pop culture is their number one enemy," said Hou, whom China deported for taking part in a hunger strike days before the Chinese army crushed the 1989 student-led demonstrations for democracy centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
"They are convinced there was a direct relationship between pop culture and the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe," Hou, now 45, added.
MILLIONS DEFY BAN
Despite the ban, millions in China have seen "Meteor Garden," adapted from the Japanese comic book "Hana Yori Dango" -- meaning Boys Prettier than Flowers -- about friendship and love.
About two million pirated videos of the 19-episode drama have been sold in China, according to one estimate.
When F4 visited Shanghai in June, thousands of frenzied Chinese fans mobbed the band and riot police were mobilized. The group canceled a concert to prevent a stampede.
Taiwan pop culture has filled an artistic vacuum for many Chinese since the ultra-leftist 1966-76 Cultural Revolution destroyed almost every trace of traditional culture.
Beijing's English-language mouthpiece, the China Daily, defended the government ban on "Meteor Garden," saying the serial would "mislead and have a bad influence on young people."
POLITICAL, COMMERCIAL GAINS
Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian enraged China last week by backing the idea of a referendum on formal independence for the island, but cultural exchanges can help to prevent political tensions from escalating.
"Cultural exchanges can definitely ease tensions, animosity and discrimination between the two sides," said Ernest Huang, a Taiwan script writer.
Taipei and Beijing have been military and diplomatic rivals since their split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
Paradoxically, their economies have become increasingly intertwined. Cultural and social exchanges have boomed since detente began in the late 1980s.
Cultural invasion works both ways and China has also exported traditional and pop culture to Taiwan, to the dismay of the island's pro-independence die-hards who want to give Taiwan a new national identity and sever any links to the mainland.
Several Chinese soap operas about imperial China's palace conspiracies have taken Taiwan by storm.
"Mainland serials stoke Taiwan viewers' memories of their Chinese origins," said Huang, the script writer.
Taiwan's cultural invasion of China is not limited to F4. Taiwanese imports from music to novels to instant noodles have mass appeal in China.
The Taiwan anchors of Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television are stars on the mainland, where the Chinese-language broadcaster claims viewers in about 42 million households.
On the other hand, China's renowned Tsingtao beer and low-priced Haier washing machines are big sellers in Taiwan.
F4 are not the first Taiwan pop artists to fall afoul of China's cultural mandarins.
China briefly banned Taiwan aborigine singer Ah Mei in 2000 for singing Taiwan's national anthem at the inauguration of independence-minded President Chen.
Beijing says Taiwan is a rebel province to be returned to the fold -- by force, should the democratic island of 23 million declare independence or drag its feet on reunification talks.
Back in 1983, alleging "spiritual pollution," China banned records of the legendary Taiwan singer Teresa Teng, fearing her saccharine ballads would turn Chinese against communist rule.
Her fame gave rise to a popular saying: "By day, Deng Xiaoping rules China, but by night, Teresa Teng rules" -- a reference to people crooning her songs at karaoke parlors .