In the second of a series on the Korean Wave, or hallyu, The Diplomat investigates the popularity of South Korean TV dramas in Taiwan, China and Japan.
Attractive characters and one-of-a-kind storytelling are the key to South Korean TV drama success, according to the Korean culture analysts I’ve spoken to (with some inoffensive Confucian values thrown into storylines for good measure).
As I mentioned last week, Michael Shin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Cambridge, calls the Korean Wave an ‘interesting puzzle,’ noting that trying to understand its popularity has been made more difficult by the fact that a major component of it, TV shows, have wildly differing national audiences—‘different dramas are popular in different countries.’
But there’s no doubt that in East Asia the genre has, for more than a decade, taken off in countries such as Taiwan (where the phenomenon started in the late 1990s), China and Japan (whose middle-aged female fans are known to take special ‘soap opera tours’ to South Korea to see the settings and sights from their favourite shows).
In Taiwan, according to Jung-sun Park, a professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills whose work on hallyu has been widely cited, the core fan base of Korean dramas tends to be women in their 20s and 30s, although she notes that it’s still popular with everyone from teenagers to the elderly.
Park suggests in the book Korea at the Center: Dynamics of Regionalism in Northeast Asia that what may particularly appeal to Taiwanese audiences is a mixture of economic and cultural factors: Korean cultural products such as ‘fashion, hairstyles and urban lifestyles,’ can appear sophisticated or desirable to some Taiwanese and also, surprisingly, there is at the same time a ‘perceived cultural relatedness’ in terms of society and levels of modernity. Park notes that ‘my Taiwanese sources told me that one reason they like Korean dramas is because of the emotional proximity they find in them…issues and dilemmas portrayed in Korean dramas can actually be found in contemporary Taiwanese society.’
So what about over in China? Park asserts that there, ‘the gamut of Korean TV drama fans is very wide—from teenagers to individuals (mostly women) in their 70s—because Korean dramas tend to feature themes and situations (such as family stories) to which a wider range of age groups can relate.’ Indeed in popular Korean shows, close family relations are often highlighted along with respectful young characters, all somehow still worth watching even without blatant violence or scenes involving sex.
Jung-Bong Choi, assistant professor of Cinema Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, told me that when it comes to China, there are some practical elements that make Korean dramas there appealing. He suggests that China’s current rise ‘is a little bit strange because economically it’s growing rapidly that it can’t really produce any culturally decent products as of yet.’ (Choi notes, though, that this is the case for any quickly developing society).
Therefore, according to Choi, because ‘China is still unable to produce something that can be comparable to American products or Japanese products, Chinese people, with their rising income levels, want to watch and consume something more than what’s available in their TV programmes.’
He reminded me that the state ‘still intervenes heavily in the making of cinema,’ and pointed out the example of Avatar earlier this year being replaced in theatres nationwide with Confucius, a state-funded film. ‘So to that extent, China’s cultural sphere is heavily governed by the state which is, I think, slightly out of sync with people’s desires. So they want something that pleases their own aesthetics and cultural values, not from China and not from Japan…and not from America. So where do they go? It’s Korean products.’
Shin for his part told me that he’s not 100 percent convinced that it’s the supposed Confucian values in Korean drama that has caught Chinese audiences’ attention. ‘I do think it’s true that Confucian values expressed through it do appeal to some audiences. In a lot of research or writing from China, or on viewership in China, it mentions that. Even one young person said that they seem to contain a Confucianism that China has lost. But if you actually look at the content of the dramas, they’re very critical of Confucianism.’
As for Japanese audiences, there’s a general consensus among the people I spoke with that unlike in Taiwan or China, Japanese teens aren’t particularly interested in Korean pop culture as such. Instead, hardcore fans of Korean dramas are middle-aged or older women whose interest was first piqued by the hugely successful 2002 drama Winter Sonata and the show’s male lead played by Bae Yong-joon, who has since been crowned with the nickname ‘Yon-sama,’ by his adoring Japanese fans.
Shin told me of an experience he had in Japan in the early 2000s whenWinter Sonata was being aired, which he says shed some insight on why there continues to be such a strong appeal for Korean dramas amongst this demographic in Japan:
‘I woke up early and was watching one of those morning TV programmes that are meant for housewives. They had this whole panel on to explain the phenomenon and why Korean drama was so popular and they had this media expert explaining the top five reasons for its success. And one of the things that was surprising to me was she said “emotionality.” She said it’s much more emotional than a Japanese drama and she gave the specific example that Japanese men don’t cry in Japanese dramas but Korean men will cry. And they’ll especially cry for the women they love. And all the other women on the panel sighed. So that was surprising to me. I didn’t realize there was that much difference in emotional expression in these dramas, so it seems that there is this heightened emotionality that appeals to audiences—that somehow Korean dramas are expressing things that they can’t express easily in their own countries or that their dramas are not expressing easily.’
The fact that the reasons behind the Korean drama fever varies from country to country makes it all the more interesting. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at the spread of the Korean Wave beyond this region, to some unexpected places.