China Power

Food and Fairy Tales: A New Era in Chinese Propaganda

We’re seeing a new wave of individually-driven, non-political programs that present the softer side of China.

Food and Fairy Tales: A New Era in Chinese Propaganda
Credit: Screenshot from A Bite of China

A new era in Chinese propaganda began in the spring of 2012, ten days after the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, when CCTV-1 aired A Bite of China or, as it’s known in Chinese, China on the Tip of the Tongue. This documentary series led viewers from the pasture to the porringer, serving up sumptuous visual feasts accompanied by crisply recorded foley audios of sizzling fish, bubbling broths and other delights. Whether hunting prized matsutake mushrooms along the misty slopes of Yunnan or watching a Hong Kong chef carefully spoon shrimp paste onto a plate, the series lovingly presented what has always been one of China’s greatest cultural exports — food.

By rapidly gaining international acclaim, the show proved a homegrown documentary could be successful abroad. Oliver Thring of The Guardian, for example, called it maybe the best food show ever made, a welcome fresh coat of paint for a nation fraught with food scandals. Despite critics, including China Youth Daily‘s Cao Lin who criticized the series for portraying a “fairly tale” while ignoring the “gutter oil, whitening agents, Clenbuterol, pesticidal leftovers, fluorescent powder and trans fats” often found in Chinese foods, a sleek second season aired in 2014, no doubt to the delight of Beijing officials.

The word “propaganda” in Chinese is xuanchuan, literally “declaration spreading” or “propagation,” as exemplified by the propagation of Taiwanese identity in the 1990s. The Voice of Free China, now Radio Taiwan International, and the Second New Wave film movement, comprising such classics as The Peach Blossom Land, Vive L’Amour and Ang Lee’s early work, established Taiwan’s cultural distinctness and helped legitimize its claims to sovereignty. Beijing replied initially by attacking Taiwanese democracy, a Western import, but has more recently taken aim at weakening this cultural distinction through the use of ethnic unity tropes.

Detailing these events in her 2008 book Marketing Dictatorship, Dr. Anne-Marie Brady describes the government’s post-war emphasis (through academia and sundry media) on the “Chineseness” of its system. This is to be contrasted with Western democracy, despite the fact that Beijing’s system was “imported almost wholesale from the Soviet Union,” as China scholar Elizabeth J. Perry writes. But while such “declaration spreading” has previously only sought a Chinese audience, A Bite of China shows Beijing can brand itself to foreign audiences too, provided the artistic quality of its declarations is high.

Continuing this trend is the founder of the video-sharing site Tudou, Gary Wang, who merged with Youku in March of 2012 and stepped down from managing Tudou only to announce his new project, Light Chaser Animation Studios. This is a clever move, as the Chinese film market will surpass Hollywood by 2020, making it ripe for high-quality animated features, and Wang (who has a computer science degree, an MBA and a list of artistic accomplishments) is just the man for the job. With luck, Light Chaser could be China’s answer to Studio Ghibli or Pixar. Its first film, Little Door Spirits, will be completed later this year and, just to give the public a glimpse of what it can do, Light Chaser recently released a short film entitled Little Night Wanderers.

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Neither the people behind A Taste of China nor those at Light Chaser are intentionally pushing political agendas, but then neither were the directors of the Second New Wave. That is what makes this a genuinely new era in Chinese propaganda. These projects have their own voice, yet they do propagate a preferred narrative, one of a problem-free Chinese culture. An animation studio peddling fairy tales isn’t expected to challenge that narrative any more than a “fairy tale” rendering of Chinese cuisine. Then again, perhaps Gary Wang will surprise us all. A Chinese animated feature offering serious social commentary would be revolutionary, and maybe the strongest kind of soft power China can employ right now.

Even if this doesn’t happen, there may be a silver lining to this. Developing brand recognition that extends beyond dumplings, pandas, and Jackie Chan would help China become a cultural superpower in addition to an economic one, and in a way that could improve international relations. As noted in this year’s Soft Power Survey by Monocle, Hallyuwood and Cool Japan have softened postwar tensions between South Korea and Japan while America’s image is helped by the universal popularity of hip-hop, Hollywood and businesses like Apple and Facebook. Regardless of demagogic grumblings over Western cultural imperialism, pragmatism still defines Chinese thinking, and being globally well-liked is a tremendous practical advantage.