By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

How Hollywood and the Internet are preserving traditional Chinese culture

A few days ago, I attended a presentation by some visiting Taiwanese professors on China-Taiwan relations. To my surprise, the senior member of the group stated that the single most important thing the Chinese government could do to improve relations with Taiwan was to re-introduce traditional Chinese characters on the Mainland.

After 1949, the Communist government introduced simplified characters to help with their literacy drive. Many who value Chinese culture saw this as an affront to thousands of years of Chinese civilization. (Among other things, ancestors' graves were of course written with traditional characters, so somebody unable to read them couldn't understand those graves.) Many Mainland young people actually do seem to be able to read traditional characters. When I asked one Chinese student how she learned them, she said she and her friends download Hollywood movies not available in China on the Internet. These movies are designed for export to Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which use traditional characters. So to understand the Hollywood movie subtitles, you need to be able to figure out traditional characters. Hollywood is thus contributing to the preservation of traditional Chinese culture in ways beyond the movie Mulan!

The student was one of a group of Chinese university students who had traveled to the US under the auspices of an organization called China Future Leaders. I gave them a presentation yesterday. (Faithful blog readers perhaps will recall earlier posts on meetings with these students.) For all of the participants but one, this was their first trip to America. Their first stop was Boston, and I was their first presenter, so I got to introduce the students to the US a bit, which was nice.
Two questions I asked the students this time were:  "What is one thing you think you know about the US that you like, and what's one thing you think you know that you dislike?" and "What is your most important source of information about the US?"
What did the students like about the US?  Freedom and creativitiy.
What did they dislike?  American food, guns, and security checks at the airport! When I asked follow-up questions about food, only about a third said they liked KFC, which is the most popular American fast-food chain in China. Only a tiny number of hands went up when I asked about McDonald's. That is an interesting warning sign, given that Westernized university students are one of these companies' target markets.
Not surprising to me -- but also important for Americans to understand -- is that most of the students said their biggest source of information about the U.S. was American movies.  Several said that they got most of their information by reading The New York Times or Washington Post online, or watching CNN streaming video on the Internet.  (These American newspaper websites seem generally not to be blocked in China, including their articles about China;  CNN print content doesn't seem to be blocked, although as I understand it, the streaming video is sometimes blocked.) A few even said their main source of information was books about America.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 30, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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