China needs more than a Nobel literature winner to win fans

Peter Kammerer says it will take more than a Nobel literature prize for China to be culturally influential, and therefore a true superpower

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 7:17am

China has scaled another height with author Mo Yan's award of the Nobel Prize for literature. It's only a matter of time before it overtakes the US as the world's No 1 economy. There is no doubting the nation's rising political clout, while the commissioning of its first aircraft carrier shows a determination for military greatness. The big question, then, is: when will it become a superpower?

Some analysts predict that day will come when Beijing can truly call Taiwan its own - which is another way of saying having the military might to scare off the US. Others contend "superpowerdom" lies in global leadership; only when China dictates other nations' policies will it have hegemony. The economy is what others talk about most, yet true economic greatness rests on the renminbi being fully convertible and sought after by other governments. As for that other crucial element of being a superpower, culture - it takes more than books by an author few have heard of to be all-pervasive.

Of all that is needed to be top of the heap, there is perhaps nothing more important than culture. The US has made an indelible mark on lives everywhere with its movies, music, style and fast food. China has a long and rich cultural history, but it is the here and now, not yesterday's glories, that makes heads turn. That requires creativity, innovation, popular appeal and being in tune with what people want and need.

Think Gangnam Style. The song by South Korean hip-hop star Psy has roared up the international pop music charts, giving the world a perspective of Koreans it was previously unaware of. Psy isn't blessed with good looks, but his being overweight, clownish on stage and singing in Korean have been no bar to success. Put it down in small part to his ordinariness, a bit more to his humorous horse dance, and above all else, to the internet.

Not since Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto topped the American charts in 1963 with Ue o Muite Arukou, renamed Sukiyaki for Western audiences, has an Asian singer attained such popularity. Japan, like China today, was then rising fast economically and its electronics and vehicles were starting to spill onto global markets. With Gangnam Style coinciding with Samsung taking the crown of the world's leading smartphone maker, some are predicting South Korea is about to become the next big thing. Maybe yes, maybe no - but whichever, internet connectedness has been their shared success.

Psy would be little known had Gangnam Style not gone viral on YouTube. Word of mouth, Facebook and trending sites like have propelled it to become the one of the most watched and most liked YouTube music videos ever. Beijing's strict censorship means such sites are blocked on the mainland. It stops ideas and trends from coming in, but also prevents creativity from getting out.

Without a two-way stream of culture between mainland China and the world, there will not be a Chinese Psy. The nation will continue to be seen as a place that steals and adapts rather than creates and innovates. Without the chance of a home-grown friendly or funny Chinese face going viral, a crucial superpower ingredient will remain unseeded. There is no better way to be misunderstood.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post