Why do S.Korean pop stars hurt the feelings of Chinese audiences with repeated insults against China?

By Lin Qing and Xing Xiaojing Source: Global Times Published: 2020/12/17 0:11:27

A promotion event of South Korean show Running Man is held on August 26, 2019. Photo: CFP

Editor's Note: 

The popular South Korean show Running Man recently caused a storm of anger among Chinese netizens after using a game map which tied the Chinese national flag with the officially unrecognized "Taiwan flag." It is not the first time South Korea's entertainment industry has caused controversy in China, by touching China's bottom line on political issues or making inappropriate comments.

All in fool 

In August, on the show Hangout With Yoo, South Korean singer Lee Hyo-ri said she wanted to give herself an internationalized stage name "Mao," as she intended to enter the international market, which provoked an outcry among Chinese netizens, who regarded Lee's move as a sign of disrespect of China by making fun of China's late leader Mao Zedong. Some netizens wondered how South Koreans would feel if Chinese entertainers gave themselves stage names representing great people in South Korean history like Yi Sun-sin or King Sejong.

South Korean media Star News commented that although Hangout With Yoo later clarified there is no intent to offend, and deleted insulting scenes, it is undeniable that the program and entertainer's actions were thoughtless. 

Since entertainers claim to be entering the international market, they should be fully aware that many foreign audiences will watch their shows, and prevent causing discomfort to others, the Star News remarked.

South Korean entertainers making inappropriate China-related comments are not uncommon. Hwang Chi-yeul, a "has been" star in South Korea, became famous after appearing on China's Hunan TV's program I am a Singer. Early last year, Hwang said in a South Korean program that when he arrived China, he couldn't see straight ahead and Chinese water tasted strange. But "to me, it doesn't matter at all," Hwang said. Chinese netizens joked that the implication was the bad environment will not prevent Hwang from coming to China to make money.

In South Korea, China-related content and performance are often used by entertainers to please audiences. For example, one of the famous comedian Lee Soo-geun's "stunts" is speaking "fake Cantonese." However, some programs and advertisements have broken the bottom line in making fun of China and have even become insulting. 

In 2018, two South Korean bodyguards dressed in Qing Dynasty outfits said "I am a pig" in Chinese after being caught in YG Entertainment's comedy YG Future Strategy Office, where the map of China was also incomplete, Chinese netizens found.

In 2016, an advertisement featured South Korean actor Park Bo-gum playing a game of Go against a player named "Great Wall." The image of the "Great Wall" was of a dumpy middle-aged man with a vulgar gold necklace, who is slapped by a woman during a dancing contest. Chinese netizens believed that the "Great Wall" was a clear attempt to demonize China.

South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo criticized Jang Na-ra, Lee Jung-hyun and other entertainers of having cracked the Chinese market "once they return to South Korea," adding that their attitude lies in South Koreans' contempt for China. The report reminds South Korean stars to be aware of the fact that China is different today when they talk about China.

Some South Koreans still live in a narrow world of their own and don't much communicate with the outside world, South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh once commented. 

Distorted Values

Analysts believe that many South Korean artists start their career at a young age and spend little time studying cultures, leading them to easily make improper remarks. 

Edaily, one of South Korea's mainstream online newspapers also noted that many South Koreans treat the US and other Western developed countries with respect and all kinds of deep love. However, when it comes to China and Southeast Asian countries, some people have "self-righteous superiority" and do not shy away from making uncouth jokes and disparaging remarks.

Sun Jiashan, an associate researcher of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, told the Global Times that some South Korean shows and entertainers use China as a target for jokes and sarcasm, which "to some extent, it is a manifestation of cultural inferiority." 

Another Chinese scholar of Korean politics said it reflects what Edward Said called "Orientalism," in which the West often views the East through colored glasses as ignorant, backward and in need of enlightenment from the West.

Modern South Koreans, in many ways have been influenced by the West, and see China in a distorted way, said the scholar. "Unfortunately, South Korea is viewed by the West in this way too."

By design or 'cognitive inertia'?

The popular South Korean reality show Running Man, which was boycotted by Chinese netizens, is involved in a more serious political issue: using a game map on which China's national flag and the "flag of Taiwan" were put on an equal footing. 

The scholar who asked for anonymity told the Global Times that many South Koreans have formed an ignorant and unconscious notion about the Taiwan question, for many intellectuals and the media in South Korea are deeply influenced by Western perspectives when it comes to Taiwan question, and they have a huge impact on public opinion. 

"Taiwan and South Korea have kept close economic and cultural exchanges in recent years. Wrong cognition on Taiwan can often been seen in textbooks of primary and secondary schools in South Korea. For example, Taiwan is put in a different color than the Chinese mainland or directly added into the list of 'countries' in geography textbooks," said Zhan Debin, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics.

"Although the South Korean government adheres to the one-China principle, some people who do not care about politics may not know the truth and tend to follow cognitive inertia," Zhan noticed. "I think that the appearance of the 'flag of Taiwan' in Running Man is more likely to be a mistake because of cognitive inertia." 

Zhou, who asked only her surname used, has been following South Korean pop culture for many years. She told the Global Times that in order to reduce political-related disputes, some Chinese fan subtitle groups of South Korean television program now assume a role of "control and evaluation" to some degree.

"If places like Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan are mentioned in the program, the subtitle groups will add 'China's' before these names."

"Now we have the awareness and can point out the mistakes. Chinese netizens will point out the mistakes when they discover a mention of 'Taiwan independence' or 'Hong Kong independence'. If this kind of correction happens more frequently, the South Korean government may take some measures," said Zhan.

However, Zhan also cautioned that it may be not conducive to solving the problem if Chinese netizens rush to turn a little thing into a big issue about nation or society without considering the cultural gap or unconscious engagement in the political issues of the South Korean side.

A market hard to give up

South Korean pop culture has cooled down somewhat in China since South Korea deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system. But some performing arts companies also admitted to Korea JoongAng Daily that although there are some uncertainties in the Chinese market, it's hard for them to give it up because it is such a huge market.

The average remuneration paid to artists is several times higher than that in South Korea. Many Korean performing arts companies would alert their artists not to discuss Chinese politics, history or other issues.

Some observers think that the frequent China-related disputes in South Korea's entertainment program and the subsequent reactions of netizens in both countries indicate deteriorating relations between the two peoples. 

A survey made by the Pew Research Centre found that 75 percent of South Korean respondents had a negative view of China, especially those under the age of 30.

"There has been a big rift in public opinion on China between the South Korean government and its people since THAAD and so-called 'ban on Korea performing arts activities in China," said Zhan. "The government want to fix the relationship, but there is no significant abatement in negative sentiment among the people. The two sides are becoming more sensitive to certain issues."

"For Chinese people who have studied or worked in South Korea, it would be easy for them to find that the image of China shaped by some South Korean media is often far from the actual situation in China, and is sometimes even distorted," said the Chinese scholar who asked not to be named.

Posted in: SOCIETY

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