China is bringing its soft power push to countries along the “New Silk Road,” casting television shows and movies as its cultural ambassadors.
Beginning next spring, television screens across Nepal are set to light up with episodes of “Ode to Joy,” one of China’s most popular sitcom series. Dubbed in Nepali — among the first languages in which the show will air outside of its original Mandarin — the broadcasts represent a new step toward stronger ties between China and the Himalayan republic. More broadly, the move demonstrates China’s tightening embrace of countries under its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative.
Since it debuted in China in 2016, “Ode to Joy” has racked up more than 20 billion views online. The show, which has been likened to the American sitcom “Sex and the City” — only without the sex — tells the story of five young women who live in the same Shanghai apartment building. The program has been hailed for its depiction of Chinese women as strong, independent, and career-driven.
Tsering Rhitar Sherpa, a Kathmandu-based filmmaker who is leading the “Ode to Joy” project in Nepal, told Sixth Tone that when it comes to consumption of foreign media, most Nepalis look to India and its often-patriarchal soap operas. Sherpa has several films under his belt that offer a peek into Nepal’s gender and social issues, including the 2000 movie “Mukundo,” Nepal’s Academy Award submission that year. His company, Mila Productions, is now working alongside the Chinese firm contracted by the government to dub “Ode to Joy.”
The program, Sherpa said, offers storylines to which people in his country can relate. “The characters in this show are universal — they portray challenges we face in Nepal, too,” said the filmmaker, whose fictional TV series depicting Nepal’s first female prime minister received rave reviews in 2015. “This [the Nepal screening of ‘Ode to Joy’] will give us an opportunity to understand the Chinese people, too.”
Kathmandu-based business student Kenny Dangol said she’s willing to give Chinese shows a try. “I’m open to new forms of entertainment,” the 22-year-old told Sixth Tone. Dangol, who was weaned on South Korean music and movies, said she liked these programs for their high production value and relatable plots. Still, it’s too early to predict whether Chinese shows will be able to woo Nepali audiences, she added.
China is taking its chances and investing heavily to make its mark on the entertainment landscape in countries such as Nepal. “Ode to Joy” is just one of the shows aiming to deliver a slice of contemporary China under the government’s Silk Road Film Bridge Project. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) — China’s media regulator — launched the initiative in 2013 to promote cultural exchanges with OBOR countries, including the co-production and translation of movies and television dramas.
A still frame from the second season of the Chinese TV drama ‘Ode to Joy.’ IC
In July this year, China’s finance ministry awarded contracts worth a total of 11.87 million yuan ($1.8 million) to several companies to translate “Ode to Joy” into Nepali, Polish, and Romanian — along with several other television series and movies, as well as the 2015 documentary “Beautiful Village,” which showcases China’s diverse landscape and chronicles the development of its countryside.
It’s all part of a broader push to “tell China stories well” — exposing people around the world to aspects of the nation that are absent from foreign media. In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping toured the newsrooms of state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) and other state news outlets like the People’s Daily and Xinhua, directing journalists to share more positive stories about China.
CCTV was among those to heed the call, rebranding its international channels as China Global Television Network in 2016. The network broadcasts in Arabic, English, French, Russian, and Spanish to more than 85 million homes across 100 countries and territories, according to its website.
But compared with news coverage, Chinese TV programs and movies can be far more challenging to localize. Sherpa said certain culture-specific terms and themes in “Ode to Joy” had to be adapted to suit local considerations among Nepali audiences. Citing food references as an example, he explained that since Nepal’s predominantly Hindu population doesn’t eat beef, mentions of steak had to be changed to sukuti, or dried meat. Meanwhile, Mandarin references to xiaolongbao, or steamed soup dumplings, were translated as momo, a dumpling dish considered an unofficial national delicacy in Nepal.
“We had to translate [certain terms] in a way that fit Nepali culture while retaining the intent of the dialogue or the scene,” explained Sherpa.
Yet China’s soft power offensive is still dwarfed in many countries by competition from India and South Korea. Bollywood enjoys enormous popularity in South Asian and Middle Eastern countries due to linguistic and cultural similarities, while South Korean pop music has been successful in captivating teens across Asia with its catchy tunes and flashy style.
Two women watch TV in their clothing store in Kathmandu, Nepal, May 17, 2015. Sumit Shrestha/IC
China appears to have its work cut out for it. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey of 450,000 people in more than 60 countries, respondents in nations like Vietnam, India, South Korea, and Hungary held an “unfavorable” view of China.
More spending under the auspices of OBOR could help. During the Belt and Road Summit in May, President Xi pledged an additional $113 billion to China’s Silk Road Fund. Initially, the nation had pledged $40 billion toward the fund when it was created in 2014. OBOR has set ambitious goals — particularly for the development of global cultural ties. According to an estimate from Chinese securities brokerage firm Minsheng Securities, China directly invested around $5 billion in the overseas entertainment industry, specifically targeting OBOR countries, in 2016. That same year, China’s Ministry of Culture published a set of strategies to improve cultural exchanges among OBOR nations, directing China’s financial institutions to explore cooperative options through special funds.
Many foreign media companies have already jumped on board, forming film, documentary, and television partnerships. In October, Discovery Channel’s three-episode documentary “China: Time of Xi” — about China’s history, challenges, and how it’s shaping communities far and wide — was broadcast to millions of households in 38 countries on the channel’s Asia-Pacific network. Between 2016 and 2017, India and China co-produced three movies, including “Kung Fu Yoga” starring Jackie Chan. There have been similar co-productions with Thailand and Vietnam, but few have yielded large returns at the box office.
Wang Jufang, culture and media coordinator for the University of Oxford’s OBOR Programme — a research unit under the school’s law faculty — told Sixth Tone that as China becomes a more prominent global player economically and politically, its culture could win broader international appeal.
“TV series like ‘Ode to Joy’ are expected to help some OBOR countries understand China and its people better,” said Wang, who is also the former vice director of news at state-run China Radio International Online. “However, OBOR countries are culturally diverse, and TV shows like ‘Ode to Joy’ may not be suitable for some conservative societies.”
China’s investments in soft power have seen mixed results, according to Wang. “However, such efforts mean that China has realized the importance of winning hearts and minds when pursuing economic and other strategic interests,” she said.
In Nepal, China has already partly succeeded in establishing a good-neighbor image by helping with gas supplies during a conflict with India in 2015. It is also aiding the landlocked country in upgrading infrastructure — though Nepal recently scrapped its biggest hydropower project from a Chinese company, months after formally joining OBOR in May.
Dangol, the Nepali university student, said shows like “Ode to Joy” could help change the perspectives of many people in Nepal whose understanding of Chinese culture and society is limited. “But that might take some time,” she added.
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that Wang Jufang was formerly the vice director of news at China Radio International Online.
Contributions: Yu Dingzhang; editor: Colum Murphy.
(Header image: A Nepali family watches a local television channel at their home in Kakarbhitta, Nepal, Sept. 29, 2015. Diptendu Dutta/VCG)