Rediscovering Cultural Asia in the 21st Century

Some argue that American cultural dominance, symbolised by the global reach of its media and the influence of brands like McDonalds and Coca-Cola, has promoted the American way of life as a role model for everyone. Realising the Asian Century will have profound implications for future generations, none more so than world culture being increasingly influenced by brands, products and pop cultural production of Asian origins. Unlike the past however, no singular culture will come to dominate. Rather world culture will likely come to reflect the diversity that typifies Asia, similar to the notion of a multipolar world as advocated by Noam Chomsky, Joseph Nye and others.

Flux in cultural attraction is demonstrated by the fact there was a moment in history when China “held a power so strong that neighbours converted themselves”, comments William Kirby of Harvard University. This compares with reformers of the late 19th Century, who came to view traditional Chinese culture as problematic to development and so, many believed they would have to destroy themselves culturally to save themselves as a nation. The failure to promote contemporary Chinese culture abroad by party officials is a testament to both the growing threat to American cultural dominance, and to the limits of social engineering –at least in the realm of commercial culture—in what is principally the undertaking of non-state actors. Party officials have spent billions of dollars trying to replicate the success of global media giants like CNN and the New York Times. Despite this, contemporary Chinese culture has little global appeal with its music faring especially poorly—its own youth prefer musicians from abroad.

As Joseph Nye sees it, this failure can be partly attributed to the deficiency in “universal values” more commonly associated with democracies. South Korean artist PSY—who was not part of national strategy—and his hit “Gangnam Style”, a YouTube phenomenon that became the first video to be viewed two billion times, owes much of its success to the blend of universal values with distinctive culture. Last year, South Korea generated $5 billion in pop cultural exports and aims to double this by 2017, marking a turnaround in government policy, which, only 15 years prior, saw pop culture as embarrassing. The Korean wave, aptly coined Hallyu by Beijing media, sweeping through Asia and much of the rest of the world has turned the once uncool culture into a tastemaker and a model for many, including the Japanese, who have launched their own Cool Japan initiative in response.

It was in 1909, when a member of the priestly class, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, ventured to Germany to learn about motion picture technology. Much has transpired in the world’s largest democracy since, including the birth of Bollywood into an industry that now rivals Hollywood. Though its worldwide revenues are paltry in comparison, Bollywood directors are increasingly catering to the non-resident market with contemporary Bollywood epitomising this trend—use of Hindi is rapidly losing ground to English. India also boasts significant potential in the field of sports. Its crown jewel, the Indian Premier League, is estimated to be worth over $4 billion

and is the fastest growing sports contest in the world, having begun 7 years ago. This commercial success has served as a catalyst for the creation of the Pro Kabaddi League and the Indian Super League—both of which, may rival the NFL and the NBA in revenue and viewership someday. Lastly, Indian gastronomy could go the farthest in leaving a delicate impression on global dinners, if only, it could shred the stereotype of Indian cuisine as lacking in finesse. Doing so, would propel it to the levels of popularity reserved for French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and Thai cuisine.

Outsider challengers to American cultural primacy include Brazil, Taiwan and Japan—who all share one thing in common, expanding cultural ambitions. Finally, Thailand will continue to exploit cultural niches with its established cultural profile.

Alas, even if India were to realise its cultural potential, it is unlikely the world will come to be proselytized into Indianisation (or any other country) in much the same Americanisation has come to be felt. More likely, a fragmented world culture will emerge in the race for soft power. Expedited by globalisation, this fragmentation of culture reflects changing dynamics in the political and economic spheres—from unipolarity to multipolarity—and the ‘rise of the rest’.

Author: Noaman Mangera