Chinese TV dramas in Mongolia: Can entertainment become political?



By John Holland

The first two of twenty-five Chinese television dramas have begun to be aired in Mongolia. Yet, behind the polite rhetoric by governmental officials on the virtues of cultural exchange, there is concern among ordinary Mongolians about the future influence that these shows could have if they become too popular.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Mongolia in August of 2014, he and his counterpart, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, signed 26 cooperation agreements, most of which concerned trade, infrastructure, finance, transportation, and energy. However, there was another deal made, one that allowed China to provide—for free—Chinese movies and television series, to be shown in Mongolia over the next five years. June 30, 2016, saw the handing over ceremony, held at the studios of Mongolia National Broadcast (MNB), of China’s first TV drama to Mongolia: “Beijing Youth” (北京青年).

“Beijing Youth” is a popular modern drama in China, first released on August 16, 2012. It tells the story of four young male cousins in Beijing, each with his own personality, and personal ambitions. Generating controversy since its premiere, the series begins with one of four cousins, protagonist He Dong, scrapping both his job and girlfriend in order to go find himself (“revisit his youth,” are the words he uses). Along the way, he is joined by his three cousins, and they all go on a road trip across China, in search of both love and purpose. Although the director of “Beijing Youth,” Zhao Baogang, told Beijing Evening News he was not trying to get people to just quit their jobs and hit the road, his series certainly presented a model to which Chinese youngsters could aspire. Online forums such as “Donkey Friends” (驴友吧), a network of hikers and backpackers searching for travel and lifestyle companions, provide both advice and opportunity for those individuals wanting to make a change in lifestyle. MNB began airing “Beijing Youth” on Channel 1 on July 1.

A second television drama, aired in Mongolia since July 4, is “The Young Doctors” (青年医生), also directed by Zhao Baogang. This series was first aired in China in November 2014 —more recently than “Beijing Youth.” This youth and medical narrative features three best friends, all medical interns, who are selected to shadow three doctors at the emergency clinic of a large hospital. The story follows their experiences with the patients, and their understanding of human life. Although derided by China’s real medical community as factually ludicrous, the series has proven popular nonetheless. It is currently shown in Mongolia on TV5.

This is not the first time that Mongolians have had the chance to watch television dramas originating from China. Local stations began importing Chinese television shows as early as 1996, and have broadcasted such series as “Princess Pearl,” “Journey to the West,” “Genghis Kahn,” “The Legend of Bruce lee,” “The Story of Zhenguan,” and “My Ugly Mother.” Although early Chinese series were mostly period and martial arts dramas, Mongolian audiences have been expanding their tastes, embracing modern dramas such as “My Ugly Mother,” which tells the story of a boy concealing the fact of his, well, “ugly mother,” lest he lose his outwardly attractive girlfriend. In fact, television dramas from China (with genres beyond just history and action) have only been growing in popularity worldwide, and Mongolia has proven to be no exception.

Regarding China’s providing these two new TV dramas to Mongolia, Chinese ambassador Xing Haiming described it as “an action to deepen mutual understanding between the two peoples,” with the hope that “Mongolian people can get a clearer picture of the lives of Chinese people.” In like manner, D. Oyunchimeg, director of MNB Channel 1, remarked that cultural exchanges play an important role in the development of Sino-Mongolian relations, and that it “is of great importance that Chinese TV dramas are provided to Mongolia. MNB will do its best and contribute to mutual understanding of the two peoples.” TV5 Director N. Bazarragchaa also declared, “Cooperation in press and media plays an important role in Mongolia-China relations. TV5 is willing to deepen exchanges and cooperation with the Chinese side to make contributions to the friendship of the two peoples.” Both sides hope that Mongolians’ exposure to China through media will create a more positive image of China in the minds of the Mongolian people, and thereby improve relations between the two countries.

However, when one leaves the room of cameras, flags, and handshakes, one easily finds sets of opinions that are not so embracing. Oyundari Tsagaan, director general of Mongolian National Broadcaster, did not respond to an interview request, but Oka, an Ulaanbaatar businesswoman who has studied in China, and actually enjoys watching Chinese TV series, did. “It’s an extremely big influence toward children,” she told me, comparing them to Korean television dramas when they first came to Mongolia ten years ago. “Ten years ago, many people did not watch them, but now everybody can… So, I think that after ten years, [Chinese drama on television] will be a big influence,” and that “children will watch them.”

Oka was not the only one who averred Chinese dramas’ potential impact on people’s thinking. A local shop assistant stated that they would “influence in a bad way”, especially with communication, as, in her opinion, most Chinese series contain fights, disrespect, and rudeness. In a similar vein, one travel consultant was also wary of growing influence. “It’s not a problem right now,” Undram told me, “but if the influence becomes like Korean drama, it will be bad. Two or three series is OK, but if… more, it’s bad. TV series will influence our mind in a direct way. So, everything should be in a balance.”

Could China indeed gain influence through its television dramas? If one studies the effects of exporting popular culture, one finds that at least one benefit can be a positive change in image for the host country. In fact, this is exactly what happened with Japan. When World War II ended, East Asians hated Japan. Today, however, it’s a different story (overall). Dr. Nissim Kadosh Otmazgin, a senior lecturer in the Department of East Asian studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote an article entitled, “Contesting Soft Power: Japanese Popular Culture in East and Southeast Asia.” In it, he examines the effect of Japan’s popular culture on its soft power, that is, how much more favorably East Asians view Japan after having been exposed to its popular culture. He affirms a positive connection:

“Young East Asians have been developing a new image of Japan through their cultural consumption. In the cases in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Seoul, they have been gradually acquiring positive viewpoints of Japan, and a fascination toward contemporary aspects of the country’s society and culture. The ‘producer’ (Japan), is often associated with the Japanese popular culture products. The nature of this appreciation is constructed through the consumption of [Japan’s] popular culture.”

Yes, popular culture can change a country’s image abroad. Dr. Otmazgin further explains how the consumption of Japanese popular culture products “incites new interests and appreciations, and encourages young East Asians to develop new [positive] images of Japan.”

Most importantly, he explains how fascination with a country’s popular culture can override even historical political grievances:

“For many young people in today’s East Asia, Japan is not only an ex-militaristic aggressor, but also represents a developed country with a fascinating culture, and the embodiment of an achievable dream. They accept the official interpretation provided by the state regarding history, but acquire their own taste and priority when it comes to popular culture.”

In other words, young East Asians still bear in mind Japan’s wartime past, while at the same time indulging themselves with Japanese pop cultural products. And, as Terry Flew of Queensland University of Technology in Australia notes, “it was the growing international popularity of Japanese films, TV shows, animation and popular music that gave a catalyst” to this grand transformation. So, consumerism can indeed trump politics, and this has only worked in Japan’s favor.

China could use a similar strategy. In March 2016, when Mongolians were asked which country was the best partner for Mongolia, only 1.6 percent of those surveyed mentioned China as their first choice, and when asked with which country’s citizens were Mongolians in better communication and cooperation with, only 10.7 percent listed China as their first choice. Moreover, it’s common knowledge in Mongolia that one, just about anywhere, can find someone with negative opinions towards the southern neighbor. Given such dismal ratings among Mongolians, China, by exporting Chinese television dramas to Mongolia, is perhaps counting on the Japanese culture model. In addition, besides just a change in image, there is also evidence that a country’s successful television dramas can give rise to selling more products, and even bringing in more tourism.

So, if China really is trying to change its image among Mongolians, it has chosen a tested and promising medium. Dramas like “Beijing Youth” and “The Young Doctors” are targeted toward Mongolia’s young people. Although a show’s content and level of popularity will be factors, it is the younger generation who will define Mongolian views of China in the far future.