Taiwan's pop culture leaps Chinese hurdles

Taiwanese pop singer A-Lin (centre) arrives at the 23rd Golden Melody Awards in Taipei, 23 Jun 2012
Image caption Taiwan's cultural exports to China include pop singers, talk shows and dramas

Millions in China watch the Taiwanese variety talk show Kang Xi Lai Le - but not on television.

Instead viewers enjoy its no-holds barred episodes, covering everything from celebrity gossip to politics, online or on pirated DVDs.

Like much of Taiwanese programming, the show would not get past Chinese censors because of content considered inappropriate.

In one of the most-watched episodes last year, for example, Taiwanese singer FanFan shared with audiences in great detail the jokes her TV host husband Hei Ren plays on her. This includes snapping pictures of her after he passes gas.

That's certainly something not normally seen on Chinese TV.

But it's not just a reluctance to embrace a different kind of TV humour. Chinese regulations forbid all types of Taiwanese talk shows from being aired in their original state.

These are just some of many obstacles that reflect the unease with which the Chinese government still views Taiwan's cultural influences, despite much improved relations in recent years and the island being one of the biggest outside sources of cultural sway on China

Chinese Hollywood

But Taiwan is now trying to ease its former political rival's worries.

On the surface, Taiwanese culture seems widely visible in China. Many songs played on Chinese radio are Taiwanese. Major TV performances, such as the recent New Year's Eve show, would not be complete without Taiwanese performers.

This is not surprising. Though tiny compared to mainland China, Taiwan has long been a sort of Hollywood of pop culture for Chinese speakers around the world, even in China during previous decades of tense relations.

Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng was so popular in the 1980s that a Chinese government ban of her music could not stop it from being played everywhere.

Image caption Much of the Taiwanese pop culture embraced on the mainland has never received official approval

The infatuation with Taiwanese pop culture continues today. But Taiwan still faces many hurdles entering the Chinese market, because of protectionism and fears of too much influence.

Few Taiwanese films are allowed in China's cinemas - only seven made it in the past two years despite a landmark trade agreement in 2010 lifting quota restrictions.

Taiwan's TV shows, meanwhile, are categorised as foreign, even though they are in Mandarin.

As a result, they face quotas and cannot be aired on prime time. Or they undergo such long approval periods that the pirated versions are widely sold by the time they make it on air.

Chinese TV hosts meanwhile have been told to avoid speaking with the Taiwanese accent.

Taiwanese publishers and authors also struggle to sell or print their books in China, partly because of content deemed sensitive.

Money and peace

Much of Taiwanese culture seen on the mainland have never received official approval. This all amounts to a lot of money that Taiwan could be making, but isn't.

For example, while Taiwan's singers are popular in China, they do not make money except during concerts because much of their music in the mainland is pirated or downloaded.

This is partly why Taiwan's new cultural minister, Lung Ying-tai, recently said that she wanted to see more cultural exchanges between both sides, and that culture was not a weapon.

She estimates that more than one million copies of her own bestseller Big River, Big Sea - which tells the stories of Chinese people who fled the mainland to Taiwan in 1949 - were sold on the black market in China.

Image caption The Golden Horse awards, likened to the Oscars, draw many fans

But Ms Lung sees this issue as being more than just making money for Taiwan - it is also about making peace, she says.

"If you look at an example of what countries like Germany, Poland or France have done after World War II, they had done so much in promoting cultural exchanges with countries that were enemies before," she said.

"What's the purpose of that? It's to reach peace, and in order to reach peace, what would be better than cultural exchanges? And that I believe is what we really have to strive for across the stage," Ms Lung said.

'Mutual trust'

At the same time, Taiwan also restricts the import of Chinese culture, allowing only 10 Chinese films to be shown each year.

It also limits Chinese ads in local media and bans Chinese TV programmes because of politically-sensitive content.

For example, a film about the Xinhai Revolution - which helped overthrow the last emperor - was not allowed.

"To put it simply, China is worried about the sovereignty issue being mentioned [in films and TV shows]. Taiwan actually has the same concerns," said Jay Huang, a spokesman for CTI TV, which owns rights to the popular talk show Kang Xi Lai Le.

China still considers Taiwan its province, while the Taiwanese see the island as an independent country.

Since relations began improving in 2008, with the coming to power of a Taiwanese president eager to promote China ties, exchanges have been stepped up, including among students, scholars and artists.

Image caption A doll in the likeness of Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese singer who was popular in China

It was only last year that Taiwan began to allow Chinese students to study for academic degrees.

Taiwan also asked Chinese celebrities to host the popular Golden Horse awards ceremony - known as the Oscars for Chinese-language films - for the first time in November despite concerns.

Ms Lung said more exchanges needed to be done.

"After six decades of hostilities and the possibility of war still there, it's never enough. We really have to do more for mutual understanding, to reduce the level of suspicion and distrust," she said.

Culture brings people closer together, she added.

Relying only on politicians to reach agreements without the basis of real cultural understanding among people means any negotiation could be overturned there is a change in power.

"Therefore the cultural understanding and mutual trust among the people themselves is the foundation of any political talks," Ms Lung said.

"To reach authentic, genuine and lasting peace across the [Taiwan] Strait, I think cultural exchanges are even more important than political negotiations."

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