Global popularity of Chinese cultural stories in the digital age


Tian Hao (left) is an associate research fellow at the School of Journalism at Fudan University and a research fellow at the Global Communication and Integrated Media Research Institute of Fudan University. Julia Lovell (right) is a professor at Birkbeck College in the UK. Photos: PROVIDED TO CSST

The Chinese classic Journey to the West holds a unique appeal internationally. Since the publication of its first English translation in 1895, this beloved narrative has thrived in the realms of literary translation, as well as in film and television adaptations.

The journey to the West of 'Journey to the West'

Tian Hao: Journey to the West holds a prominent position as one of China’s most renowned novels, exerting significant influence in various spheres such as literary research, cultural creation, and education. I am curious about the perspective of overseas sinologists regarding this masterpiece. How do they perceive and evaluate its significance?

Julia Lovell: This is a novel that has an unusual reach across time and space. It’s well-known how important it is to the Chinese cultural imagination. It remains a crucial imaginative resource for audiences in East Asia, and across the global Sinophone diaspora. Its stories and characters are recognisable in the way that Anglophone audiences recognise settings and characters from Shakespeare or Dickens.

Tian Hao: To my knowledge, the portrayal of the Monkey King has gained widespread recognition in Western society. This can be attributed to the works of overseas sinologists throughout different periods, as well as the influence of various cultural products like movies, TV shows, and animations (such as Hong Kong films and Japanese TV series). These works have significantly shaped the perception of overseas audiences towards the story of “Journey to the West” and the iconic figure of the Monkey King. It suggests that as the dominant media forms have evolved from newspapers, radio, and television to the internet, the means of disseminating “Journey to the West” stories have also undergone continual updates and expansion.

Particularly, with the emergence of social media platforms and short video platforms, the practice of cross-cultural communication surrounding Chinese cultural stories has become a personal and fluid experience. Therefore, our understanding of the cross-cultural communication of Chinese cultural stories should primarily focus on networked media practice. In the context of the “Journey to the West” story, representative texts include various story fragments and user-generated content found on social media platforms. How do you think the interactions between the paper books and other forms are shaping the general public’s perception of the “Journey to the West”?

Julia Lovell: “Journey to the West” has passed on and flourished through the last 500 years in the multiple adaptations that have been made of the story, in abridgements, sequels, theatre, opera, and in the 20th century, in comics, animations, film, song and recently in video games. I’d suggest that Sinophone audiences get to know the stories and characters of the book perhaps more through these adaptations than through reading the 1592 original, which is of course very long. There are new TV or film adaptations in the Sinophone world, the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong or Taiwan, every few years. Pop stars incorporate the stories into their lyrics. So the novel, its stories and characters are like water: they fit around many different moments, moods, and uses.

But “Journey to the West” is unusual in that it has a reach far beyond East Asian audiences, again through adaptations, mainly TV series, mainly Japanese. Many British and Australian people of my age grew up in the 1980s watching a Japanese TV series of “Journey to the West” called “Monkey.” The characters and situations were so fantastical that it became a cult phenomenon among people of my generation. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, that TV series was my first encounter with East Asian and Chinese culture.

Chinese stories in the West

Tian Hao: The story of “Journey to the West” enjoys significant global recognition, and its numerous adaptations in novels, film, and television have served as important vehicles for people from diverse backgrounds to engage with Chinese culture. In the digital era, the adaptation and dissemination of Chinese cultural narratives on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and others have garnered substantial attention from international audiences. This suggests that Chinese cultural stories possess the capability to assimilate and thrive within other cultures in the digital age.

By placing these Chinese cultural stories at the center, users can form cross-cultural communities characterized by distinct emotional preferences. This fosters a more cohesive cross-cultural understanding model among individuals with varying cultural backgrounds. Notably, it is not just the story of “Journey to the West” that follows this pattern. Elements such as Hanfu (traditional Chinese clothing), ancient opera, Chinese music, and more have experienced similar popularity on overseas social media platforms. To facilitate the international dissemination of Chinese cultural stories, it is crucial to “respect” and “understand” users within the digital media landscape.

Julia Lovell: China has an intensely literary culture, and characters and stories from literature have often spread through different cultural forms at different times in Chinese history. For example, women’s jackets in the 19th century were often embroidered with scenes from famous novels. I completely approve of literary themes and characters being disseminated through other cultural platforms. There’s a huge amount of creativity on social media, and of course it has a vast audience. I hope that there will be more and more exchange between social media users in China and in other countries, to share stories. China is a country full of extraordinary stories.

A complex global cultural landscape

Tian Hao: Overseas social media platforms provide a plethora of Chinese stories beyond the translation and introduction of cultural works, including China-related Internet memes, short video stories, online exhibitions, and more. My previous research revealed that effective cross-cultural communication relies on demystifying the story itself and making it relevant to the daily life needs of the audience, creating an immersive experience. Stories closely tied to Chinese social culture and daily life facilitate connections between individuals with different cultural backgrounds and encourage a deeper understanding of Chinese culture through empathy.

In 2023, the exhibition called “China’s Hidden Century” at the British Museum garnered significant social influence. This exhibition focused on the profound social changes and the transformation of everyday life in late Qing Dynasty China. It sparked extensive discussions on domestic social media platforms in China. As one of the planners involved in this exhibition, what unique cultural characteristics do you think this exhibition has that can aid the British public in better understanding Chinese culture?

Julia Lovell: The exhibition focused on a very sensitive period of history. Both inside and outside China, this period is viewed as one of decline and catastrophe, caused by a combination of external and internal factors.

1796 is seen as the end of what English-language writers call the “high Qing,” the flourishing period of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors. It’s seen as the beginning of a time of prolonged crisis, in which China encountered aggressive, expansionist Western and Japanese empires, and suffered severe internal problems, such as exhaustion of natural resources, overpopulation and inflation. So it’s a very controversial and painful period of history. When presenting this history, either in books or in an exhibition, there are many challenges and sensitivities. It is necessary to think very hard about how to present this period of history in a fair and accurate way.

Although it’s very challenging to present this period of history, I still thought it was worth trying to design an exhibition. It was an opportunity to present this crucial period of Chinese history to general British audiences. My partner at the British Museum and I began the project with a widely accepted view of the 19th century. We focused on the big political narratives of the period. We knew that we wanted to use the exhibition to teach the general public in Britain about Chinese history: why it matters to China today, and how it affects China’s view of Western countries. It’s very easy for students in the UK to study history all the way through school and university without once encountering events like the Opium War or the Boxer Rebellion, or the history of China’s 19th century. This is such a contrast with China, where the Opium War is well-known and understood. So there was an educational historical narrative that we wanted to tell to British visitors.

But we also wanted to tell a history in addition to the political and military history of this period. The Museum and I also felt that there were many individual stories to be told about the culture and society of China’s 19th century that were perhaps not so well known. How did culture change through this period? How did imperial institutions and the court change? What was the impact of new technologies, on many levels of society? We were eager to bring out the stories of women as well as men: the female rulers, aristocrats, writers, painters and craftspeople who were part of this dramatic, turbulent century, and who demonstrated resilience and creativity in responding to its intense pressures and turmoil.

Tian Hao: In your previous research, you highlighted the British public’s selective forgetfulness of historical facts regarding China and Britain, as well as their concerns about potential Chinese retaliation. Considering this, do you believe that the international spread of Chinese culture in the 21st century continues to be constrained by these concepts?

Julia Lovell: The racist “Yellow Peril” discourse is the product of a particular history, namely the British and Western feeling of bad conscience towards China, due to unjust treatment of China in the 19th century. I feel it still has traces in contemporary non-specialist discourse about China, which often raises the question: “Is China a threat?” But at the root of the “Yellow Peril” is a pernicious tendency to oversimplify China and the Chinese people into a single, unchanging set of characteristics. My advice to improve cross-cultural communication is for people in countries like Britain to improve their literacy in and knowledge about China, its society and culture, so that general audiences no longer oversimplify or generalize about China. I hope that growing numbers of people will engage with and acknowledge the complexity and richness of China, ideally through learning Chinese, and reading Chinese literature and history.

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved