Unlikely Allies: China + The Wu-Tang Clan

Wu-Tang Clan

C.Custer posted an interesting retrospective on the ChinaGeeks blog this week, discussing soft power, censorship and how the Wu-Tang Clan became unlikely ambassadors for China and its traditional culture. So what do 90s east-coast hip-hop, the Confucius Institute, a 1987 film by Steven Spielberg and an Australian electro-pop duo have in common?

As Custer explains:

The Wu-Tang Clan spread Chinese kung fu and the Shaolin name — which they adopted to refer to their Staten Island home — to a whole audience that didn’t really know anything about China.

Nearly two decades later, kung fu is one of the few things most Americans associate with China. The Shaolin temple is a household name, or close to one, which certainly puts it ahead of every other Buddhist temple on the face of the planet. Of course, not all — not even most — of the credit for this belongs to Wu-Tang. But Wu-Tang’s influence in spreading Chinese kung fu and even traditional Chinese music indicates something about soft power that Beijing may have missed; namely, that it is most effective when it is derivative and not directly controlled.

This got me thinking about more recent examples of artists deriving elements of Chinese culture and remixing them for consumption by an alternative mass audience. The most obvious is Australian electronic due Empire of the Sun. The duo took the name from a J. G. Ballard novel and film (directed by Steven Spielberg) –set in Shanghai during WWII. More recently, Shanghai was also the set for the film clip of the band’s debut single, “Walking on a Dream“, back in July 2008. The clip features spectacular ‘Chinese-looking’ costumes and make-up, fold-up bikes, scooters, street vendors, construction, the Bund and other elements of contemporary Shanghai. The ‘soft power’ effect on their audiences is similar to that of RZA and Wu-Tang.

When one culture (for clarity, we’ll call it C1) interacts with something from another culture (C2), people are inevitably going to take parts of that culture (C2) and assimilate them into something that already exists in their own (C1). RZA and the Wu-Tang took Chinese kung fu and the Hong Kong kung fu flick aesthetic, mixed it with hip hop, and the results were explosive. They weren’t Chinese, of course, but they were a gateway into things that really were Chinese — like actual Kung Fu.

This method seems to be more effective than the more direct (and thus more easily controlled) soft power attempts we see from Beijing. CCTV International and Confucius Institutes, to be frank, are probably too Chinese for mainstream consumption. They are, of course, easily controlled by the government. But they haven’t been as effective in spreading Chinese culture throughout the US as a group of black guys from Staten Island. Which is to say, of course, they haven’t been effective at all.

America’s soft power, on the other hand, is pretty undeniable, and I would submit that this is in large part because it comes mostly from non-government organizations, and thus is much more flexible. It can be changed and adapted to fit local cultures while still representing the “American way” (as KFC and McDonalds, for example, adopt their menus to fit local tastes). It can lead to derivative work that outpaces the original while still retaining some of its cultural influence (as in Jay Chou’s fusion of elements of American hip-hop and dance with C-pop to create something much more marketable to a Chinese audience than, say, 2pac).

A timely example of an American soft power in action is Coke’s collaboration with African rapper K’Naan for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Coca Cola (an American cultural product) is collaborating with a local music icon, in an African cultural context (language), making the product easier to swallow for an alternative mass market.

Earlier this month, Wu-Tang’s ex manager, Cedric Muhammad said, “it is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential for companies to market products like mobile phones, beverages, and bank cards to Africans in languages like English, French, Arabic, Portuguese and Swahili.” But more on the future [marketing] potential of artist/brand collaborations in another post.

If RZA can spread the word about the Shaolin temple through a Christian country via dubbed kung fu tapes funneled into hip-hop albums and music videos, imagine what China’s vast army of creative people [could do] if they were unmuzzled and unleashed.