Oct 27, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Another successful intentional cultural export is Thai food. The Thai government funds Thai restaurants abroad and trains chefs, although admittedly a lot of it is from before the intentional push.


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Oct 27, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

As someone who has been consuming Korean music, TV shows and Movies for over a decade now, its good to see mainstream US/EU media finally wake up and take notice beyond the tired old 'oh look, these Asian dudes wear make-up and they performed in our country recently...and they seem to have a lot of fangirls...'. I grew out of kpop almost immediately (as cringe-worthy as any other pop) and roll my eyes at most k-dramas, but love Korean films. They are continuing that old Chinese/HK/Japan tradition of making stunning and absorbing gangster flicks. I would recommend 'Nameless Gangster' and 'New World' to anybody who is struggling to think of what to watch with their weekly pizza.

As for the central question, I would add 2 overlooked drivers:

1) Non-threatening host country - Korea is geopolitically harmless and Japan has been effectively neutered post-1945. That plays a huge role. A Filipino, for example, is more likely than not to approach a Korean TV show with blank-slate curiosity, as opposed to all that baggage that might come with a Chinese TV show. Likewise, today's cultural 'superpowers' are all deemed harmless and/or non-threatening. The only exception might be the US, and even though many/most people apparently see Americans as a 'threat to word peace' (paraphrasing), Hollywood's lead was entrenched Pre-Cold War and is a legacy more than anything.

2) Government support - Don't say it too loudly, but the Korean government did provide support to the hallyu industry. Nothing overt or newspaper-worthy. No massive figures. But they have been subtly promoting their cultural exports for at least 15 years. Nothing wrong with this of course and this is not to say that the K-wave isn't organic, but it has definitely received a helping hand along the way

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Oct 27, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

I was just reading an article about ABBA's new album, and was a bit surprised you didn't mention Sweden in the list of non-imperial cultural superpowers. I guess, like Jamaica, their global influence is mostly in music, and like Jamaica it covers many genres (though maybe The Knife and the Cardigans are indie pop, ABBA is disco pop, and Max Martin produced and wrote for every pop hit from North America - so maybe it's all pop). And I guess IKEA doesn't have quite the same cultural penetration that Samsung or LG do.

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There are a few interesting thoughts in this article but as someone who has followed foreign media and its impacts across the globe for over a decade, I can't ignore that there is a severe lack of research here, and I would encourage those reading to explore more because this is all fascinating stuff.

India is leagues above Korea as a cultural superpower in many ways- and this is not a knock on Korea, as I have enjoyed Korean content for over a decade now.

If you want to restrict to modern times only, Bollywood has been incredibly influential across the globe since the mid 1900s, not just "having some success in developing countries." No idea how you can completely dismiss it this way.

Vital to this success has been originality, strong emotional connect, and inspiration these movies brought that resonated (and still resonate) with the human spirit.

Bollywood films are very popular worldwide, especially in Southeast Asia, the entire Middle East from Morocco to Afghanistan, Turkey, across Europe, much of Africa, even Latin America (I also often hear lots of Spanish speakers in Bollywood movie showings in California theaters). It doesn't take much effort at all to see how popular it is worldwide, for example in Africa just by seeing how much people, especially the younger generation, in countries like Nigeria talk about their favorite Bollywood movies on twitter.

You can ask any Indian to visit these countries and tell locals they are from India, and they'll see first hand how excitedly the people here talk about Bollywood movies. My friends have experienced this everywhere from France, Germany, Malaysia, Bali, and Uzbekistan to Nigeria, Poland and Ukraine.

Countless Bollywood songs comment sections are entirely in foreign languages from across the world to the point where you'd be hard pressed to find even a single comment by an Indian person.


Some tiny examples because this list can go on forever and I'll start with some small recent examples:

"3 Idiots" was a massive hit worldwide because of its criticisms of education systems, including countries like China where every household has seen it.

Box office numbers may not show it here because Bollywood doesn't shove its movies into other countries with obnoxious, endless marketing and distribution like Hollywood does, but

"3 Idiots" was extremely popular by being pirated online globally.

"PK" released 3 years later and went on to become a huge success as well, especially in China and in the entire Middle East and even Turkey, where many generations of people are grappling with religion's impact and issues in their societies.

With next to no promotion, it made more in China's box office than movies like "Warrior" made in America.

Aamir Khan had cemented himself as a global superstar with these two movies and the lessons they taught, but what would come next would be unreal.

"Dangal" released in China in 2017 despite being released in India and the western hemisphere in December 2016, so the option to pirate it had always been there for Chinese audiences.

However, in China it absolutely decimated the box office and you can ask any person from China, from any city or far-flung corner of the country, and they will tell you they watched it with their friends and families and absolutely loved it. My Chinese friends in America told me how when they visited various parts of China that year, it was the talk of the town for everyone and their friends and neighbors, both orally and through nonstop WeChat messages gushing over it.

By the end of 2017, only 14 Chinese films ever had grossed more than "Dangal".

Nearly all over-promoted Hollywood franchise movies couldn't touch "Dangal"'s numbers, including the second Avengers movie and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2".

It made more in box office in China than any Star Wars film, Donnie Yen film, and even Jackie Chan film barring the mediocre "Kung Fu Yoga" (which itself is of course, a movie obviously based on Indian culture and co-stars famous Bollywood folks in Disha Patani and Sonu Sood).

Today "Dangal" remains the highest grossing sports film ever.

Aamir Khan became an A-list superstar in China and "a king of China's box office" despite being Indian and not even knowing any Chinese; he was adored by Chinese celebrities, even Xi Jinping loved "Dangal", and Aamir was even asked to host a Chinese movies award show.

I didn't say much but I do recommend reading more on it, here's a start:


Aamir's stardom was so strong in China that a movie he appeared in for just an extended cameo, "Secret Superstar", completely dwarfed Hollywood biggies such as "Jumanji" and "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" in the box office of Feb 2018, and heavily contributed to China's box office having the highest-grossing month ever in any part of the world.

The popularity of Aamir Khan and his films helped "Bajrangi Bhaijaan" and "Hindi Medium" erupt in China's box office as well, even though the latter had released 3 years prior worldwide. When my friend visited Malaysia and Indonesia, every single Uber driver he talked to had seen and loved "Bajrangi Bhaijaan". This can be said for many other countries as well I'm sure.

1990s Bollywood films led by megastars such as Shah Rukh Khan were immensely popular across all age groups (and still well known and endure) throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, Middle East, Eastern Europe, and possibly more. These are the same regions where mainly the younger generation today enjoys romantic Korean dramas. Bollywood stopped making these movies by the mid 2000s, and Korean and Turkish dramas have taken over the spots where 90s Bollywood left (Turkish dramas are currently immensely popular in the entire Muslim world, with far more strength than K-Dramas have in any part of the world outside South Korea).

1990s Bollywood movies about family and cultural values starring Shah Rukh Khan erupted so strongly in Southeast Asia that they became enduring cultural forces to this day, with songs such as "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" still being sung, played, covered, and reenacted throughout.

A small example of this power is that an Indonesia cop went viral throughout the country with immense public support, and got a record deal just for lip syncing to the 1998 song “Chaiyya Chaiyya” (turns out he had a nice voice). He was the biggest trending topic on Twitter in Indonesia that year, even beating over-promoted American topics such as Justin Bieber and Osama bin Laden's death.

Raj Kapoor's movie Awaara in the 1954 sold 65 Million tickets in Russia alone, more than half the country's entire population at the time (this excludes numbers from the other Soviet countries). To this day across Russia, and the former USSR countries, you will find countless elderly people who still know and sing the songs from Kapoor's movies and even street musicians playing them across the land. His impact in the USSR was so great that he was not only welcomed there without a Visa, but an enormous crowd formed around his taxi upon arrival (that's how quickly news spread of such a beloved star in a foreign land) and the crowd even lifted the car up and carried it forward.

The movie was a huge hit in China as well, as both the movie and its main song were known to be Mao Zedong's favorites, and localized versions of the song were popular in the Soviet Union, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Romania, and China.

"Disco Dancer" was a gigantic hit as well, and across Soviet Union and Eastern Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Western and Eastern Africa, and Turkey.

It was the highest grossing film of all time in the Soviet Union.

This occurred in Germany:


I'll end here but there are countless such examples.

I will warn you, Bollywood has faced heavy boycotts in India by right wing nationalist lunatics propelled by the current fascist regime so be very careful and ignore comments you read from right-wing Islamophobic Indians online, as well as by delusional liberals who expect them to take arms and risk their lives and safety against Modi's regime.

The alphabets of Thai, Khmer, Lao, Burmese, and Javanese all come directly from the Tamil script. Sanskrit was spread across Southeast Asia and heavily influences their languages as countless words are used directly from the ancient language (see Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, and more). I recommend reading about the history of the Chola dynasty and its overseas influences.

Even the names and surnames of people in these lands are commonly of Sanskrit and Tamil based (look at Blackpink's Thai-origin singer Lisa, whose real name is Pranpriya).

"Indian food", as bad as it is outside of India in modern times, is far more popular globally than Korean cuisine, and historically it has directly influenced the native cuisines of many places such as all of Southeast Asia (for example, many national dishes such as nasi kandar and roti chanai are directly from southern India).

Yoga alone is more impactful on a global scale than any of Korea's cultural exports, as people of all ages across the entire Earth have done it for decades at a wide range of dedication. Yoga is likely more popular outside of India than within it.

I have only scratched the surface and didn't even realize how much I typed so quickly. My apologies.

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I don't think being a cultural superpower has much to do with being a major political or military power. I think of Ireland, jewish culture in general, nordic countries. Borges said that it had to do with operating within a bigger cultural context where you don't feel you really belong (koreans within western culture or within japanese culture). Meaning that you owe no fealty to that hegemonic culture or tradition and therefore you can mould it without superstitions, and many often times in a revolutionary fashion.

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It seems that Italy (design. film) and Brazil (music, sport) were cultural superpowers in the mid-late 20th century. How should we think of them now? Does the lack of IP in cuisine make culinary superpowers like Italy and India more or less influential?

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What Jake Vogel said.

This piece is particularly Eurocentric, despite being about Korean cultural successes in the US of A. Cultures don't succeed only when they arrive on Netflix.

Historically, many cultural traditions have spread beyond their borders (whatever that means) without a gun coming along for the ride. Persianate culture is a good example (see https://aeon.co/essays/when-persian-belonging-was-a-generous-cosmopolitan-belonging for a recent account) - the Mughals, the Timurids and others adopted Persian customs despite being the conquerors rather than the conquered. China offers many examples over its long history and of course the various cultures of the Indian subcontinent have had enormous influence.

And don't forget religion, the greatest cultural export of primarily two regions in the world - the Middle East and South Asia.

In all of these cases, the impact is orders of magnitude greater than that of Korea across vast swathes of the world, but that's not the point - it would be fantastic if we all acquired a Korean sensibility, but I think you're making a big mistake in assuming that a combination of the state and the market are the two primary agents of culture. Much cultural transmission continues to use other channels.

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Greece became a cultural superpower after it was conquered by Rome. The Egyptians were mystics, and the Germans were barbarians, but the Greeks were the epitome of culture, style and story. The Romans even hacked together a sequel to the Iliad and Odyssey as a Roman founding myth. Milton wasn't the first fan fic writer to find success.

A nation doesn't have to have an empire to be a big cultural exporter, though it does better in the international framework created by imperial dominance. More than one critic noted that even when England was at war with France under Napoleon, the English were importing French luxury goods, aping French styles and hiring French cooks.

Korea has done very well during our pax Americana. I've watched a few Korean sitcoms, and they remind me of the stuff the US used to crank out in the 1960s, perky, funny, poignant and devoid of self aware snark. They are also coy about sex which helps in a lot of markets.

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I disagree with the term 'cultural superpower' to describe what's happening to cultural spread on the global stage.

What Squid Game offers isn't new, it's niche. If you check Wikipedia the writer himself said he got the idea reading death game manga. There's even another manga that uses death games combined with children's games mentioned.

What I believe is a more accurate explanation is that there are more niches to fill, and not enough creators making high quality content to fill all these new niche layers. If you said a death game + crime + action + mystery would be a worldwide hit even five years ago, it wouldn't make sense.

People have their preferences though, so even if they like a Squid Game they might not buy into future Squid Games. Tomorrow, they'll want Squid Game with swords in historical epic format set in China. These days it's just a huge list of boxes to check to enter into any market, and to please that market. It's a layer cake of niches upon niches.

See Tran Hung Dao's comment in this thread detailing how Chinese media is popular in Vietnam. Saying that this is a result of government efforts is kind of strange, since the majority of the spread is thanks to internet and corporations hosting and promoting this content, along with youtubers boosting the signal of any interesting content.

Calling this phenomenon a spread of culture through empires rather than a spread of entertainment feels like a leap. I've been watching anime for my entire life, and although it's influenced my entertainment preferences and how I see the world I'm not more japanese, nor do I speak japanese. You could say that I'm a 'Remote Citizen'- instead of a remote worker or a citizen living in japan, I am a daily internet nomad visiting Japanese thought via entertainment.

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Thinking about this piece it had me wondering which countries *don't* perform as well as one would expect relative to their economic and military might and China seems a standout here. (Particularly odd given their strong *historic* influence).

China also doesn't seem to *want* to play in this domain, given the crackdown in both tech and celebrity culture. Should we be worried if a large authoritarian country does not seem to care mich about engaging in the way outlined by this post, a post-empire world of soft power?

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> It has never been on anyone’s list of the most martially powerful civilizations

That’s not true, South Korea is currently on that list https://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-listing.php

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Absolutely loved this one Noah. It’s now about the economy of culture.

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Tran Hung Dao3 hr ago

I'd say all of Western Europe is the bigger outlier for underperformance. The UK, France, and Germany are vastly richer than China on any kind of per-capita basis and they all seem to have somewhere between little and no cultural impact. (Outside of maybe British crime dramas?)

The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Crown, Downton Abbey....just to mention the last few years.

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I think that previous cultural superpowers, going back at least to 5th century Athens, were islands of prosperity in a world of scarcity. Empire probably helped to diffuse culture to others, but it was wealth that allowed starving artists to even exist in the first place.

Today, the world enjoys a far higher level of prosperity, while technology puts cheap, high-tech recording studios in everyone's pocket, and the internet allows artists to reach a global audience. The rules of the game have changed.

I also imagine that the 20th century did much to homogenise tastes. With respect to its fans, Chinese Opera was never going to take over the world. In a way that I cannot quite articulate, the world is now on the same page, culturally speaking.

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This was somehow an unexpected and super interesting read. I’ve been thinking about South Korea’s soft power strategy for a few years now. Age of Cultural Empire indeed! I was under the impression that they’ve been rather aggressively marketing themselves across many sectors. I consume a bit of Korean media (I’m half Korean and half Japanese but grew up in the west - the US and UK) and it still surprises me that it has such an international appeal. It’s lovely, really, but just really surprising to me!

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