March 9, 2016, by Editor
Soft Power by Accident? Food for Thought from a Chinese Dating Show
Written by Wanning Sun.
If You Are the One (ITATO hereafter, or Feicheng Wurao in Chinese) is a hugely popular dating show from Jiangsu Satellite TV, a provincial Chinese television station based in Nanjing. Started in 2010, the show has also been bought and screened by numerous television networks, including in countries such as Korea, Brunei, Singapore (StarHub) and the US (on its Chinese-language television channels).
Australia is by far the most enthusiastic audience for IYATO. Not only has a series of Australian editions been repeated (it first screened in 2011, and then again in February 2016), but the whole show has also been phenomenally successful ever since it was bought by SBS in 2013, Australia’s national broadcaster dedicated to promoting multiculturalism.
Initially screened once a week, the show quickly captivated mainstream Australian viewers as well as Chinese-speaking migrants, so that now, due to popular demand, it is screened three times a week. SBS’s online promotion for the show says, ‘With a viewing audience of up to 50 million per episode, this popular Chinese dating show is a cultural phenomenon’. I know a 13-year-old high-school girl who has persuaded her parents to let her watch an episode of the show each day, claiming that it helped her learn Chinese. A ninety-year-old retired scientist emails me regularly to offer his comments on the show, having read my analysis of the show in the Australian Review of Public Affairs.
My feminist academic colleague once confided in me that her favourite guilty pleasure involves watching ITATO on SBS. When ITATO’s host Meng Fei visited Australia to recruit Australian contestants for the Australian edition, he appeared in a public forum to meet and greet his fans. Around 1000 people – mostly of Chinese descent but also some Caucasian Australians – filled au auditorium on a deserted Western Sydney campus on a stormy Sunday evening in order to get a glimpse of him (click here to see the video of the public forum in which Meng Fei appeared). Earlier this month, the Confucius Institute of Sydney University hosted a ‘Sydney Ideas’ public event, in which seven contestants from the recently aired Australian specials spoke to the public about their experiences of being on the show.
In 2015, Australia’s SBS produced a documentary entitled ‘Nineteen Reasons to Love If You Are the One’. Describing the show as having ‘a massive cult following in Australia’, SBS presenter Jan Ryan asked her forum guests to nominate their own reasons for liking IYATO. Their answers were highly instructive and wide-ranging. Forum guests described the program as ‘addictive’ and ‘like an episode of The Hunger Games’; they praised its ‘sheer honesty’, observing that it ‘reveals the brutal side of love’ and compresses ‘all the awkwardness of a first date into 20 minutes’; and many singled out the show’s ‘humorous host full of ‘wisdom’.
Featuring a lone male suitor who has to impress a panel of 24 young, single and glamorous women wearing ‘high fashion’, the show ‘turns the tables in favour of the women’, and has viewers hooked through the ‘terrifying’ and sometimes humiliating experiences of the male suitors, thereby also celebrating the ‘courage’ of those who dare to love despite the risk of ‘public rejection’. IYATO has brought unexpected benefits to China’s public diplomacy and soft power agenda, and this manifests itself in at least three ways.
First, the show has made significant inroads into the Chinese diaspora. In July 2011, IYATO recorded its inaugural overseas edition—using Australian participants—and since then it has produced numerous overseas editions, including for Korea, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and New Zealand. The presence of these contestants from the Chinese diaspora on the show, as well as the growing size of the diasporic Chinese viewership outside China, is testimony to IYTATO’s success in appealing to this group.
Second, IYATO has also effectively presented itself as a window through which mainstream viewers in the global West can understand and even come to like China. Although Mandarin is the program’s official language, it also regularly features participants—both male and female—who are foreigners studying or working in China. According to Jiangsu Televison’s own statistics, foreign participants from more than thirty countries across six continents have appeared on the show.
Foreign contestants on the show indirectly but effectively testify to the growing attraction internationally of Chinese culture and language; after all, they have all mastered the Chinese language in order to get on the show. Also, their involvement in the show as regular participants helps to project an image of China as a society with an open, inclusive and cosmopolitan outlook.
Third and perhaps most importantly, IYATO has gone some way towards correcting an image of the Chinese people and media as victims of totalizing censorship. Both Chinese and international audiences appreciate the ‘brutal honesty’ of the contestants, which presents an unofficial, and even alternative, version of the China story. In this sense, IYATO, even though it is not tasked with the mission of promoting a more attractive China, has nevertheless generated a narrative of contemporary Chinese society that is more convincing and appealing to a global audience. In doing so, it has inadvertently become a soft power asset, even though the Chinese authorities may be reluctant to give it credit for doing so.
IYATO is an example of soft power ‘by accident’ rather than ‘by design’. It did not set out to be a ‘soft power’ project in the first place. It is not a top-down government initiative. And it is not Chinese propaganda material that is freely and widely distributed outside China. Rather, it enters the international mediasphere as a commodity, and makes money by selling broadcasting and other associated rights.
Furthermore, by any measure, IYATO does not follow the standard script of the ‘China story’, which propaganda officials instruct the Chinese media to tell. To be sure, IYATO is still a product of China’s state television and therefore still ultimately subject to its censorship, but precisely because of this, its success—both at home and abroad—seems all the more remarkable. For those who are thoughtful about China’s challenges and opportunities in pursuing soft power, the show has indeed afforded plenty of food for thought.
Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Technology Sydney. She is the co-editor of ‘Media and Communication in Chinese Diaspora: Rethinking Transnationalism’ (Routledge, 2015). Image Credit: CC by Josep Folta/flickr.