Taiwan Promotes Soap Opera Diplomacy

In  an effort to increase the nation’s soft power, Taiwan’s political leaders are turning to “soap opera diplomacy.” Historically, Taiwan has never been a part of a major international body or exhibited much political influence. Now they’re trying to expand their influence and culture through the arts, such as opera. In World War II, the Republic of China (Taiwan) promoted opera on a national scale. After its withdrawal to Taiwan, the Republic of China used it as a tactic to show that they were the preservers of the Chinese culture and representatives of the “true China.”

There is a distinction between Chinese opera and Taiwanese opera, however. Regina Liu, Chinese teacher at Lick-Wilmerding High School, says that Chinese opera, also known as Beijing opera, “is a combination of many different kinds of opera and dialects—Mandarin style, Hunan style, Hebei style. This makes Beijing opera unique.” Taiwanese opera consists only of Taiwanese dialect. “The music is not too different; mainly the dialect is different. Taiwanese opera is based on old stories too. That’s how they learned from Beijing Opera.”

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Liu is dressed in Qing Dynasty costumes as she portrays a princess in a scene titled “Sitting in the Palace” from the opera story The Forth Son Visits the Mother. photo by Regina Liu

Chinese opera is an amalgamation of various regional operas, incorporating music, song, dance, martial arts, and acrobatics from every corner of the country. Originally an art reserved only for the emperor and his court, Chinese opera was first promoted by the Qing Dynasty in 1790. It includes singing in beautiful melody, ensembles of different musical instruments matched in harmony, poetic lyrics, graceful dancing and gestures, acrobats and martial arts. These elements are fused in enriching roles that follow historical storylines and offer moral teachings.

As Chinese Opera prospered and became more popular throughout China, it became regarded as one of the country’s cultural treasures. Now, it is a nationally-promoted art.

When Mao Zedong worked to destroy all traditional culture in China during his “out with the Old, In with the New” campaign, Taiwan stood strong and and advertised itself as the “Real China.”

Now, Taiwan wants to leverage its position as the “keeper of Chinese culture” as a strategy of international diplomacy, hoping to increase their soft power and decrease the gap between Taiwanese culture and the culture of other nations. Taiwan is focusing its diplomacy less on ideology, and more on culture.

According to an article from the Los Angeles Times, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided to air the soap opera The Fierce Wife on television networks across Latin America. The Fierce Wife, described as the “the most talked about TV show in Taiwan” by DigPlanet, is a drama about the divorce of housewife Xie An Zhen after she discovers that her husband has been cheating on her with her cousin.

In addition to the influence that could potentially result from this project, the economic benefits are bountiful. No specific statistics could be provided by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, but “the show has become so popular that Argentina and Honduras are considering a rerun,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

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Liu plays a white serpent being protected by a green serpent in an opera about a famous love legend. photo by Regina Liu

Liu says, “If it’s just Chinese opera, it is not effective in terms of promoting. But combined with other things, it is effective in the successful spreading of culture. Nowadays, due to mass media, the combination of TV soap operas, many forms of Chinese opera, music, dance, and Chinese martial art performances makes spreading Chinese culture more effective.”

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About Dana Wu

Dana is currently a senior at Lick-Wilmerding, where she serves as a reporter as well as the Co-editor of the Features and Centerspread and a Co-managing editor of the Paper Tiger, and a Co-managing . Aside from journalism, Dana is very interested in city politics and is a member of the San Francisco Board of Advising Youth, where she works with her peers to create greater access to the city’s public libraries. This is her second year working on the newspaper, and she couldn’t be more excited to explore writing on a larger scale and share what she’s uncovered with the Lick community.

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