Why doesn’t America have a national cultural program?

Posted: January 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I and about 1.5 billion people around the world are in the midst of the 2009 Chinese New Year celebration.  Yesterday evening ushered in the Year of the Ox in all its fanfare: fireworks, a big family feast, and for those in Mainland China, the watching of the annual Chinese New Years National Evening Variety Show, also known as the CCTV New Year’s Gala.CCTV New Year's Gala

China's funniest comedians at work

Wikipedia describes the TV event as such: “The CCTV New Year’s Gala is currently the most watched annual Arts and Performance event anywhere in the world, and as such, its importance has reached over to political, economic, and ethical territory. As the Eve of Chinese New Year is a time where the family gathers, the typical situation involves a large 3-generation family gathered in front of their TV set while making dumplings for the first New Year’s meal. The Gala adds a mood of celebration in the house as people laugh, discuss and enjoy the performance. It has become an ingrained tradition on Mainland China to watch the New Year’s Gala on New Year’s Eve, and the audience numbers over 700 million people (est.).”

My gracious hosts for the New Years festivities this year said they remember the first annual gala televised in 1984, but Wiki says it started in 1982.  Most likely the difference is a result of my hosts not owning a television set until 1984.

Which brings me to my first conclusion about China’s most important national cultural program: It’s rise in popularity and entrenchment in contemporary Chinese culture is in large part connected to the spread and rise of mass-media technology (namely television).

Chinese love their TVs

As Chinese families celebrated their rising disposable incomes with the purchase of their first televisions, they proudly displayed their new expression of wealth to all their neighbours and family members during the most important holiday of the year. (Very much like what Chinese families do now with new homes, or new cars.  And as an interesting side-note, the majority of Chinese’ first television set was already a colour TV, as their entrants as buyers in this category was comparably late.)

And so showing the New Year’s Gala each year on their ever-expanding screen size was and is a must.  China’s National Cultural Program became ingrained in China’s culture at the most rapid rate.  A census conducted in 2007 said that about 93.6% of Chinese families watched the annual television spectacle.

Yesterday while I was watching the 2009 show, one specific part of the show caught my attention.  One of the emcees of the evening came up at one point and spoke into the camera, telling the audience (the entire population of China) to find their parents wherever they were and hug them, thank them for their lives, show some kind of gratitude.  And then he went on to ask the viewers to find their friends and show them gratitude, and then finally that we should all thank ourselves and love ourselves.

I found it odd, and the Chinese people around me listened intently.  Later I asked more friends and each had their own reactions to the national ‘call to love one another’.  Some thought it was ridiculous, some found it very moving.  I am sure there will be more chatter in the China blogosphere in the next few days about it.

But what that moment and the entire show got me to thinking was how China has a national cultural program, and how, to my knowledge, America and other nations do not.  Last night’s little blurb and annual production in general has the effect of mobilizing China’s populace into a unifying, uniting and common mode of thought, perspective and heritage.

I know many people, especially from the West, will call such a program Nationalist Propaganda, but what I want to ask here is not whether this should be classified as propoganda, and I do not want to ask whether it is good or bad.  Instead I want to ask and understand why this type of National Cultural Program can become so popular and prevalent in a culture such as China and not be found in Western cultures like America.

I was searching for an equivalent National Cultural Program in North America and found none.  Sure, America has the Fourth of July and even the Santa Claus parade, and even the New Years countdown in Times Square.  And all are American cultural programs.  But they are nowhere near as National or as engaging as China’s New Year’s Gala.

While a portion of the American population might make it a tradition to watch the Santa Claus Parade, or watch the Count Down in Times Square, the viewership is nowhere near the 94% of the entire nation as it is in China.  As well, none is as engaging.

The day, week and month after the annual Chinese New Year show airs, there is talk around many preverbial watercoolers in China about what transpired during that 3 hour show.  Often, a new word or slang is invented during one of the comedy skits that inevitably makes it into popular Chinese vernacular.  Everyone replays, recites or reminices about some joke or witty remark made in the program. My friends have already fully reinacted the final comedy skit to the T in less than 24 hours of seeing it for the first time.

National LampoonScroogedI never hear anyone reciting lines from Dick Clark’s New Year’s Program, and I never hear anyone reinacting scenes from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or Scrooged.  America does not have a central place that enjoys upwards to 100% mass populace appeal where the American government, or the American people, can enunciate a singular message for all to conceptualize.  So where is America’s national cultural program? Where is any country’s?

A lot of the explanation for China’s ability to have such a national cultural program easily comes from The Chinese’ culture of accepting and respecting national initiatives/propaganda.  That comes from the familial, collegial, collaborative characteristics rooted in a Confucian past.  Another part of the equation may be how today’s China has a state religion of Atheism.  Whereas in America where big holidays  like Christmas and Easter are still primarily Christian holidays that result in local religious communities gathering to find meaning and celebration, China has none of that. With the state religion as atheism, many people mockingly say China’s actual official religion is the worship of the state itself.  If that is the case, then the New Years Gala can see as the largest televised worship service in the world.

But the main questions remain: 1) Does America need a national cultural program? And 2) What does a national cultural program mean for China’s influence in the world moving forward?

For Question 1), America has been ingenius in the past century in nationalistic and cultural agenda through decentralized programs, such as the numerous products that come out of Hollywood and Broadway.  And I think that America is too critical of any ‘nationalized’ program for it to ever gain traction.  Additionally, with the media environment as fractured as it is, and with the attention of Americans so fractionalized, I think it will be near impossible for America to have a national cultural program as China has it.

There is one American program in recent history that I think comes close to being a national cultural program — the Inauguration of Barack Obama.

For Question 2), A national cultural program will continue to shape China’s own contemporary culture for the foreseeable future.  And depending on how quickly China rises in political and economic leadership on the global stage, perhaps other nations will need to start paying more attention to this Chinese New Year Gala.  Or perhaps China will start exporting it, or a version of it, translated into other languages, to neighbouring or partner countries it hopes to influence.

The other way to look at it is if we look at American broadcast history and remember that America did actually have national cultural programs, only they reached their apex on radio before the invention of the television.  At that time America also had famous variety shows that each family would turn into and listen each evening.  National messages motivating and unifying the nation was disseminated using this method to great success.  Sounds awful familiar to China’s experience with the New Years Gala today.  If this is the case, then perhaps we will see the decline of the national cultural program in China as well.  As the nation grows in media sophistication and its population becomes even-more culturally fragmented with each generation, will we see China follow America’s path of decentralizing its cultural programs?


What I know for sure is that come February 14 2010, I’ll likely be sitting in front of another television screen, with another Chinese family, watching another Chinese New Year Gala and watching intently for the subtle, or not-so-subtle nationalistic messages that come through.

(Caveat: I am not American, I am Canadian.  But I use America just because it is most approachable to a larger group of readers.  This particular blog post is applicable to all nations, not only America.)