Flamboyant, big-budget Chinese period dramas have been credited with making the Taiwanese public view China more favourably over the past year, despite escalating political tensions between Beijing and Taipei.
While China still features on the list of Taiwan’s least favourite countries, on which it is only marginally more popular than North Korea, the positive shift has been attributed in part to the influence of widely-viewed costume dramas that delve deep into China’s feudal and dynastic past, such as Nirvana in Fire.
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Viewers have been enthralled by successful TV series including Empresses in the Palace, with its stunning costumes and intricate plot about back-stabbing concubines in the Imperial Palace of the Qing dynasty, which are awarded prime-time slots on Taiwanese channels.
Another hit, Prince of Lan Ling, combines palace intrigue with epic battle scenes centred around the Northern Qi dynasty’s dashing Prince Gao Changgong.
An annual poll, released by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation earlier this month, showed that for the first time, more respondents had a positive impression of China, rising over four per cent to 48.8 per cent. Those who saw China negatively dropped from 47.4 per cent to 43.9 per cent.
Chuang Chia-yin, an associate professor and sociology expert at the National Taiwan Normal University said warmer attitudes towards China stemmed both from its promising economy and from more exposure to Chinese popular culture and well-produced historical screenplays.
“Lots of Taiwanese people like to watch this traditional kind of drama because the settings are real, compared with the [shows] produced by Taiwan or Hong Kong. China can use proper settings, a Qing dynasty palace. It’s there, and its authentic,” she said.
“I think maybe in five or ten years time, Chinese popular culture will dominate East Asian society. Their market and production are so big.”
The average budget per episode for Chinese shows is £174,000, while Taiwanese dramas tend to come in at a puny £50,000 per programme.
An editorial in the Taipei Times backed Ms Chuang’s view that China’s use of “soft power” was bearing fruit across the Taiwan Strait.
The constant broadcasting of elaborate China-produced TV shows was wowing Taiwanese audiences with lavish sets and A-list stars, it said.
“The low-budget sets and obscure guests on many local programmes pale by comparison, so it is not surprising that Chinese programmes have helped shift [the] Taiwanese perception of China in a positive direction.”
You Ying-lung, chairman of the foundation that conducted the poll, said he had been stunned by the positive results. In a separate survey, 80 per cent of respondents said they disapproved of China’s recent hostile political moves towards Taiwan.
China claims the island democracy as its own territory, which will be eventually be ruled by Beijing, by force if necessary. China’s government lobbies relentlessly to exclude Taiwan from global forums and undermine its legitimacy as its own nation.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s population of 23 million operate their own democratically-elected government, currency, military and foreign policy and the majority of its citizens identify as Taiwanese.
Since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party in 2016, China’s rhetoric and actions towards Taipei have become increasingly aggressive.
It has mounted a concerted campaign to lure away Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies, pressured international airlines to use “Taiwan, China” in their drop-down online booking options, and stepped up intimidation through military drills.
This week Beijing hit out that its military was performing “encircling manoeuvres” after Mr Tsai urged world leaders to “constrain” China and “minimise the expansion of their hegemonic influence.”
On Thursday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry retaliated that Chinese bullying had reached “hysterical” levels.
But Beijing has also used its economic soft power and lucrative financial incentives to attract Taiwanese talent to mainland China, bolstering fears that it is trying to undermine Taiwan’s recovering economy and buy political influence among the younger generation.
Among some 400,000 Taiwanese professionals who have sought better career prospects in China in recent years are many aspiring entertainers, revealed Jennifer Jao, the head of the Taipei Film Commission.
Singers especially were enticed by the bright lights of major reality TV competitions like The Voice of China, which also airs in Taiwan, she said.
“They attract many good talents to the mainland, including Taiwan’s famous pop singers. It’s quite a challenge for [our] pop music and creative culture industry,” she said.
Five years ago, Taiwan had been “leading the way” in regional pop music, but now it was being absorbed by China’s huge audience and market, she argued.
“We are losing our power, our leading role,” Ms Jao said. “Nowadays if you go to China it represents that you are better, you have talent, you are qualified to survive in that competitive society.”