Food, Culture and Soft Power in China and America

Food, Culture and Soft Power in China and America
Aug 12, 2012 By

Editor's note: This article was translated and edited from an article by Chinese blogger Yang Hengjun (杨恒均), originally posted on the Tianda Institute website. It discusses the role of fast food entities like McDonald's and KFC in China, as well as Chinese restaurants abroad, and how they spreads the culture and values of their respective countries. The author also shares his personal experience interviewing patrons of a KFC in his small hometown, and shares his thoughts on how China, for better or worse, transmits "soft power" through food.

I remember when the first McDonald's opened near Tiananmen Square and sparked a serious cultural debate (not unlike the one that erupted when Starbucks opened a store inside the Forbidden City). Some people believed McDonald's wasn't just selling hamburgers in China; they were also the front line of a massive marketing assault pushing American culture and the American value system. It was a debate left unsettled, but after the events of 1989, the American media once again brought up the connection between McDonald's and American values. Panic arose among the more culturally conservative Chinese at the time, who then called on their fellow countrymen to boycott McDonald's, KFC, and pizza in general.

McDonald's and KFC in China

Following Deng Xiaoping's famous southern tour in 1992, China took another step towards openness. China's confidence grew with its wealth, and Western food chains began popping up everywhere. Just a few years ago, McDonald's and KFC finally made it to my little town of Suizhou, in Hubei province. When I look at this food they call "junk food"—food we only let our children eat occasionally on days when we don't have time to prepare proper meals; food that fuels constantly thriving business in small towns across China—I'm forced to admit that these little hamburgers and drumsticks, like Hollywood blockbusters, really do distill something of American culture, even exert some inexplicable sort of "soft power."

The moral values and marketing techniques inherent in American fast food make for an ever-present display of American culture and soft power. I recently conducted a little survey at my local KFC in Suizhou, asking mothers why they brought their children to KFC when right down the street, not 50 metres away, is a Chinese fried chicken vendor selling a comparable product at a fraction of the price. The number one most common response: "It's cleaner here; I don't have to worry [about my kids' health]". For the record, the second and third most common responses were "my kids like the atmosphere" and "here you get a quality assurance; the taste is consistent". I pointed out, to those who gave the first answer, that this KFC, like the vendor down the road, is also staffed by Chinese workers, uses Chinese chicken and Chinese ingredients, and asked them why they believed it to be cleaner. The answer? "This is a chain; it's managed by Americans."

I have mixed feelings about that last part, "managed by Americans." It's not as if KFC in China never had problems with food quality (e.g. the "Sudan Red" food coloring scandal), but the average Chinese still seems to have confidence in the brand's quality, and it's clearly a manifestation of trust in American management culture. Hamburgers and pieces of chicken obviously can't carry any "soft power" by themselves; it's the idea of "American management" that elevates the food out of the world of food culture and into the realm of national-level soft power. Isn't this what we should be talking about?

Chinese food abroad

Speaking of food culture, as someone who's travelled my fair share of the world I can safely say, and not without a touch of pride, that there is no type of food with a wider, more influential global reach than "Chinese food". No matter how pure or diverse its origins, the likes of Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and KFC can hardly compare. Even the great French cuisine, which used to be so often mentioned in the same breath as that of China, can no longer be considered its equal in terms of popularity among target consumers.

A new documentary called Tasting China, has attracted a lot of attention recently, and makes the same point. This film really allows us to discover the rich diversity of our own cuisine. Chinese food has long occupied an unassailable position in world food culture, with Chinatowns and individual restaurants in every imaginable corner of the globe, like a walkable scenic route on the face of the earth. Many years ago I visited the southern tip of South America, a very remote area close to Antarctica, and lo and behold, they had a Chinese restaurant. As the locals say, "Wherever there are roads, you can always find a Toyota. Where there aren't any roads, you can still always find a Chinese restaurant".

Speaking in more realistic terms, though, Chinese food and Chinese food culture and Chinese culture are not the same thing. Compared to McDonald's and KFC, Chinese food is a far cry from a vehicle of cultural values and soft power. Why? Of course it must have something to do with the fact that, in recent years, Chinese culture has lacked a unifying central values system, but we also can't ignore the lack of importance we place on our own cultural wealth, lack of support between government and citizen's groups, and lack of effective management.

Take the names of our dishes, for example. For a long time there was no standardization among menu items. There used to be a dish called "spring chicken" that some Chinese restaurants would translate as "chicken that has never had sex". Last year authorities put a stop to goofs like this when they standardized all translations of Chinese dishes, thus solving a big problem. An even bigger problem, however, is food safety, as seen in food scandals like "gutter oil", cardboard baozi etc. I'll bet there's more than a few foreigners out there who, upon hearing that some Chinese vendors reuse oil scooped out of gutters and sewers, suddenly lost their appetite for youtiao, dim sum and spring rolls. Things like this can seriously damage not just the reputation of Chinese food, but China's status as a responsible world people and consequently, its "soft power".

Mencius equated food with sex when speaking of natural human desires, and in a world where one can hardly speak of culture without speaking of food, Chinese food certainly stands alone in terms of historical depth and geographical breadth. I'm forced to wonder what would happen if, instead of Confucius Institutes, we made Chinese cuisine, Chinese restaurants and Chinese culinary schools our vehicles for spreading Chinese culture and Chinese soft power. I reckon the effect may be quite different. Perhaps more foreigners would come and participate, perhaps less would take offense at the "cultural invasion," perhaps the quickest way to a man's heart really is through his stomach.


Related articles
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American Junk Food: Why So Popular in China?
Hybrids of Trade and Leisure – How China Changes International Chains

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Keywords: Chinese and American soft power soft power China fast food in China soft power through food


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well said

Aug 13, 2012 04:00 Report Abuse



No, soft power isn't Chinglish. The phrase was coined by Joseph Nye some twenty years ago, and it exists as a compliment to Realpolitik. The idea is that a country can get a rival to do what it wants by working with that rival power rather than working against it. Allow me to give you a hypothetical example. Let's say there exists a specific part of the ocean on which a great deal of trade occurs, and under this specific, yet purely hypothetical part of the ocean there happens to be several large deposits of oil. Now, any nation in the world would want to get its hands on this bit of territory, but lets say that this waterway lies within the internationally agreed upon boarders of several neighboring countries, all of which are much smaller than your country. A soft power approach might mean encouraging a number of regional free trade agreements while buying up a sizable interest in the neighboring countries' shipping and oil industries, while a hard power approach would mean issuing threats abroad while beating the drums of nationalism at home.

Aug 13, 2012 08:14 Report Abuse


The One and Only

"Chinese food is without culture, very much like modern China itself"
Totally wrong ... watch "Tasting China/a Bite of China" you will not only see that their food has a culture and more with an open-mind you will understand it.

Aug 13, 2012 21:24 Report Abuse