Chinese college students love American films and TV dramas but are also aware of the US' hegemonic and seamy side.
In this era of well-developed technology, it is possible to change our stereotype view of another country or culture without crossing national borders. A study involving 114 Chinese college students was conducted to find out how they viewed the United States and how they formed their views.
Today's college students will become the backbone of society and, hence, have an impact on future Sino-US relationship. Did the image of the US they had formed during pre-college years change with time and accumulation of wider knowledge?
The students, interviewed over four years from 2008, revealed that the media indeed had a great impact on the formation and alteration of their views on the US. Apart from Chinese media, the other sources that influenced the students' views were American movies, music, TV dramas, novels, news reports, sports (especially NBA), Western festivals, chatting websites and occasional acquaintances with Americans.
All the respondents said their perspectives of the US had changed since childhood, the change being closely associated with the channels of communication they had been exposed to.
The Chinese media mainly served as information provider. Most of the students said they also sourced their information from international news on TV and weekly magazines, mostly read by elites in China. Their impression: the US seemed to occupy the center stage of international news.
Consciously or unconsciously, China's mainstream media have defined the US' political image for many Chinese youths. One of the students said: "When sitting for exams in political science and answering questions on the US, words such as hegemony, power politics and imperialism kept popping up in my mind without any prompting."
But another student seemed to contradict the first: "Our perspectives of the US, of China, and even the whole world, are undergoing slow but subtle changes. We do not confine ourselves to the information fed us by the traditional media. By integrating the voluminous amount of information available to us through the Internet, we construct one 'brave new world' after another for ourselves."
The general view of the students on the US, however, was that it is a country with limited equality (equality in American society is equality among whites, not inter-racial equality), relative freedom and liberty (mostly referring to freedom of speech), absolute openness (all kinds of stimulating activities to seek fun and excitement), hegemonic politics, developed economy and false human rights claims (interfering with domestic affairs of other countries and playing the role of global police).
Most of the respondents said that though their high school curriculum for subjects like history, geography and English initially provided a rational idea about the US, it created different attitudes among them. Some of them admired the US for being a great power, some hated it for using its strength to bully weaker countries, while others called it somewhat of an "upstart" country with a brief history and little legacy.
Though the accounts of the US that some of the students had read in newspapers and magazines during adolescence left an indelible mark on them, they began seeing new facets of the US after they entered college. Hollywood movies penetrated their hearts and minds, while American TV dramas, all downloaded from the Internet, opened a window to the "American spirit and American character". Regardless of whether they admired or despised the US, they said that American TV dramas had greatly influenced their views on the US.
They started asking: Why Chinese films and TV dramas don't have the same influence to infiltrate other countries and cultures? How can the US successfully use all kinds of media to promote American values?
In general, the students surmised: The power of culture is inseparable from the power of politics and economy. Hollywood movies have been the most influential factor in creating the US' image as the "dream nation" among Chinese students. Many Chinese students saw startling high technologies, lingering and loyal love stories, strong patriotism and the eternal spirit to strive for excellence in Hollywood movies.
The respondents were college students who could blend their sentiments and perceptions with strong rational thinking to reach a conclusion. They were exposed to many media channels, which often offered conflicting images of the US, and had to sort, analyze, compare and integrate a variety of information before reaching their respective conclusions.
Sometimes, a student's reaction to and cognition of American cultural products changed with the passage of time. Though they perceived the US as a "wealthy, civilized, and liberal" country, they were acquainted with news about the conflicts and seamy side of American society, which also came from movies about gangsters and was confirmed by media reports.
Many respondents said the Chinese as well as the American versions of US history had had a strong impact on the formation of their views. Others said their initial impression of the US began with films and TV dramas, but they realized that was not the best way to know the country.
Most of the students alluded to the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 when they talked about how they formed their views on the US. Many of them expressed mixed feelings about the US. One student who planned to go to the US for higher studies wrote: "I am not sure how many people are like me, who on one hand censures American hegemony and on the other cherishes a secret longing for the multiple opportunities it offers."
To conclude, Chinese college students' perspective of the US comprises perceptual as well as conceptual knowledge gathered from a variety of sources, of which the mass media are the main channel. But overall, they remain cool-headed when it comes to enduring "American cultural waves".
Chen Yanru is a professor with the School of Journalism & Communication at Xiamen University.
Original source: China Daily