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Complicated Currents

Chapter 4



Rowan Pease, University of Roehampton

Rowan Pease lectures in ethnomusicology at the University of Roehampton and at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is editorial manager of The China Quarterly.

On 22 September 2006, a male pop duo, KV, gave a concert in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Young fans clambered up and danced ‘wildly’ on the ranks of tables, which are more familiar in the West in news images of elderly delegates scribbling away at work reports of the Central Politburo during National People’s Congress meetings. Netizens on the People’s Daily ‘Strong China’ forum were outraged: on the thread ‘The Great Hall of the People transformed into a discotheque?’1 One member wrote:

Is this telling the world that Beijing is a place without taboos, where you can trample anything? ... We can’t let a venue for serious political activity become a money-making venue ... The concert is over; the People’s Hall has been ravaged.

One fan who attended the concert even commented in disgust:

What would the peasants bent over their crops think? The labourers who are each contributing to huge construction projects? The great old artists? The People’s Representatives who have sat at these desks, and the people’s heroes who are commemorated on the memorial before the hall?2

The vignette is illustrative of the uneasy relationship between the state and popular culture in China. Of more relevance to this volume is that there was no mention of the nationality of these singers, one South Korean (An Chil-hyeon, better known as Kangta) and one Taiwanese (Vanness Wu Jianhao). These two former boy-band idols had been brought together by canny impresarios in South Korea and Taiwan to capitalize on their regional popularity.3 That such a cosmopolitan duo should be performing in the very heart of China’s political capital is no longer notable, despite their coming from two politically contentious states. The ‘Strong China’ (Qiangguo) forum from which the above comments were taken is well known for its nationalism,4 yet in ignoring the origin of these singers, netizens seem to suggest that idols inhabit a space beyond national or political boundaries. Furthermore, it illustrates that where hallyu (the Korean Wave) is concerned, Chinese attention is focused upon Chinese rather than South Korean behaviour, as previous research has indicated.5

It was in 2000 that the Beijing concert of Korean boy-band H.O.T., reportedly attended by 13,000 fans, and the 10-city concert tour of Ahn Jae-wook (An Jae-uk), the lead actor in popular TV drama Star in My Heart (Byeor-eun nae gaseum-e) and also a singer, first drew attention to the popularity of Korean pop music in China. In this chapter on Sino-Korean musical exchange I focus on live music-making to reveal how, despite fans’ disregard of nationality and their utopian desires for a border-free transnational music, hallyu pop music cannot be considered in isolation from national political and economic interests. I will discuss the indispensable efforts of the Korean industry and government to sustain and maximize hallyu musics potential economic and soft power, and offset negative side-effects that accrued from the behaviour of fans and anti-fans, and from the perception that cultural traffic between Korea and China was strictly one-way. The article has a Sino-centred approach, building as it does on fieldwork amongst fans and music industry figures in 2003, and subsequent interviews in 2005 and 2008. From this perspective it becomes apparent that the hallyu phenomenon reveals as much about these people’s perceptions of Chinese culture as it does about their perceptions of Korean culture (Pease 2009). Finally, for reasons outlined below, I do not dwell on record sales or attempt a comprehensive history of South Korean concerts in China, but focus on a few high-profile solo concerts, and the annual Sino-Korean Friendship Concerts which have been mounted by the two countries’ state broadcasters since 1999.

This chapter comes with several caveats common to this geographic region, the first against monolithic views of China: it describes the views of a very limited and defined group of people who shared those views with me – those who loved Korean music, and those who had an interest in its promotion. The former were young women of an average age of 17, dispersed throughout China in townships or cities, mostly graduates of high school or technical colleges, and with Internet access.6 They were hardly the ideal audience that the Korean government aspired to attract, given their lack of disposable income, geographical mobility, or cultural clout (Pease 2006b). The latter were members of an educated urban elite in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, and all experienced in transnational media. Secondly, this article does not consider musical exchanges between North Korea and China, which in recent years have been few and far between. Any reference to ‘Korea’ refers only to South Korea. Finally, I use the term hallyu music/pop to refer to a quite narrow body of mainstream pop music: what the Korean charts call dance (denseu) music, light hip-hop (hiphap), and OST (original soundtrack) ballads. These are better known internationally than other popular genres such as rock or punk, and are ‘culturally odourless’ in comparison to heavily Korean-scented ‘trot’ music, romantic ballads, traditional music and composed neo-traditional music (gugak, lit. national music), all of which can be heard in South Korea, often outselling hallyu products domestically.7 Korean cultural commentators sometimes worried that the musical products spread by the Korean Wave were excessively Westernized and of low quality, and they called for the incorporation of traditional elements into popular culture. The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Leisure supported the ‘Koreanization’ of hallyu in campaigns such as ‘Han style’ (Han seuta-il), launched in November 2006 to promote traditional culture abroad, declaring ‘Korea has only begun opening its eyes to the potential of its traditional culture through hallyu’.8 Nevertheless, it was the more Westernized music that remained popular abroad, and which is the focus of this chapter.


In the decade since the hallyu phenomenon was first noted and labelled,9 writings on hallyu, particularly those originating from South Korea, have frequently adopted a culturally nationalistic viewpoint, seeing in hallyu an opportunity for Korean popular products to counter influence in East Asia from US and Japanese cultural products, and for economic and political benefits to accrue to Korea. Such writings have stressed not only the inherent quality of Korean cultural products, but also how they were acceptable to neighbouring countries due to a sense of cultural proximity, including shared Confucian values.10 Scholarly research counterbalanced these views by pointing out the limitations of hallyu’s reach, as having found a niche market rather than displacing other media products (Pease 2006b). There has also been an increasing tendency to point out the harmful side effects of hallyu, starting with the Japanese KenkanryKenkanryu (Hating the Korean Wave) manga (Liscutin 2008) and spreading to a perceived anti-hallyu movement in China, evidenced by producer Zhang Guoli criticizing the proliferation of Korean dramas on Chinese television in 2005 (Leung 2008: 65), Jackie Chan reportedly calling on Hong Kong audiences to resist hallyu (Leung 2008: 66), and Tai-Ke singers in Taiwan ranting against Bae Young-jun (Yang 2008: 201–205). One high-profile critic of nationalist readings of hallyu was Park Jin-young, director of JYP Entertainment and former manager of the Korean Wave idol Rain. Despite his own hallyu success, Park said that the close linking of Korean Wave cultural products to national identity was damaging the wave, and ultimately would limit it: ‘Now is the time to overcome nationalism, but instead we are intensifying that sentiment ... The press says things like “The Korean wave is conquering Japan and China”, and that leads to anti-Korean wave sentiment overseas’ (Joongang ilbo, March 2007). Janelli and Yim (2007) have discussed the limits of hallyu as a tool of soft power, arguing that while it has succeeded in raising the profile of Korea, it has failed to win the government diplomatic support over issues such as the territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima or the naming of the East Sea/Sea of Japan. Indeed, they argue that government support of hallyu culture has provoked hostility, in that anti-hallyu commentators see hallyu as a government plot. Yet anti-hallyu sentiment should not be overstated: followers of East Asia popular music culture know that for every fan there is an ‘anti-fan’, irrespective of nationality. If hallyu has not proven to be of much use in political terms, it perhaps resembles more closely Douglas McGray’s description of Japan’s ‘Gross National Cool’ (McGray 2002), in which Japan is seen to have cultural power far outstripping its military, economic or political might. Maliangkay (2007) turns the notion of soft power inwards, suggesting that the Korean government has used it most successfully to sell the notion of Korea as an important cultural nation to Koreans.

As several articles suggest, wherever hallyu is consumed, Korea becomes a foil against which a given people measures itself, whether in Singapore (Yin and Liew 2005), Japan (Hayashi and Lee 2007), or China (Pease 2009). Read from a local perspective even anti-hallyu attacks can be seen as directed at local conditions – demanding investment, support and even protection like that offered by the Korean government, industrial giants and (mostly female) domestic audiences. All the above-mentioned Chinese anti-hallyu protestors – Zhang Guoli, Jackie Chan, Tai-Ke rock singers – were not so much fighting back the Korean cultural invasion as requesting more support from media and government in restricting imports and offering financial investment. For instance, Yang (2008: 11) cites a Taiwanese article entitled ‘If Koreans can do it, why can’t we: New Korean force use movies to win economy’,11 while Jackie Chan posted an article on his blog in which he stated, ‘The Korean government ... will spare no efforts when it comes to publicizing Korean culture ... I think the entertainment industry in Hong Kong needs to catch up pretty quickly’ (Chan 2008).

The fans with whom I corresponded online clearly recognized the importance that the Korean government attached to hallyu stars, even while they admitted no national borders in their love for their idols. For instance, it was to President Roh Moo-hyun that fans decided to write in protest when SM entertainment announced a shake-up of boy band TVXQ (Pease 2009). Eva Tsai contends that pop stars in East Asia cannot avoid being politicized and talks about the ‘ambassadorial function of popular culture’ in the regional context (Tsai 2008: 218), which leads to demands that stars like BoA speak out on political issues such as the dispute over Dokdo (Chua and Iwabuchi 2008: 11). In a similar vein, overseas fans were politically savvy enough to appeal to Korea’s leaders to excuse Song Seung-heon from compulsory military service in view of his contributions to Korea’s hallyu economy (Tsai 2008: 238–239).

The hallyu phenomenon had measurable economic benefits beyond the income derived from media exports, which had reached US$650 million by 2003 (Onishi 2005). These were most noticeably derived from fans of television dramas, who reportedly bought products used or worn in them, as well as those advertized by the idols, and travelled to Korea to visit filming locations. The Korean National Tourism Organization (part of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism) reported growth in visitor numbers to Korea from East Asian countries of 37 per cent in 2003–2004 on the back of the wave and their own investment in hallyu marketing, tour packages and star events. Their 2004 survey found that 41 per cent of Chinese respondents cited visiting drama and movie sets as the main reason for wanting to make a trip to Korea (KNTO 2004). It is hard to measure the extent to which hallyu influenced more general trade figures. Certainly Korea has been one of very few countries in recent years to enjoy a trade surplus with China, a surplus which grew healthily from US$12 billion in 2000 to just under US$50 billion in 2007.12 Korea in 2007 was second only to Japan as a source of imports to China. The commercial significance of the Korean Wave to Korean companies was also revealed by Samsung’s investment in hallyu research (Cho 2005: 169). Like the KNTO, they carefully matched celebrities with products for each market, and on the back of these endorsements China became the biggest market for Samsung and LG (World Media Lab 2005).

My own research amongst fans presents a mixed picture that contradicts negative stereotypes of ‘blind’ worship of all things Korean, while offering limited hope to Korean manufacturers. Of the 103 fans who answered whether they liked other Korean products, only seven said that they did not. Of these negative responses, representative comments were ‘Apart from H.O.T. there is only H.O.T.’ (chil, 20 September 2003; 60),13 or ‘It seems ... not. Before I knew H.O.T. I had no concept at all of Korea’ (lovetony, 20 September 2003; 55), which indicates, however, at least an increased awareness. At the other extreme were fans who made such claims as ‘I like everything from Korea because NRG are Korean’ (cjking, 19 September 2003; 48); ‘Aiwu jiwu! (I even love the crows on their roofs)’ (sunny, 21 September 2003; 73); ‘if I hear the word Korea on the news I’ll instantly rush to watch it’ (lovewoohyuk, 20 September 2003; 85). The most popular aspects of Korea amongst music fans were food (mentioned by 26 per cent), clothes and accessories (22 per cent), scenery (14 per cent), behaviour/politeness (9 per cent) and stationery (5 per cent). However, only four respondents mentioned digital products like mobile phones or mp3 players. One said she would travel to Korea to take part in a hallyu concert package, and one wanted to emigrate there. Most fans agreed that they enjoyed watching Korean films and television dramas, but a significant 10 per cent said they did not, with some expressing the view that the TV dramas were too slow and tragic.


Despite hallyu popular culture looking thoroughly Westernized to many observers, during the years of the hallyu boom Korea’s own popular culture was remarkably self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency built on decades of strict government limits on media imports, but it also has intensified since the relaxing of such restrictions, despite a decline in the domestic music industry.14 Figures from the Music Industry Association of Korea (MIAK) offer some justification for the perception of a cultural trade imbalance where music is concerned. In the years 2005 to 2007, imports were dominated by foreign releases of Korean artists – such as the Japanese records of BoA and TVXQ, and records from soprano Sumi Jo – rather than foreign artists. Furthermore, foreign pop music sales were far lower than sales of imported recordings of soft classical music, film soundtracks, jazz or musicals.15 Between 1999 and 2007 no Chinese, Taiwanese or Hong Kong artist appeared in the Korean top-50 imported record charts. The only conceivable exception was Parisian-born American-Chinese cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose record of Ennio Morricone film music reached number 19 in 2005. Within China itself, Korea was benefiting from an uneven playing field, in that it was competing against a domestic industry that was completely crippled by piracy, and therefore unable to invest in local artists.

Korean music industry figures attempted to create a more regionally balanced or borderless image, and to increase sales, through their recruitment of non-Korean performers into their artist rosters; Chinese examples include SM entertainment’s Han Geng (K. Han Gyeong) and Zhang Liyin (K. Jang Ri-in), the two best-known such stars, and DR Music’s Guan Jian and JYP Entertainment’s Li Shi Qi. These performers were often placed in multi-national groups – such as SM Entertainment’s boy band Super Junior, or DSP Entertainment’s A’st1 – to maximize their regional appeal. However, foreign entertainers in Korea faced considerable restrictions in the form of E-6 visa requirements, which meant that Chinese artists working in Korea were limited in the number of performances and the number of TV channels on which they could appear.

The Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism also acted to minimize the backlash against perceptions of a cultural invasion, through joint events such as the 10-day ‘Experience China in South Korea’ programs of September 2006, held in Pusan. The respective Chinese and Korean ambassadors spoke in 2006 of a ‘Chinese Wind’ (C. Han feng; K. Han pung16) in Korea, as over ten thousand Koreans were reported to be visiting China per day, and 500,000 ROK citizens were living there. But exchange generally entailed an outward movement of personnel rather than an importation of culture. Cultural products from mainland China in Korea involved mainly highbrow, arthouse or traditional culture, of little economic significance or public impact, rather than popular music or drama. It was through official cooperative ventures and exchange program that the Korean and Chinese governments were best able to demonstrate their friendship whilst also promoting their artists. Below I discuss why and how it was on the live stage that the Korean government supported its popular musicians.


Live performances by Korean artists were important to commercial entertainment companies, fans and national bodies in hallyu. Elsewhere Roald Maliangkay (forthcoming) describes the difficulties Korean music companies faced selling their records in China, given the high rates of piracy of both physical copies and downloads. A record distributor in Shanghai told me that piracy rates for Korean records probably did not reach the 9:1 (pirate:legal) rates then estimated by the International Federation for the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) for the Chinese audio-visual market generally, but he estimated it at 5 or 7:1.17 Added to this problem were long-winded negotiations over distribution rights and the procedures necessary to gain approval for cultural imports to China, both of which allowed pirates a head start in the market.18 In the US and British markets at least, decreasing revenues from record sales have been offset by a move towards live performance revenues in recent years: ‘It is clear that concerts provide a larger source of income for musicians than record sales or publishing royalties ... [I]ncome from touring exceeded income from record sales by a ratio of 7.5:1 in 2002’ (Connolly and Krueger 2005: 4). Given this model, one might expect Korean companies to have used the live-concert route to benefit economically from hallyu. However, of the 107 fans I surveyed in 2003, only 17 had ever seen a live performance by a Korean musician, though all wanted to. For fans, it is the concerts that enable them to fulfil their purpose, an opportunity for members of the so-called haHanyizu (‘crazed for Korea tribe’) to publicly declare their devotion, drowning out the singers with their screams, and in effect becoming the show (cf. Ehrenreich et al. 1992: 103–104).

Nearly all fans complained that their hometowns were too remote, and regretted the situation desperately, with many calling the distance ‘tragic’:

The greatest pity is that I have no way to see them [Shinhwa], because it’s too far, and they have been so many times to Shanghai, and cities like Beijing, it’s so hard to see them, if I could see them I think I would cry, or faint, because I love them too much, really, I will really like them FOREVER~~, now we Guangdong fans are requesting them to come to do a concert in Guangdong, Ah I really want to see them, the bitterness of lovesickness is really hard to bear. (Woohee, 11 October 2003; 167)

A few others were less remote, but were not permitted to attend concerts because of the pressures of school: ‘Because I’m still a student ... my parents are scared it will affect my schoolwork. It’s my regret’ (Eugene, 25 June 2003; 8). Of the few who had seen live performances, seven lived in Shanghai, and most others in major eastern Chinese cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Qingdao. Among my informants were two exceptions, which showed the distance fans were prepared to travel, if they had the funds:

It wasn’t a concert but there was the Nanning International Folk Song Festival and they invited J.T.L. [an H.O.T. spin-off] – I’m away studying, but I rushed straight back for that (I had no choice; most concerts with Korean stars are in Beijing or Shanghai and in no respects am I able to chase them there) to follow the stars we self-styled fans chase (that is to say: everything I needed was there). (Polly, 21 September 2003; 67)

or a 17-year-old from Chengdu:

Yes! Of course I have (attended concerts)! This is a prerequisite for haHans. On October 3rd I’ll go to Qingdao! To see Shinhwa! (ivanlee, 21 September 2003; 77)

And there was always the possibility of vicarious enjoyment:

Kangta is going to Changsha in Hunan Province to take part in the Jinying festival star concert~~ah I really want to go~~ah but I can’t go~~but I have a sister on the Internet who is going~~she says she will take a picture of Ta and send it to me.~~ I am happy!! (lovewoohyuk, 20 September 2003; 85)


Kangta is taking part in the Sino-Korean Concert soon, the deputy head of our club is going from Zhenjiang to Beijing to see it. I hope she will bring us back this good experience. (candy, 25 September 2003; 108)

Just as much as the fans fulfil their role when face to face with the idol, so too the idol only comes into being when screaming fans create him or her. As Ehrenreich et al. (1992: 103) write of Beatlemania:19 ‘The Beatles were who they were because girls like oneself had made them that ... They had risen from working-class obscurity to world fame on the acoustical power of thousands of shrieking fans’. Hysteria was part of the marketing of hallyu, and all media reports commented on the extreme behaviour of the Chinese hallyu music fans, just as they did with the middle-aged Yon-sama fans in Japan in 2005. Recalling the earliest live concerts of hallyu stars, a reporter recently said:

The girls all screamed ‘OHBA’ [sic] (Korean for brother), the deafening noise (zhen er yu long) became the most distinctive sound of Korean singers’ performances. (Liu 2008)

Live performance, therefore, by fans and idols together, was one of the defining features of hallyu. Another important consideration is that the act of travelling to China to sing at fan meetings or concerts was seen as a symbol of the sincere bond between idols and fans. Since one of the qualities that fans attributed to Korean idols was a caring attitude and respect for fans (as opposed to a perceived aloofness and prejudice from Hong Kong and Taiwan stars), their efforts to perform in China were particularly appreciated. Fans in their turn would show concern that the artists might be tired if they travelled too much, and that they were being overworked by managers.

Not only fans, but also record distributors and others involved in the hallyu music business longed for more concerts by Korean artists, in order to gain the publicity and TV coverage that would promote album sales: ‘In 2001–02 they had lots of concerts and fan activities, but now they just sit back and wait for the results. There is no follow-through. They seem to take a short-term view ... They ask for a very high price for their hottest performers’ records, but no-one in China knows them’ (G, 16 June 2003, SH). Cooperation with broadcasting stations was seen to be the best route, particularly as Korean artists were seen as cheaper than Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars for TV appearances: ‘If they come here to do some activities then the TV stations will cover it’ (X, 19 June 2003, SH).


Given the enthusiasm of fans for live performances, and the necessity of mounting concerts in order to promote artists in China and thus sell records, the lack of such concerts was attributable to the difficulties Korean entertainment companies and their Chinese partners faced in mounting live music events. A concert given by H.O.T. in February 2000 introduced the possibility of successful commercial concerts, rarely replicated since. As a TV executive told me, ‘I don’t know anyone who arranges concerts in Shanghai. It’s really rare – it’s too easy to lose money unless you have a sponsor. We do it every year, but always with the sponsorship of Korean companies’ (X, 19 June 2003, SH). Once H.O.T. had disbanded, the only artists that music promoters considered sufficiently popular to mount a whole concert, even if not profitable, were Ahn Jae-wook, Kangta and Rain (G, 16 June 2003, SH). Even in the very early years of hallyu, pop concerts seemed to generate more bad will than good: China was reported to have temporarily banned hallyu concerts in 2002 after an event organizer embezzled sponsors’ and fans’ money and left bills unpaid (Kim 2002: 50).

Even with an all-star line up, there was no guarantee that a concert would reach the target audience. For example, the ‘Feel the K-Pop’ (Hanliu Zhongguo qing) showcase on Shanghai’s Grand Stage in November 2006 was mounted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Korea Culture and Content Agency, and various Chinese entertainment companies. Despite featuring 12 Korean stars and groups (including a former H.O.T. member, and then-favourites SG Wannabe) and tickets being free of charge, the concert was mired in difficulties, such as illegally sold tickets, poor crowd control, empty seats, and no Chinese translators for the performers. It attracted 5000 fans (KBS Global 2006).

Other large-scale ‘showcase’ concerts were mounted by SM entertainment (Beijing in 2001; Hangzhou in 2002) with sponsorship, and the publicists for these events would trumpet the cost of lighting equipment and the number of personnel involved in the shows, including up to 100 on-stage artists and a similar number of lighting, sound, and backstage personnel. However, Chinese music promoters complained to me about Korean idols’ large entourages, overambitious sets and venues, and overestimation of the audience:

Koreans really value this market, but they don’t really understand the situation here. So far no Korean concert has made money. The absolute number of fans is small, but they have put their concerts on in the Shanghai Sports Stadium. It seats 80,000 and the rent is really expensive. There aren’t that many fans – it’s not the price of the ticket, but the number. The real fanatics buy the best tickets – the inner stadium. (W, 24 June 2003, SH)

Such criticisms are not entirely fair. The difficulties that Korean artists face in selling tickets to a small fan base in China were surely not shared by Jay Chou (Zhou Jielun), a Taiwanese singer who has been the most popular idol in China since the turn of the millennium (and who was mentioned to me as a favourite non-Korean singer by many hallyu fans).20 Yet Anthony Fung (2008: 77–78) writes that even massively popular idols like Jay Chou generally lost money mounting concerts in China. Firstly, all overseas entertainment companies must go through Chinese official performance channels to mount a concert: joint ventures or solely foreign ventures are not allowed to run troupes, agencies or venues within China. Performances are covered by the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Control of the Entry and Exit of Expatriates, the Administrative Provision for Commercial Performance (updated 2005) and the 1999 Administrative Measures of Foreigners Participating in Performing Activities in China. The local organizer has to send all details of the performer, program and contractual arrangements to the Ministry of Culture 30 days in advance to gain approval, even for promotional or sponsored appearances. On top of ideological or political conditions, one of the more recent regulations that affected pop music concerts has been the forbidding of the ‘fraudulent practice’ of lip-synching.21

Besides official permission, concert promoters needed corporate sponsorship to cover the costs. It was in this context that the interventions of Korean industry were welcomed. Samsung was credited with spearheading such efforts in 1999 (H, 13 August 2003, BJ), and a TV executive told me that they soon collaborated with other conglomerates:

Samsung and Daewoo use their profits to support arts ... Korean companies are quite united. Every year there is a Korean concert, mounted as an advertizing activity. If it wasn’t sponsored we wouldn’t do it, because we’d lose money. They can only do it for marketing. There’s also lots of product sponsorship: they invite Korean stars to come and do publicity for their brands, to break the market, and the broadcasting companies will show that. (X, 19 June 2003, SH)

As Fung (2008: 78) points out, promoters thus have to meet their sponsor’s commercial concerns, as well as the concerns of the state. The empty seats mentioned in the account of the 2006 Shanghai concert were due to the fact that ‘all state and commercial organizations with an interest in the concert, including the public security bureau who police such events will expect a proportion of tickets, and the audiences they bring are rarely core fans’ (Fung 2008: 76).

One of the most high-profile and expensive uses of hallyu pop to promote a Korean company was Korean Air’s sponsorship of Rain’s 2007 world tour, which was scheduled to take in 17 cities worldwide, including Hong Kong, Taipei and four other mainland cities. Rain’s picture was duly painted onto a promotion plane.22 At their press conference,23 Korean Air’s PR spoke of the ‘synergy’ of this promotion as they were starting seven new routes to China and signing joint cargo arrangements with Chinese carriers. Promotional tie-ins included membership passes, free gifts for ticket purchasers, PR booths and photo zones at the concerts, concert films and features for in-flight entertainment. They were to provide logistical support in the form of the emblazoned aircraft, free tickets for up to 80 concert staff and free transportation for 20 tons of concert equipment. Paying little heed to the warning of Rain’s manager, Park Jin-young, that hallyu should not be linked to nationalism, Korean Air’s president J.H. Lee announced at the press conference: ‘This is not just a commercial sponsorship for a single entertainer. Korean Air is helping to encourage the cultural expansion of “dynamic Korea”’.

Unfortunately Rain’s tour was not immune to the problems that have dogged hallyu concerts as it became bogged down in postponements and cancellations, including a high-profile Los Angeles appearance. As Rain changed management halfway through the tour, accusations and counter-accusations obscure what happened, but while many genuine fans were unable to get hold of tickets in Asia, poor publicity in Rain’s new target markets meant large numbers of tickets were given away at the last minute to avoid empty stadiums. The China leg of the tour included three successful shows in Hong Kong’s Asia World Expo Arena and one in Taiwan’s Taoyuan Arena, but only one on the mainland, in Shanghai’s Hongkou Football Stadium; this latter concert was repeatedly postponed, reportedly due to a failure to receive official approval in a timely manner, and eventually took place six months after the advertised date. Rain is, however, the only Korean performer who has appeared amongst the top-10 annual ‘most searched’ male artists list on China’s largest search engine Baidu;24 in 2005, the year he performed a solo concert in Beijing, he came third behind only Jay Chou and Andy Lau. Two years on, his fan base surely remained large enough to support a large-scale concert, had tickets been cheaper and the arrangements less chaotic.


From the above, it seems that the support of fans and chaebol enterprises was not enough to ensure a successful performance. It was on the concert stage that the Korean and Chinese state performed their diplomatic dances, and where the Korean government was best able to promote Korean popular culture: ‘Those of us in the cultural industries here, we really respect Korea ... the government has really supported their films, TV, singers ... using cultural channels to let the people know who Korea is’ (X, 19 June 2003, SH).

Certainly the concerts that have received state support reveal much about Korean and Chinese priorities, and offer a measure of their success in sustaining hallyu. Korean bands and singers have been travelling to China and performing at ad hoc public events, particularly for the Chinese-Korean community,25 since the resumption of diplomatic relations. In 1994 during president Kim Young Sam’s visit to China, the two countries signed the first PRC–ROK Cultural Co-operation Agreement (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo he Dahan minguo zhengfu wenhua hezuo xieding), and the two state broadcasters, CCTV and KBS, signed a Cooperation Agreement later that year. Until the late 1990s, official Sino-Korean cultural exchange was limited to Western art culture or traditional groups, such as China’s Dongfang gewutuan (Oriental Song and Dance Troupe) or the Korean National (Gungnip) Opera Company. The first mainstream appearance of a hallyu-style pop group in China was the participation of NRG in a 1998 Sino-Korean Cultural Friendship Exchange Performance.

From 1999 the two countries’ principal public broadcasters, CCTV and KBS, mounted a joint concert each year, alternating the host country.26 These Sino-Korean or Korea–China Friendship concerts (C. Zhong-Han ge you hui; K. Han-jung gayoje) became an important platform to introduce Korean artists to Chinese audiences, as they easily won official permission and gained prime-time national broadcasting slots. Their effectiveness in introducing Chinese artists to Korean audiences, however, was apparently more limited.

The concerts featured a broad mixture of music, including some trot, folksong, Western classical, and even Beijing opera. The Chinese representatives tended to be long-established stalwarts of the CCTV pop scene – artists such as Chen Ming, Tian Zhen, Han Hong and Sun Yue – rather than more popular HK–Taiwan artists (although artists from these regions were not excluded). Their ballads did not mesh well with the more upbeat dance style of the hallyu artists, as Chinese fans often complained. The concerts also featured ethnic Korean musicians from China (C. Chaoxianzu; K. Joseonjok), such as Cui Jinghao, Jin Mei’er and Arirang. In most concerts, Chinese and Korean singers performed duets together, singing songs of the other country or in the other’s language. In contrast to the Chinese artists, the Korean artists featured in the concerts were increasingly those at the very top of their popularity in Korea, such as TVXQ, BoA and SNSD (never Rain), suggesting that the concerts were seen as an important platform by the Korean side. Both countries also increasingly included fusion or neo-traditional artists, such as drummer Choi Sori from Korea, and minority nationality singer Rongbaxinna. Choi’s appearance may be evidence of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s ‘Han Style’ policy, which, as mentioned above, aimed to counter the perception that Korean cultural exports are cheap and lowbrow, by using art forms based on Korean tradition which are ‘more in depth ... beyond the flashy facades of TV celebrities’.27


To test whether live appearances had any effect on the popularity of hallyu pop stars in China, I measured their rating with fans who took part in the 2003 survey against their position in the Korean MIAK album sales chart in the preceding three years and their appearances at Sino-Korean friendship concerts or other major Chinese concerts up to 2003, not including minor appearances as part of product promotions (see Table 1).28

It is notable that Ahn Jae-wook was not mentioned by any of the fans surveyed, despite industry figures and media reports citing him as equal to H.O.T. in spearheading hallyu. This absence suggests to me that his following differed slightly from the self-styled haHanyizu, perhaps consisting of the older audience attracted to Korean television dramas. Certainly his musical style (romantic ballads) was very different from the acts listed above. This impression is backed up by Jang (2005), whose research amongst Ahn’s fans in China revealed a typical profile of professional women averaging 26 years of age. Ahn was not well-known as a singer in Korea, and did not appear in the charts there. However, he did a major concert tour of China in 2002. Another OST singer missing from fan favourites is Shin Seung-hun, whose theme tune for the film My Sassy Girl, ‘I Believe’, led a best-selling album in China, and who appeared in the 2000 and 2002 joint concerts.

It was sometimes said by critics that the artists popular in China had passed their peak in Korea (Pease 2006b: 180–181). From the second column of Table 1 we can observe that the hallyu artists were by no means the ‘hottest’ at the time in Korea, although they were respectably well-known. It may be that such levels of popularity freed them from the time-consuming schedules of media promotion in the domestic market, enabling them to travel to China. The three who do not appear at all on the charts were in fact new artists who were being vigorously promoted in Chinese hallyu magazines such as Yulewuxian (Entertainment Unlimited). More significantly, the MIAK charts for those years draw attention to the absence of top-10 Korean pop artists from Chinese fans’ rankings, in particular dance/R&B/pop artists GOD, Brown Eyes, Cool, Wax and Se7en. None of these appeared in the joint concerts in those years, suggesting that concert appearances and popularity were indeed linked in China, as record distributors argued. However, two hallyu-style artists who appeared both in the charts and in concerts – Kim Hyun-jung (1999) and Koyote (2002, Seoul) – were not mentioned by any of my correspondents. This implies that other factors, such as stylistic preferences, impeded the popularity of Korean artists in China, besides lack of exposure. Notwithstanding these exceptions, the table suggests that concerts were an effective way of introducing Korean popular music to Chinese audiences. Despite the limits of ‘soft power’, as outlined by Janelli and Yim (2007), these concerts would furthermore increase awareness of Korea, and possibly receptiveness for items advertised or used by Korean idols.

Table 4.1. A comparison of hallyu stars’ popularity amongst Chinese fans, Korean chart position and Chinese concert participation.

[Table 4.1 has been split into parts for easier ebook reading.]



This article started with a vignette from the private music sector that took place in the very heart of Beijing, at the symbolic centre of political power, featuring a Chinese–South Korean duet, and that was characterized by the ‘hysterical’ behaviour of Chinese youth caught up in the Korean Wave. A year later, at the end of 2007, a Sino–Korean duet much more respectably affirmed national borders just as it promised friendship and cooperation. The song ‘Han-Zhong youyi zhi ge: Beijing Shou’er’ (Korean Chinese Song of Friendship: Beijing Seoul) came at the end of the 9th Sino-Korean Friendship Concert, at the end of the 2007 Sino-Korean Year of Exchange, marking the 15th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. As the 2008 Beijing Olympics approached, both sides repeatedly referred to Seoul’s own experience of hosting the Olympics 20 years before. The song’s refrain ‘Shou’er Beijing, Beijing Shou’er, rang women shou la shou, xin xiangtong’ (‘Seoul Beijing, Beijing Seoul, let us hold hands, hearts in tune’), was a reminder of the Seoul Olympics theme song, ‘Hand in Hand’ (shou la shou). It was sung by one of Korea’s most popular idols, Xiah Junsu, of TVXQ, along with a long-established Chinese diva, Sun Yue, who has sung at almost every one of these concerts. What did the fans make of the sentiments? Critical commentary on the concert on the Internet, in keeping with discussion of Korean pop music generally, was focused on particular idols, and a perception that the chosen Chinese pop stars compared poorly to their Korean counterparts. For many, the fault lay in China’s poor selection of featured stars, rather than the inherent state of Chinese pop music. This criticism was in keeping with the use of Korea as the foil by which to measure China, but it also indicated a growing confidence in China’s domestic pop scene, compared with the discussions that I found in 2003 (see Pease 2006b; Pease 2009). Completely in line with 2003, however, was the focus of much discussion on the state of Xiah’s health: although indisputably gorgeous, he was seen to be somewhat pale and sweaty. He had surely been asked to sing too many times. He was being overworked by hallyu’s pantomime villain, SM Entertainment manager Lee Soo Man. Xiah needed to rest. Yet again the fans of Korean culture were collapsing borders and rendering grandiose political statements irrelevant, intimate and personal.


1   Qiangguo luntan. ‘Renmin dahuitang bianchengle «diting»? [The Great Hall of the People transformed into a discotheque?]’ and ‘Yanchanghui jieshule! Renmin dahuitang canyu roulin [The concert is over! The Great Hall of the People is ravaged]’. [Internet].

2   Although the Great Hall of the People was not a new venue for music – notable historical events included the 1964 premier of the song-and-dance epic The East is Red (Dong fang hong), a parade of visiting and national artists, and the annual Spring Festival Concert (Chunjie wanhui) – only in 2006 did it became a pop music concert venue.

3   In Korea, they are signed to Kangta’s label SM Entertainment; in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, to Sony BMG. SM Entertainment seems to have provided the impetus for the collaboration.

4   For more, see Yang 2003a, Yang 2003b and Liu 2006.

5   Pease (2006b) describes media outcry over the behaviour of Chinese Korean-wave fans, while Pease (2009) discusses how Korean music is used as a foil to reflect on Chinese popular music.

6   During April to September 2003, I sent 600 email questionnaires on Korean music consumption to participants on bulletin boards, Korean Wave website members, QQ (a popular Chinese instant messaging service) users and fans who had advertised their address in Korean Wave magazines. I received 107 replies. These were followed up with further questionnaires and more extensive correspondence to gather opinions on Korean music. Of the respondents, 97 per cent were female; although at the time males were said to represent up to 40 per cent of Korean music fans, I found that they were not so eager to discuss their hobby. For more on the fan profile, see Pease 2006b: 181.

7   For example, romantic ballad singers Jo Seong-mo and Kim Gun-mo consistently topped the charts in the years 1999–2003, yet had no international following. A full discussion of all these styles can be found in Howard (2006a).

8   Korean Overseas Information Service, ‘Pushing the Hallyu wave further with Han style’. [Internet]. For more information on this campaign, see the associated website (last accessed 29 June 2009).

9   See the introduction to this volume.

10  Cho 2005 offers a useful summary of South Korean perspectives on the Korean Wave.

11  Original article by Li (2004): ‘If Koreans can do it, why can’t we: New Korean force use movies to win economy’, in Digital Times 81: 116–117.

12  It should, however, be noted that in the same years the ratio of exports to imports has remained constant at roughly 2:1. Full figures, which are derived from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, can be found in Ash (2001: 552; Ash 2008: 493).

13  Answers were in Chinese, with some English phrases mixed in. Translations are my own, and reproduce the informal style and punctuation of the originals. The correspondents’ user names, dates of quotes, and questionnaire numbers are given in parentheses.

14  In the 2000–2001 period alone, the Korean music industry contracted by 30 per cent, according to MIAK (then RIAK) figures, and album sales have seen a 20 per cent year-on-year decline between 2002 and 2004 (Howard 2006b: x).

15  The highest-selling foreign artist in 2003 was Avril Lavigne, with sales of 106,000 – which would have placed her in the 26th position in the Korean album charts. In 2007 the highest-selling foreign pop act in the imported record charts was Abba, whose sales of 10,448 would have placed them in 77th position in domestic pop charts, and the only recent act was Mika, who, with sales of under 10,000, would have appeared in 85th position (all figures from charts formerly available on the MIAK website at

16  This phrase, which uses the homonym Han, meaning the majority Chinese nationality rather than Korea, and which extends the analogy of the Korean Wave, is presumably intended to suggest similarity and reciprocity between the two phenomena. The country China is more commonly referred to in Korean as Jungguk, or Jung for short.

17  During July and August 2003, I interviewed record company and media producers, presenters and executives from the following companies: Baidie Record Company, Beijing; Star River Audio-visual, Shanghai; Joy Entertainment Channel online, Shanghai; Starry Sky TV, Beijing; Radio Television Hong Kong; Beijing Music Station; MTV China, Shanghai and Shanghai East Radio. In order to protect their professional relationships I do not give names or attribute comments to specific companies, but cite initial, date and place of interview.

18  In 2003, those fans who wished to purchase legal copies had either to travel to Shanghai or Beijing, or pay high postage costs to order them; a legal album cost one of my correspondents in total 131 yuan, as opposed to 10 yuan for a pirated copy (Hehe, 21 September 2003; 67). To do this was a gesture of considerable devotion and a source of pride, but one only a few fans were able or willing to make.

19  Chinese media have also compared the fans of Korean band H.O.T. in 2000 to those of The Beatles in Europe and America in the 1960s. From their reports, it seems that such behaviour was unprecedented in China (Liu 2008).

20  Besides the ubiquity of his music and his image, a simple measure of this popularity is that he has been the most searched male artist on Baidu, China’s foremost Internet search engine, over the last five years (see for example the statistics available at In the absence of sales figures, these can be a helpful guide to the profile of an artist.

21  Article 29 of the Yingyexing yanchu guanli tiaolie shishi xize [Regulations for the administration of commercial performances – implementation bylaws]. [Internet]. The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China.

22  This was not the first hallyu-themed plane: Asiana had Daejanggeum painted on one of its jets in spring 2006.

23  Korean Air 2007 press release ‘Korean Air Sponsors Rain’s First World Tour Concert ‘, Seoul, 16 December 2007. [Internet].

24  See Endnote 20. The 2005 charts featuring Rain are available from Accessed 16 October 2007.

25  The impact of South Korean pop on this community in the 1990s is discussed in Pease 2006a.

26  They have mainly taken place in the respective capital cities, although Injeon and Shenzhen have also acted as hosts. Full lists of the concerts (in Chinese) can be found at:

27  Korean Overseas Information Service 2006, ‘Pushing the Hallyu wave further with Han style’. [Internet].

28  It is difficult to verify information about commercial concerts during these years, as advertised events were often altered, postponed or cancelled.


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Cite this chapter as: Pease, Rowan. 2010. ‘“Hand in hand”: Sino-Korean musical exchange in the Korean Wave’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 4.1–4.18.


©Copyright 2010 Rowan Pease

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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita