Downton Abbey's global charm exemplifies British soft power

Updated: 2013-12-14 07:59

By Zhang Chunyan (China Daily)

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"My top destination is Downton Abbey," my friend Xiao Hua, who will visit Britain next week, told me in an e-mail and asked me for directions.

Xiao is one of the Chinese superfans who have fallen for the charms of the British TV drama. The exploits of the fictional Earl of Grantham and life on an Edwardian country estate, have captivated young people in China.

Reading his e-mail, I recalled British Prime Minister David Cameron fielding questions on Chinese social media site, Sina Weibo.

One of the most popular questions from about 20,000 submitted was "Would you please ask Sherlock to speed up filming? They have us waiting two years for every new series!"

Educated and aspirational Chinese viewers find both dramas to be compelling viewing, providing some insight into the British way of life. The shows also help improve English language skills.

These are just the latest offerings to sate a huge appetite for British culture and British style.

Chinese parents are desperate to get their children into top British universities and schools or place them in short-term summer camps which allow students to study in the United Kingdom and experience the British way of life.

Downton Abbey's global charm exemplifies British soft power

Some some years ago, a famous property depicting a typical British market town called Thames Town was built in Shanghai. Complete with mock Tudor buildings, a statue of Winston Churchill, red telephone boxes, a Gothic church and cobbled streets, it represents a picturesque vision of Britain.

The UK has long enjoyed the soft power that many countries crave.

Shakespeare, the Beatles, James Bond, the Royal Family, the education system, the music, arts and sports have global appeal.

Last year, Monocle magazine's annual soft power survey placed Britain in the top spot, overtaking the United States largely thanks to the Olympics and its spectacular opening ceremony.

The concept of soft power was first defined by Harvard University's Joseph Nye in 1990 as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion", and culture is a key plank. The extent of its impact can be hard to measure but some benefits, at least, are indisputable.

As China promotes its own soft power, there is much it can draw from Britain's experience.

Besides the advantage of the English language, one important factor is that Britain incorporates tradition and innovation so smoothly.

Britain cherishes its long history and traditional culture. People can find signs or symbols of this tradition in museums, cities and towns across the UK.

Coupled with thriving creative industries, this makes Britain an attractive option for foreign tourists, students and investors, and also oils the wheels of trade and diplomacy. People visit Buckingham Palace, Edinburgh Castle and see where Harry Potter was filmed.

The UK is one of only three countries that are net exporters of music. It is also the biggest net exporter of TV shows.

Cameron answered the viewers' questions about Sherlock with an elementary ease that would have pleased the master detective. "I know how popular Sherlock Holmes is, and the modern adaptation, I think, is a brilliant adaptation."

"Of course people can always go back and read the original Conan Doyle stories, which are wonderful, but I will do everything I can to say that people in China want more Sherlock Holmes and more of the modern version."

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 Downton Abbey's global charm exemplifies British soft power

Fans visit the Downton Abbey tea and biscuit truck on Wednesday in New York City. Mike Coppola / Getty Images via Agence France-Presse

(China Daily 12/14/2013 page6)