A promotional spot for a culture-bending telenovela recently aired on Spanish-language KJLA-TV channel 57.
Car headlights illuminate a pair of shapely legs in high heels, followed by a shot of a plainly dressed woman at home, speaking anxiously into a phone. Her husband frowns at a computer screen, and in the background, a presumably nude woman sleeps on a couch covered only by a blanket. All the actors are Taiwanese.
“Vea ‘La Esposa Valiente’ de lunes a viernes de medianoche a una de la mañana comenzando el 5 de octubre,” an announcer says. “Watch ‘The Fierce Wife’ Mondays through Fridays from midnight to 1 a.m., beginning Oct. 5!”
“La Esposa Valiente,” or “Xi Li Ren Qi” in Chinese, is the first drama the Taiwanese government has dubbed into Spanish. Thirteen Central and South American countries have aired the show since 2013 as part of an initiative by the Taiwanese government to promote Taiwanese culture.
With a contested national identity, no formal relations with major powers and no membership in international organizations such as the United Nations, Taiwanese officials are testing a new strategy: soap opera diplomacy.
“If we talk about politics every day, nobody will listen,” said Steve Hsia, director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles. “If we can shorten the distance between Taiwan and other nations through culture, that’s helpful.”
The effort began in 2013 when Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country’s primary diplomatic arm, began to survey television preferences across Latin America, home to many of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. From a pool of 100 popular Taiwanese shows, the ministry selected 10 and asked Latin American cultural and pop culture experts to weigh in.
They decided that “The Fierce Wife,” a show about a woman dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s infidelity, was the best ambassador for Taiwanese culture, and a Los Angeles firm redubbed the 39-episode series in Spanish.
“Soft power,” a method of diplomacy that focuses on maximizing a country’s cultural and economic influence, has always been a major part of Taiwan’s political playbook, said Gary Rawnsley, a professor of public diplomacy at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom.
But as Taiwan’s political leaders adopted more conciliatory approaches toward China, its international diplomacy has shifted away from political ideology and focused more on benign topics such as traditional Chinese culture.
Television shows and pop stars have become pieces in Taiwan’s cross-strait, public opinion chess match with China. “Now the main way Taiwan projects its soft power is this idea of Taiwan as the preserver of traditional Chinese culture,” Rawnsley said.
In the first episode, “The Fierce Wife” establishes traditional Chinese ideals about love and family. A good wife is compared to a dumpling skin that must be resilient enough to tolerate the heat of the water it’s cooked in, yet flexible enough to conform to the dumpling’s filling.
In another scene, a father scolds his daughter and her husband for daring to mention the word divorce, and drives his point home by leaving the family’s Chinese New Year dinner in a huff.
The drama also happens to showcase Taiwan’s major attractions, with sweeping views of natural scenery and shots of Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan and a popular destination for Asia’s Chinese New Year partiers. Most of the ad spots for “The Fierce Wife” are occupied by promotional videos created by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.
“Aside from soft power, it’s also about making money,” said Anthony Fung, a professor who studies Asian pop culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Taiwan’s pop culture has always spread further than its politics. In the 1960s, there was little communication between Taiwan and China, Hsia said. But the beguiling voice of Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng won countless fans on the mainland.
“There was a saying: During the day, the Chinese people listen to old Deng [Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping],” Hsia said. “And at night, they listen to young Teng on the radio.”
Taiwan and Hong Kong have long been dominant forces in Asian pop culture, Fung said. But Korean dramas and music have in recent years taken over, in part thanks to government support.
South Korea began to organize the support and export of cultural products. Government-sponsored creative content agencies evaluated South Korean TV shows, pop songs, films and books and identified the best markets to export them to, Fung said.
The result has been an unprecedented boom of Korean cultural exports — Korean cosmetic products in Chinese makeup stores, K-pop concerts in Latin America and endless plays of the Korean pop hit “Gangnam Style” in nightclubs all over the world.
Seung-Ah Lee, a lecturer on Korean studies at UCLA, said South Korea’s culture boom has helped shape international attitudes about the country.
“Many thought that Korea was a small, poor country in Asia that you had no intention to visit,” Lee said. “But they found that Korea is dynamic, energetic, rich and highly advanced.”
The Taiwanese government is following South Korea’s example, Hsia said. “The Fierce Wife,” its creators say, was created to compete with Korean dramas.
“Taiwan’s television has seldom focused on marriage from a female perspective,” said Vivian Hsieh, a senior vice president at Set TV, the production company that created the show. “In the meantime, Taiwan’s female viewers market has become vastly dominated by popular Korean dramas.”
Set TV and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office could not provide statistics showing how well the show is performing in Latin America, but in Honduras and Argentina, the show was so popular that it returned for a second run. Set TV is considering introducing four other Taiwanese dramas to Spanish-speaking audiences this year.
And though “The Fierce Wife” may be a Taiwanese show created in the style of a Korean drama, it has the soul of a telenovela, said Luis Cardenas, director of programming at LATV, the network that owns KJLA.
The settings are different, but with Spanish dubbing, the scenes have the throbbing drama and campy appeal of Mexican telenovelas, Cardenas said.
For example, a dream sequence involving the imagined knife murders of the husband’s mistresses is intentionally goofy in Mandarin, but with Spanish voice actors and a throatier delivery, the scene attains a sharper edge.
Cardenas and his wife watched the show together, and he said the themes will be familiar to Latino audiences.
“The husband was cheating on the wife, and the wife is so cute and good and virtuous, we were like, how could he do that?” Cardenas said.
They found themselves alternately scandalized and outraged — reactions, he says, that are the hallmark of a good telenovela.