Zen? A Japanese term?
September 13, 2011, 5:36 PM HKT
Jet Li Ashamed of China’s Soft Power

Chinese leaders aren’t the only ones frustrated with the nation’s lack of “soft power” influence–Jet Li is, too, and he wants to do something about it.

The Chinese martial artist-turned-movie star is starting a taichi school with Alibaba Group Chairman Jack Ma, which he hopes will break stereotypes of taichi as an art practiced only by old people in parks. Mr. Li said he wants it to one day be as cool to practice taichi as it is watch American movies, watch Japanese animation or study South Korea’s taekwondo.

“China is an economic powerhouse,” Mr. Li said at Alibaba Group’s annual summit for small to medium-sized business owners in Hangzhou. But the world’s most populous country has little cultural influence compared to the U.S., South Korea and Japan, he said.

The actor’s new venture could indeed give a boost to China’s efforts to export its culture, which have involved investments in the billions of dollars but have been criticized as unimaginative. Among Beijing’s recent soft-power plays: an international network of state-sponsored language institutes, a 17-minute long promotional film panned by Chinese Internet users as blatantly propagandistic and a giant advertisement in Times Square showing photos of wealthy and successful Chinese people who most Americans don’t recognize.

Mr. Li, who has starred in major movies on both sides of the Pacific including the 2002 Zhang Yimou epic “Hero,” lamented that Hollywood and other cultural industries make up a significant portion of GDP in the U.S. but represent only a fraction of China’s economy. “Italian coffee is better than Starbucks,” but consumers around the world recognize Starbucks more than Italian coffee “because it’s a cultural experience,” he said.

He did not disclose financial details of his partnership with Mr. Ma, but said the company will be called Taichi Zen International Culture Company.

For China not to have a contribution to the rest of the world would be a “pity,” he said. “I feel shame before my ancestors,” he added, saying he wants kids to be proud of their “national culture.”