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China Arts & Entertainment

Dying 1000 Times a Year – ‘Japanese Devils’ and China’s War Dramas

China’s war dramas about the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) are much discussed online topics this month since China’s official censorship bureau spoke out against those war shows that are “overly entertaining”. “Japanese Devils” die a 1000 times a year.

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Chinese TV dramas about the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) are much discussed online topics this month. On April 7, China’s official censorship bureau spoke out against war-themed TV dramas that are “overly entertaining”. When is war drama too entertaining? In a theme park in Wuxiang, war plays are performed daily. The actors insist that their “acting is serious” and the faithful and accurate reenactment of history is their main goal. In their roles as Japanese soldiers, they ‘die’ more than a thousand times a year. 

CHINA/

 

TV dramas about the Second Sino-Japanese War (also referred to as ‘the War of Resistance against Japan’ 抗日战争) have been popular in China for years. The Second Sino-Japanese War started in 1937, and merged into WWII in 1941. Although it has been seventy years since the war has ended, the topic is still very much alive on China’s TV screens. In 2012, seventy of China’s major 200 primetime TV shows revolved around this war (Lam 2013).

Recently, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) announced a limit on TV dramas that sensationalise the history of war. The critique is particularly directed at popular war dramas that are mockingly called ‘divine Anti-Japanese drama’ (抗日神剧) by Chinese netizens. These TV dramas generally depict the Japanese army as extremely weak and the Chinese protagonists as exceptionally strong. In these series, the Chinese hero can cut a Japanese soldier in half by just using one hand. The fighting scenes are exaggerated; there is blood splattering everywhere while body parts are flying around. These series are unacceptable, according to the SAPPRFT, because their mere goal is to entertain viewers. In doing so, they misrepresent history and disrespect the Chinese soldiers who fought to defend the nation. Examples of these TV series are The Wondrous Knight of the War of Resistance against Japan (抗日奇侠) or The Arrow in the Bow (剪在弦上) (Baidu 2015).

 

japaneseNotorious scene from ‘Anti-Japanese divine drama’ ‘The Wondrous Knight of the War of Resistance Against Japan’.

 

In response to the recent critique on China’s ‘Anti-Japanese divine drama’, various Chinese media have reported on another type of war drama: the life-like war play. In Wuxiang, Shanxi Province, there is a theme park dedicated to the Second Sino-Japanese War (Eighth Route Army Park). This theme park harbours a group of 46 actors that perform different war plays on a daily basis. According to Sina News and China’s Lawcourt Evening Newsthe actors greatly disapprove of ‘divine drama’. Instead of distorting history, they claim to provide an accurate representation of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The article in the Lawcourt Evening News interviews Yang Lei, a 27-year-old actor that has been playing a Japanese soldier (“a Japanese devil”) for over four years in the Eighth Route Army Park. During the weekends or holidays, the park has hundreds of visitors who come to watch the performance. When it is very busy, Yang has to ‘die’ up to four times a day. “In the past few years, I have died over a 6000 times in total,” he says. The plays take about twenty minutes per show, and are focused on the events of 1943, the year that the Chinese Eighth Route Army fought against Japanese troops in Wuxiang. One of the shows is about a small village in Anning that is invaded and occupied by Japanese troops. When a Chinese spy steals secret information from their camp, the whole village is held for questioning. A Chinese underground Party member sacrifices his life to protect the spy’s identity. Just when the Japanese general orders to have the entire village killed, China’s Eighth Route Army storms in and wipes out all the ‘Japanese devils’.

 

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dramaiiScene from the play at the Eighth Route Army Park (Sina 2015).

 

The Eighth Route Army Park performances are different from the ‘divine drama’, say the actors. In the theme park, they imitate the reality as much as possible. The ‘Japanese devils’ wear the right yellow uniforms, caps, white gloves and boots. The actors use fake blood and cap guns that create a loud sound and a puff of smoke when the trigger is pulled – everything to make the scenes look real.

 

“You can play whatever you like, as long as you don’t play a Japanese person.” 

 

It is not easy playing a Japanese devil. Throughout the years as a Japanese officer, Yang Lei has gone through four military uniforms, fifteen pairs of boots and hundred pairs of socks. Some of his colleagues are afraid to talk about their job. “I don’t know how to tell my friends and family about my role as a devil,” Liu Chuan says. His grandfather used to be in the Chinese army, and he might not be too happy about his grandson playing a Japanese soldier. The fear of telling relatives is not unreasonable, according to the article, as it has happened before that actors were removed from the theme park by their parents. “You can play whatever you like,” said the parents of one 19-year-old actor: “As long as you don’t play a Japanese person.”


dramaiiiHe has played a Japanese ‘devil soldier’ for years, and is still afraid to tell his grandfather, who served in the Chinese army (Sina 2015).  

dramaThe actors greet the applauding audience after the performance (Sina 2015). 

 

With all the critique concerning China’s war shows, many media sources report that this is the end for the “divine war drama”. Recent articles blame directors from Hong Kong and Taiwan for these kinds of exaggerated war plays.

The article on the Eighth Route Army Park suggests that this is a place where war is not “over-entertained”. The actors frown upon the “divine drama” because it is not about real history, but about commercial revenue. While saying so, the group of actors at the Eighth Route Army Park entertain their audiences every day. The park in Wuxiang is opened daily from 9.00 to 18.00. A single entrance costs 90 RMB (15 US dollar). Visitors can purchase an electronic ticket through text message and scan it at the entrance. The park, that opened in 2011, has not lost its appeal. While attracting more visitors, Yang Lei and his ‘devil’ colleagues can be expected to die a thousand times more.


japaneseiiiScene from ‘Anti-Japanese divine drama’.

 

– by Manya Koetse

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Curious about China’s “Anti-Japanese divine drama”? The video below is a compilation from The Wondrous Knight of the War of Resistance against Japan (抗日奇侠). 

 

References/Sources

Baidu. 2015. 抗日神剧. Baidu Baike http://baike.baidu.com/view/10364874.htm [15.4.15].

Lam, Oiwan. 2013. “China’s Anti-Japanese TV War Dramas Knocked for Vulgarity.” Global Voices, April 2014 http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/04/14/chinas-anti-japanese-war-films-knocked-for-vugarity/ [15.4.15].

Fawan. 2015. “红色景区里的“鬼子兵.” Fazhi Wanbao 法制晚报 [Lawcourt Evening News], April 14 http://www.fawan.com.cn/html/2015-04/14/content_547245.htm [15.4.15].

Sina. 2015. “日本兵演员:演戏追求严谨不会演抗日神剧.” April 14 http://news.sina.com.cn/s/p/2015-04-14/151731716471.shtml [15.4.15].

Sina 2015. “抗日神剧”活跃荧屏怎能只怪港台导演?” Sina News, April 11 http://ent.sina.com.cn/v/m/2015-04-11/doc-iawzuney3057210.shtml [15.4.15].

 

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[box type=”bio”] koetse.148x200About the Author: Manya Koetse is the editor of What’s on Weibo. She’s a Sinologist who splits her time between the Netherlands and China. She earned her bachelor’s degrees in Literary Studies, Japanese & China Studies and completed her MPhil in Asian Studies. Contact: manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.[/box]

 

©2014 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Living the Dream: Chinese Architect Designs Stunning Six-Story Communal Living Space

This architect from Guangzhou turned her dream of living together with friends in a creative workspace into reality. The building is a hit on Chinese social media.

Gabi Verberg

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While living together with your best friends in one big house might be a dream of many people, this Chinese architect turned the idea into reality by transforming an old factory into a modern museum-like work- and living space. Through her work, the architect aims to change views on China’s urban living spaces.

Guangzhou architect “Michelle” (米歇尔 or Mi Xiao 米笑) and most of her friends work in creative industries. A few years ago, they found that their work and lifestyle required a more flexible and multi-purpose living space; a place where they could live and work together as a small community while also showcasing what they do.

In 2012, the six friends found a workshop in an old abandoned sugar factory, built in the 1950s, located in Guangzhou’s Panyu district. More than five years later, they had succeeded in transforming it into a modern six-story work- and living space.

news story and a video of the building are now attracting major attention on Chinese social media. On Weibo, the hashtag “Six Friends Transform a Building” (#6个好友改造一栋楼#) has been viewed more than 250 million times.

The communal living space, that has been named Boundless Community (无界社区), covers about 1500 square meter and has six completely separate rooms. Originally, the building was made up of only three stories, each with a ceiling height of six to nine meters high.

With the reconstruction of the building, the architect reportedly “wanted to break with the traditional urban types of dwellings,” where many people live behind locked doors in small spaces. Michelle intended to design the space as a small “village,” where people share their living space.

At the same time, the space also allows people to be creative and share their work with the outside world. All of these ideas resulted in a transparent “museum building.”

The building itself is almost like a museum by allowing people from outside to look into the various studios.

The popular architect is not the only one who is in favor of sharing a living space with her friends. A recent poll on Weibo shows that more than 90% of respondents would also like to live together with their friends; only 10% of the people prefer privacy over a communal living space with good friends.

 

“This is my dream!”, many commenters say, with others calling it “simply magical.”

To read more about changing attitudes on home and living in China, also check out this article by What’s on Weibo. 

By Gabi Verberg

Images via https://sjz.news.fang.com/open/31234746.html.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

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China Marketing & Advertising

When Ad Breaks Get Weird: Branded Content in Chinese TV Dramas Is Ruining It For the Viewers

China’s ubiquitous inserted ad marketing is alienating viewers from their favorite TV drama characters.

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Ad breaks can be annoying, but when it’s the main character of your favorite historical drama promoting the latest smartphone, it can actually ruin the viewer experience. In recent online discussions, China’s ubiquitous ‘Inserted Ad Marketing’ (中插广告), that goes beyond product placement, is being attacked by netizens and media.

A 2017 Ad Age article on the high levels of branded content in China’s online TV argues that Chinese viewers generally do not mind embedded marketing. They have allegedly become so used to to all kinds of branded distractions in TV shows, dramas, and films, that it is just “another part of the entertainment” (Doland 2017). But recent discussions on Chinese social media signal that the general sentiments regarding inserted sponsored content are changing.

On January 6, Chinese author Ma Boyong (@马伯庸, 4.5 million followers) posted an article on Weibo in which he criticized the phenomenon of inserted ad content in Chinese television series, saying the marketing style often does not suit the characters and is making the actors less credible.

Although Ma does not oppose to embedded marketing per se, he argues it hurts the credibility of TV dramas and the viewer’s experience when it does not blend in with the style of the TV drama and its characters.

One of the TV dramas where the sponsored segments ‘hurt’ the show, according to Ma, is Mystery of Antiques (古董局中局, 2018) that is based on one of the author’s novels. The actor Qiao Zhenyu (乔振宇), who plays the leading role, allegedly “looks like a fool” because of the inserted ad.

The type of advertising, that is central to this recent discussion, goes beyond product placement; it is the type of ad that appears inside (online) TV shows in which the actors, in character, straightforwardly promote a certain brand and product, sometimes in a scene dialogue (‘storyline ads’), but also often while looking directly into the camera (see example here or here, Chinese term: zhōngchā guǎnggào 中插广告).

The hashtag ‘Ma Boyong Roasts Inserted Ad Marketing’ (#马伯庸吐槽中插广告#) had received more than 50 million views on Weibo by Sunday night, with the overall majority of people supporting the author’s stance.

“Finally someone says this,” one commenter said: “When it just started out, it was new, and I could endure it, but now it just really annoys me.” “It is really disruptive,” others agree.

 

A New Kind of Money-Making Machine

 

China’s history of TV advertisement is not a long one; it wasn’t until 1979 that China’s first TV commercial was aired. Since then, the industry has blossomed, and branded content has become ubiquitous; the first TV drama incorporating product placement was broadcasted in 1991 (Li 2016).

Product placement is known as a powerful marketing tool since it is inescapable, has a long shelf life, is inexpensive, and unobtrusive (Huan et al 2013, 508). But as China’s product placement has been turning into ‘branded entertainment’ within the settings of the show, it is losing its ‘unobtrusiveness.’

Unsurprisingly, this is not the first time this type of advertising receives criticism. In 2017, various Chinese media, such as People’s Daily, noted the rise of inserted product ads, stating that TV dramas were “shooting themselves in the foot” with these ad campaigns.

China’s popular ‘inserted ad breaks’ remind of the weird and obvious product placement mocked in The Truman Show (1998).

When the protagonist of a dynastic costume drama suddenly promotes a new smartphone app during an inserted ad break, he falls out of character, and the entire drama loses credibility. Do you remember those weird ad breaks in the famous American movie The Truman Show? Even Truman did not fall for that!

Cartoon by People’s Daily

In China, this particular type of advertising can be traced back to the 2006 TV drama My Own Swordsman (武林外传), in which the characters suddenly turn to the camera in promoting a “White Camel Mountain” medicinal powder (watch the famous segment here).

Although that scene was for entertainment purposes only (the product was non-existent), it became reality in 2013, when the TV series Longmen Express (龙门镖局) first started using this kind of ‘creative’ advertising. Many online dramas then followed and started to use these inserted ads, especially since 2015 (Beijing Daily 2017). The promoted products are often new apps or money lending sites.

In the beginning, many people appreciated the novel way of advertising, and as the online video industry rose, so did the price of such advertisements. In a timeframe of roughly two years, their price became ten times higher. These type of ‘ad breaks’ have become an important and relatively easy money-making machine for drama productions (Beijing Daily 2017). In 2016 alone, Chinese TV drama productions made 800 million rmb (±116 million USD) through this marketing method – a figure that has been on the rise ever since.

 

The V-Effect: From Vips to Verfremdung

 

In China’s flourishing online streaming environment, one of the problems with inserted ad campaigns is that even ‘VIP members’ of popular video sites such as iQiyi cannot escape them, nor ‘skip’ them, even though they pay monthly fees to opt out of commercials (similar to YouTube Premium).

“The reason I signed up for a VIP membership is to avoid ads, and now we get this,” many annoyed netizens comment on Weibo.

Although that is one point that many people are dissatisfied with, the biggest complaint on social media regarding the inserted ad phenomenon is that it breaks down audience engagement in the show they are watching, and alienates them from the character, which is also known as verfremdungseffekt, distancing effect, or simply the ‘V-effect,’  a performing arts concept coined by German playwright Bertolt Brecht in the 1930s.

The “direct adress” of Frank Underwood in House of Cards is one of the reasons the show became such a hit.

The Brechtian “direct address” technique, one of the characteristics that made the American TV series House of Cards so successful, is employed to “break the fourth wall” – the imaginary wall between the actors and audience  – and serves a clear purpose: it makes viewers less emotionally attached to the characters and the narrative, it makes them more conscious and less likely to ‘lose themselves’ in the show they are watching, and is meant to provoke a social-critical audience response.

But this is exactly the faux pas China’s ubiquitous ‘creative inserted ads’ make in letting popular TV drama characters promote a new app or soda; it is not meant to provoke a social-critical response, it is meant to advertise a product. But by alienating audiences from the show for a commercial and non-meaningful purpose, they actually reach the opposite effect of what their marketing objective is. Audiences become annoyed, less engaged, and ‘exit the show’ (in Chinese, the term ‘出戏’ [disengage from the performance] is used).

“These kind of ads make the entire drama seem so low,” a typical comment on Weibo says. “What can we do? As long as people pay for it, they’ll do it,” others say.

Despite the recent attack on China’s ‘branded entertainment,’ there is no sign of a change in these marketing techniques. Perhaps, if critique persist, this might change in the future. For now, disgruntled viewers turn to social media to vent their frustrations: “These ads completely make me lose interest in the story, they need to be criticized. I’m happy someone stood up to say it.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Beijing Daily (北京日报). 2017. “创意中插广告泛滥,唯独缺了创意” [The Overflow of Creative Inserted Ads, Only They’re Lacking Creativity] (in Chinese). Beijing Daily, Oct 18. Available online http://bjrb.bjd.com.cn/html/2017-10/18/content_183998.htm [Jan 6th 2019].

Doland, Angela. 2017. “China’s online TV pushes product placement to crazy levels. Even crazier: Viewers don’t mind.” Ad Age, May 16. Vol.88(10), p.0030.

Huan Chen , En-Ying Lin , Fang Liu & Tingting Dai. 2013. “‘See Me or Not, I Am There’: Chinese White-Collar Moviegoers’ Interpretation of Product Placements in Chinese Commercial Movies.” Journal of Promotion Management, 19:5, 507-533.

Li, Hongmei. 2016. Advertising and Consumer Culture in China. Cambridge: Polity Press.


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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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