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‘Fifteen of Us’: This is the Chinese Utopia

Fifteen people with different backgrounds build a new society: one place, hundreds of camera’s, starting from scratch. The format of Dutch reality TV programme Utopia has now made it to China. The question is: what will Chinese Utopia look like? Who are the contestants? Will their society be communist or capitalist?

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Fifteen people with different backgrounds build a new society: one place, hundreds of camera’s, starting from scratch. The format of Dutch reality TV programme Utopia has now made it to China. The question is: what will Chinese Utopia look like? Who are the contestants? Will their society be communist or capitalist? What’s on Weibo brings you an overview of the show thus far.

In the Netherlands, Utopia first aired on December 31st, 2013. The reality show is a social television experiment that puts 15 people from different backgrounds together to create a new society. The contestants have to start from scratch, and learn how to make survive as a group. They can decide on their own rules or laws, but there is an important general restriction: contestants cannot leave the premises, that cover around 1,5-2 hectare. The show is recorded 24 hours per day, and can be followed by viewers through online live streams on the Utopia app. Besides the live streams, there are daily 30 minute recaps on TV. Every month, the contestants have to vote on their least favourite resident, who will then be eliminated from the show and replaced by a new contestant. Contestant are supposed the stay in the show for one year. If they decide that they want to leave earlier without being eliminated, they will be fined by the television company. Apart from sporadic letters, they cannot communicate with their friends and family.

Utopia is produced by Talpa, a top-notch Dutch production company that has launched various popular TV formats, such as The Voice, which also became a huge success in China (中国好声音). The Chinese version of Utopia is called  ‘The Fifteen of Us’ (我们15个), and first aired on June 29 this year. It is a joint production of Talpa and the Chinese online group Tencent.

In the Netherlands, Utopia has seen a rich variety of participants; gay and straight, black and white, young and old, religious and atheist. The contestants had different backgrounds as artists, singers, accountants, philosophers, carpenters, psychics, some jobless, one homeless.

Besides an official website, the Chinese show also has an official Weibo account, that regularly updates with everyday developments on the show.

According to Variety, as many as 100,000 people applied to take part in the the Chinese Utopia. The show’s selected fifteen contestants have diverse backgrounds and ages.

UTOPIACHINAThree of the 15 contestants, from left to right: Yi Qiu (the vagabond), Tan Limin (feisty auntie), Zheng Hu (wannabe singer).

The show’s oldest contestant is Tan Limin (谭利敏) a retired 61-year-old Shanghai woman with a young mind and feisty nature. The other participants range from 21 to 51 years old. Yi Qiu (易秋), with his unique look, is a vagabond with no stable job. Zheng Hu (郑虎) is a chubby 26-year-old music lover from China’s northern Shanxi province, who wants to lose weight and work on his career as a singer.

utopia2Three of the contestants, from left to right: Deng Biying (the model), Liu Zhixuan (the fashion designer), Taiwanese 44-year-old Zhang Tingxuan (the perfectionist mum).

Deng Biying (邓碧莹) is the young and sexy 24-year-old car show model. The extravagant Liu Zhixuan (刘志轩) from Zhejiang is a 27-year-old fashion designer. Zhang Tingxuan (张婷媗) is the show’s only Taiwanese participant. She is 44 years old, a ‘hot mother’, and a perfectionist with extreme willpower.

chineseutopia3From left to right: Sun Ming and Nie Jiangwei (both veterans), and Liu Fuhua (divorced dad).

The youngest is the 21-year-old veteran Sun Ming (孙铭), for whom discipline is the main thing in life. Nie Jiangwei (聂江伟) is also a veteran, 51 years old. Electrician and daddy Liu Fuhua (刘富华, 30 years old), is trying to get over his failed marriage. Furniture maker Guo Daohui (郭道辉) from Qingdao is the rebellious one of the group. The handsome Qiu Zijian (丘子健) is a professional boxer and model.

utopiachina4From left to right: Rebel from Qingdao, Guo Daohui, professional boxer Qiu Zijian and fashionista Liu Xi.

Another fashionista is the 26-year-old woman Liu Xi (刘希), who majored in fashion at Shanghai University. Liu Luoxi (刘洛汐) is an ambitious 25-year-old super model and business woman from Chengdu, who is active in the online game industry. Song Ge (宋鸽) is a 27-year-old female Harvard graduate, majoring in psychology. Xiao Fanfan (肖凡凡) is the last one of the group: a young and pretty university student who loves make-up and cherishes her freedom.

utop5From left to right: Liu Luoxi the super model/business woman, the academic (Song Ge) and Xiao Fanfan, the sexy student.

Similar to the Dutch version, contestants of Fifteen of Us are allowed to bring one wooden case with some items (cooking utensils, rice, sleeping bag, etc) upon arrival.

The show is recorded in the scenic lush green area of Tonglu, in southern China’s Hangzhou. At the start, the contestants only have one shared empty hangar, a grass field, a total of 5000 RMB (about 816 US dollar), and one basic mobile phone. There are also two cows and some chickens.

In the first episodes, the fifteen contestants struggle with their new surroundings, where they have no beds or proper toilets. They spend the days milking the cows, making fire, cooking basic food, talking about how to make money and survive, and arguing on how to divide the tasks ahead. Chubby Zheng Hu practices his singing skills at all hours of the day (check video below).

Supermodel/business woman Liu Luoxi takes on a leader role, much to the disgruntlement of divorced father Liu Fuhua. Veteran Nie Jiangwei, the oldest man of the group, balances her business-like leadership with his own views (“We came here as one group, we will act as one group!”). Besides an apparent leader, supermodel Liu Luoxi is also a dramaqueen. As shown in the video below, she breaks out in tears when the vet comes to Tonglu to check on one of the cows and then states it is sick and needs to take medicine. Although Liu cares for the cow’s health, she also cares about the little money the residents currently have. The medicine costs 200 RMB (32 dollar), and Liu cries out that there is no money.

The humid and basic surroundings already take their toll on the health of the contestants. Within the first week of airing, two participants already had to leave the show to go to the hospital. Young carpenter Guo Daohui suffered from severe backache, and vagrant Yi Qiu was wounded when broken glass cut through his hand (see video below). The chubby and extravagant Zheng Hu seems to suffer mentally, as he cannot stop crying after seeing a snake outside the hangar (video).

Vagrant Yi Qiu severely cuts his hand on a broken window.

Yi Qiu has just cut his hand and is taken to hospital. Zheng Hu is crying because he saw a snake. While some support him, others get angry because of his dramatic cries (see 1:20).

So far, Fifteen of Us has been lacking the more political discussions the Dutch version of the show sometimes had at the beginning, when contestants would have to decide if they would choose for a communist or capitalist-run society. These kind of debates might be too sensitive for the Chinese version, where the show is undoubtedly censored. But censorship of this reality show is not typically Chinese. Viewers of the Dutch show have complained about censorship of the show, and the German version (‘Newtopia’) became the centre of a scandal earlier this year when an allegedly drunk producer was heard on livestreams giving directions to the contestants.

China is not the first to follow Dutch Utopia. The show also has its own version in Turkey. Although there was also an American version, it turned out to be a flop and was cancelled after airing for two months.

So far, the Dutch version has been airing for 1,5 years. The contestants have managed to rebuild the hangar that now holds bedrooms, a bathroom, two kitchens and a gym. There is also a swimming pool and wellness centre. Contestants receive money by letting guests pay for indoor concerts, parties or weekend markets. The show’s storyline has seen some highlights, with an unexpected romance between two young female contestants, a resident caught stealing, one couple having live sex on TV, a number one hit, some fights, the occasional drunken party, and conflicts over homosexuality, religious beliefs and political systems.

China’s Utopia might not get too political, but it could nevertheless offer some interesting insights in today’s society. Contemporary Chinese societal issues such as the rich-poor gap, migrant workers, leftover women or the growing generation gap are bound to come up as items of discussion within this diverse group of people. A lesbian couple? Unlikely, but who knows. We will be watching – and’ll keep you posted.

By Manya Koetse

[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]

©2015 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

(Op-Ed) The Forgotten Genres & Loss of “Intellectual Taste” in Chinese TV Drama

“We need to recall those TV dramas and genres that have vanished into oblivion,” Zhao writes.

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When What’s on Weibo published a list of classics of Chinese TV dramas, Beijing Film Academy graduate Zhao B. felt the list was missing relevant titles and genres. These are the top classic TV dramas that should be added to the list, according to an article sent in to What’s on Weibo by Zhao.

The entertainment industry is a hot topic in present-day China, where online videos are being watched by millions of internet users every day. The way in which these videos are created, spread, and consumed, signals a new kind of emotional consumerism.

TV drama is still a benchmark of China’s popular culture, but it is no longer the newest one – and might even have started to be somewhat worn out. It has gone into a phase of systematically deleting conflicting memories, in sync with the loud internet environment and the pop culture factory.

Not only has the length of TV drama episodes been shortened for today’s ‘online binging,’ but streaming sites are also filled with certain algorithms and tracking codes that accelerate the obliteration of certain television dramas. The mass ‘industrialization’ of popular culture has shortened the lifespan of television dramas and its genres.

Which is why if a list such as the Top 30 Classic TV Dramas in China is based on rankings provided by social media sites or online video platforms such as Sougo or Douban, there are certain blind spots.

It is not out of mere nostalgia that we need to recall those TV dramas and genres that have vanished into oblivion. It gives us an overview of marginalized genres and taste, that are different from the current mainstream ones. They are the working memories for contemporary life.

Genres that have come up and have since been forgotten in the People’s Republic of China from roughly 1978 to 2018, are:

-the “rural genre” (农村题材)
-the “youth genre” (青少年题材)
-the “army genre” (军旅题材), a sub-category of the military genre.

Theme Productions versus Genre

There is a socio-historical difference in Chinese and English popular culture industries in use of the term ‘genre’ that should be noted here. Chinese TV dramas are often categorized in ‘topics’ or ‘themes’ (tícái 题材) rather than in ‘genres’ (lèixíng 类型).

Thematic terms were used in planning and reviewing art productions (literature, film, TV drama) in PRC history, but this practice has been transforming over the past forty years. 

With the rise of the pop culture industry, the term ‘genre’ (类型) also became more popularized, with ‘theme’ and ‘genre’ now existing together.

Some productions have been recognized as either an old-fashioned ‘theme’ product, while also being categorized as a genre. For example, the TV drama Era of Peace (和平年代, 1996) marks the transition from the thematic categorization of ‘Revolutionary History theme’ (革命历史题材) to the categorization of ‘Era genre’ (年代戏). Later, the famous production The Year of Burning Passion (激情燃烧的岁月, 2001) was simply categorized as a typical ‘Era Genre’ rather than a theme production.

But there are also those thematic productions that did not have a ‘genre offspring.’ One of those is the established “intellectual theme” (知识分子题材) in Chinese literature, film, and TV drama, which is not reflected in today’s TV drama industry. Although educated identity plays a key role in today’s medical genre (医疗剧) – a subcategory of the ‘professional genre’ TV drama (职业剧) – the agenda and rhetoric are very different.

To avoid long discussions on the complex nature of theme versus genre productions and categories in Chinese TV dramas, the following overview mixes both thematic and genre TV dramas, using the terms interchangeably.

‘Forgotten’ TV Dramas

An overview of some series in supplement to the Top 30 Classic Chinese TV dramas article:

 

#1 ‘Trilogy of Women’s Fate’ (女人命运三部曲)

* 篱笆、女人和狗  ‘Fence, Woman and Dog’

Year: 1989
Episodes: 12
Genre: Rural/Family
Directed by 陈雨田 Chen Yutian

* 辘轳、女人和井 ‘Windlass, Woman and Well’

Year: 1991
Episodes: 12
Genre: Rural/Family
Directed by 陈雨田 Chen Yutian 可人 Ke Ren

* 古船、女人和网 Ancient Ship, Woman and Net

Year: 1993
Episodes: 14
Genre: Rural/Family
Directed by 吴珊 Wu Shan 张扬 Zhang Yang

In this 1990s ‘Trilogies of Country Life’ (农村三部曲), China’s rural community is still presented as being in a stage of self-reflecting amidst a time of transformation. This portrayal of China’s countryside stands in stark contrast to present-day productions that often represent the rural community as either ‘to be developed’ or to be laughed about, caught in a discourse of urban-rural binary opposition. These series are still available for viewing on sites such as QQ (no English subs).

 

#2. ‘The Flowering Season of Being Sixteen’ (十六岁的花季)

Year: 1990
Episodes: 12
Genre: Youth
Directed by Directed by 富敏 Fu Min 张弘 Zhang Hong

This TV drama, spoken in Shanghai accent, tells the coming-of-age story of a group of middle school students. It represents Chinese youth as being in the age of poetic self-reflection, rather than the ‘young idol’ genre that is ubiquitous today. The actors and narrator’s voice directly reflect on society and question it. The episodes are available for viewing on Youtube here (no English subtitles).

 

#3. Young Special Force 少年特工

Year: 1992
Episodes: 16
Genre: Military
Directed by 郑方南 Zheng Fangnan

This TV drama, set in contemporary China, tells the story of the experiences of children during a military camp in Shandong, where these young scouts are thrown into a ‘battle’ between the ‘Red Army’ and the ‘Blue Army.’ The military setting and modern timeframe ironically reveal the hidden elite and historical subtext. Link to episodes on Youtube here.

 

#4. Era of Peace (和平年代)

Year: 1996
Episodes: 23
Genre: Army/History
Directed by 李舒 Li Shu 张前 Zhang Qian

This title represents the difference between the army sub-genre and military genre. It is a retrospective story that describes the transformation of China’s armed troops from the Reform and Opening Up (改革开放) (1978-1996) period, going from war preparations to a period of peace.

Over the last two decades, the army sub-genre has gradually allowed new components into the military TV drama genre, which has also led to those narratives in the late 2010s that focus on overseas operations by elite soldiers.

 

#5. Fortress Besieged (围城)

Year: 1990
Episodes: 10
Genre: No (some will say Historical)
Directed by 黄蜀芹 Huang Shuqin

This drama, a classic adaptation of the same-titled 1947 novel by Qian Zhongshu, is set in the 1930s and portrays Chinese intellectuals, while focusing on the misadventures of Fang Hongjian, who returns to China after studying in Europe. The mild, cautious, ironic yet effortless taste from 1940 Shanghai and the figures of Republic of China’s bourgeois intellectuals, showed itself for the very first time to PRC audiences in this classic.

Nobody would like to admit they forgot about this classic adaptation. Actually, people tend to forget it not because of itself, but for its isolation from any current trends. Intellectual taste and artistic pursuit are quite alien to China’s current TV drama culture. Intellectual influence and TV as art was a cultural feature of the late socialist planned economy of the 20th century, when the Communist war against intellectuals had ended, and the capitalist front was yet to be developed.

Various episodes are available for viewing on Youtube.

 

#6. Sinful Debt (孽债)

Year: 1995
Episodes: 20
Genre: Family
Directed by 黄蜀芹 Huang Shuqin

This drama, from the same female director Huang Shuqin (黄蜀芹) of Fortress Besieged, tells the story of five left-behind children in pursuit of their fathers – former sent-down “educated youths” as part of the Cultural Revolution crusade. It is a drama of middle-aged males, females and children, affected by historical, geographical, social and ethnic displacement. These series represent a delayed response to Scar Literature on TV.

The portrayal of Shanghai intellectuals in 1990s TV drama was very different from the 1980s intellectual idealism on TV, which then later transformed in the full-fledged populism in today’s political discourse of pop culture. In policy and critiques after 1990s, the once legit intellectual theme (知识分子题材) was completely erased.

Episodes of Sinful Debt are available for viewing on Youtube here.

By Zhao B.

Edited for clarity by Manya Koetse

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

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Arts & Entertainment

The Never-Ending Drama: Ma Rong Accuses Wang Baoqiang of Violent Attack, Netizens Don’t Buy It

A messy story is flooding Weibo today, as Chinese celebrity Ma Rong accuses ex-husband Wang Baoqiang of assault.

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It is the never-ending drama: China’s most famous divorced celebrity couple Ma Rong and Wang Baoqiang once again hit the top trending lists on Chinese social media. This time, it concerns an alleged violent outburst during which Ma Rong was injured.

Ever since the 2016 split between Chinese celebrities Wang Baoqiang (王宝强) and his ex-wife Ma Rong (马蓉), the former couple keeps on making headlines. On Sunday, December 2nd, the hashtag “Wang Baoqiang Beats Up Ma Rong” (#王宝强殴打马蓉#) went trending on Weibo, receiving some 520 million views at time of writing (update: the hashtag page has since been taken offline).

According to various Chinese media, Chinese actress Ma Rong stated that her ex-husband attacked her when she wanted to take her children with her in the early morning on Sunday. The children allegedly were not present when the altercation occurred.

Ma Rong claimed that she was hit and kicked in the head and back by Wang, who was accompanied by “four or five” others.

Dramatic photos of a seemingly injured Ma Rong have spread on social media, along with photos of her in the hospital.

A video issued by Sina Entertainment News on Sunday shows Ma Rong lying in her (hospital) bed crying, telling the interviewer that Wang has previously been abusive towards her and their two children.

But there is also another side to this murky story, as security footage from surveillance cameras at Wang’s house have leaked, reportedly showing that Ma came to Wang’s house with her mother on Saturday night around 19.00 to “cause a scene”, carrying scissors with her to intimidate Wang’s family. The footage shows how a woman, said to be Ma Rong, jumps up to the camera in an apparent attempt to sabotage it.

According to an “insider” quoted by Sina Entertainment, Ma and her mother were apparently involved in an altercation with Wang Baoqiang’s mother, although these rumors have since been refuted by Ma’s family.

A report on Jinri Toutiao also claims that the altercation had already started on Saturday night, and that police were present at the scene around 23.00 in an ongoing confrontation that allegedly lasted the entire night.

Wang’s mother, who was present at the scene, was apparently so shaken by the turmoil, that she reportedly was also checked into a local hospital with “palpitations” on Saturday night.

Photos surfacing on Weibo supposedly show how Ma Rong is lying on the floor in Wang’s home, while security staff is present at the scene.

As the situation is somewhat messy, and details are still unclear, most netizens side with Wang Baoqiang and are not buying Ma’s story, suggesting the photos of the injured actress have been staged. Ma Rong has become very unpopular since her divorce from Wang, with many calling her a “gold digger.”

“She’s a very good actress,” many commenters say. “There’s seriously something wrong with her,” others write.

The first memes on today’s case are also surfacing on WeChat and Weibo, with some photoshopping Ma’s photo on a magazine cover of Zhiyin (知音), an old Chinese magazine known for telling dramatic and sensationalized social stories.

Others post the dramatic photo with the underline: “Oh, my head hurts.”

Chinese actor Wang Baoqiang, known for his roles in films such as Blind Shaft (2003) and A Touch of Sin (2013), is highly popular in China. Born into a poor rural family in Hebei Province, the former migrant construction worker rose to fame when he was cast in his first movie. With his rural-to-urban, migrant-to-actor story, Wang has come to represent the Chinese dream in the eyes of many.

In 2016, Wang Baoqiang publicly announced on Weibo that after seven years of marriage, he was divorcing Ma Rong as an exposed illicit affair between his wife and his manager Song Zhe (宋喆) had damaged his marriage “beyond repair.”

Wang Baoqiang announced on Weibo that his wife betrayed him and that he was getting a divorce.

At the time, the exposure of the alleged relationship between Ma Rong and manager Song Zhe hit Weibo like an earthquake, with millions of netizens jumping on the discussion – many of them scolded Ma and alleged she had only married the Chinese film star for his money. With ten billion views, it became one of the all-time biggest topics on Weibo.

Wang and Ma in happier times.

The story has continued to attract people’s attention. A year after the initial separation, Song Zhe was arrested in Beijing for embezzlement – a topic that immediately became trending on Chinese social media.

The various court cases between Wang and Ma Rong, who first sued her estranged husband for defamation of character and then refused to sign the divorce papers, has also recurrently been in the media.

According to the latest reports, Ma has now left the hospital. A video that is spreading on Weibo shows how a woman, supposedly Ma Rong, is carried out of the hospital and is put inside a car, while reporters are running after her (see embedded tweet below).

At time of writing, Wang has not posted any statement regarding this incident on his Weibo page, where he has more than 28 million fans.

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes

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

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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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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