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(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

Stories that are authored by the What's on Weibo Team are the stories that multiple authors contributed to. Please check the names at the end of the articles to see who the authors are.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Social Media Reactions to The New York Times Bad Review of Wandering Earth 2

A New York Times bad review of ‘Wandering Earth II’ has triggered online discussions: “China’s gonna save the world, the US can’t stand it.”

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This Chinese Spring Festival, it’s all about going to the movies. After sluggish years for China’s movie market during the pandemic, Chinese cinemas welcomed millions of visitors back to the theaters during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.

Much-anticipated new movies attracted Chinese moviegoers this festive season, including Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the suspenseful Hidden Blade, or the animated Deep Sea by Tian Xiaopeng.

But the undisputed Spring Festival box office champion of 2023 is Frant Gwo’s Wandering Earth II (流浪地球II), the sequel to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (2019), which also became the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

The narrative of the follow-up movie Wandering Earth II actually takes place before the events of the first film and focuses on the efforts by the United Earth Government (UEG) to propel the Earth out of the solar system to avoid planetary disaster. This so-called Moving Mountain Project – which later becomes the Wandering Earth Project – is not just met with protest (the majority of Americans don’t believe in it), it also bans the Digital Life Project, which supports the idea that the future of humanity can be saved by preserving human consciousness on computers (backed by an American majority). The film is all about hope and resilience, human destiny, and geopolitics at a time of apocalyptic chaos.

Outside of China, the sequel was also released in, among others, North American, Australian, and UK cinemas.

Although the film, featuring movie stars Wu Jing and Andy Lau, received an 8.2 on the Chinese rating & review platform Douban, a 9.4 on movie ticketing app Maoyan, dozens of positive reviews on Bilibili, and was overall very well-received among Chinese viewers, a bad review by The New York Times triggered discussions on Chinese social media this weekend.

Chinese media outlet The Observer (观察者网) initiated a Weibo hashtag about “The New York Times‘s completely sour review of Wandering Earth II” (#纽约时报酸味拉满差评流浪地球2#).

The New York Times review of Wandering Earth II, titled “‘The Wandering Earth II Review: It Wanders Too Far,” was written by Brandon Yu and published in print on January 27, 2023.

Yu does not have a lot of good things to say about China’s latest blockbuster. Although he calls the 2019 The Wandering Earth “entertaining enough,” he writes that its sequel is a movie that is “audaciously messy” and has lost “all of the glee” its predecessor had: “(..) the movie instead offers nearly three hours of convoluted storylines, undercooked themes and a tangle of confused, glaringly state-approved political subtext.”

The topic was discussed on Chinese social media using various hashtags, including “The New York Times Gave Wandering Earth II a 3″ (#纽约时报给流浪地球打30分#, #纽约时报给流浪地球2打30分#).

Part of the discussions surrounding the bad review is that many simply do not understand how the reviewer could view the film in such a different light. Many commenters blamed it on the fact that the movie is a new milestone in Chinese cinema, not just threatening America’s domination of the movie industry but also setting a narrative in which China leads the way.

“We’re gonna save the world, and America just can’t stand it,” one commenter replied.

That same view was also reiterated by other bloggers. The author and history blogger Zhang Yi’an (@张忆安-龙战于野) argued that The New York Times review was not necessarily bad; it actually shows that Americans feel threatened by the idea of China’s important role in a new international world order, and by the fact that China actually will have the capacity to lead the way when it comes to, for example, space technology innovation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Zhang argues that if a similar movie had been made by the Indians as a Bollywood blockbuster – including exploding suns and wandering earths – The New York Times would have been more forgiving and might have even called it cute or silly.

But because this is China, the film’s success and its narrative clash with American values about what the international community should look like. Zhang writes: “The China in the movie doesn’t boast itself as the savior of the world, but in reality, China really is capable of saving the world. The United States is no longer able to do so (电影里的中国没有把自己吹嘘成救世主,现实中的中国真的有能力做救世主。而美国却已经不能了).”

One popular Film & TV account (@影视综艺君) also summarized the general online reaction to the bad review in the American newspaper: “Whenever the enemy gets scared, it must mean we’re doing it right. Our cultural export has succeeded.” That post received over 120,000 likes.

Meanwhile, another state media-initiated hashtag on Weibo claimed on January 28 that Wandering Earth II has actually “captured the hearts of many overseas audiences” (#流浪地球2海外上映获好评#), and that the film’s “imaginative” and “wonderful” visuals combined with its strong storyline were being praised by critics.

ON IMDB, the movie has received 5.9/10 and a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score. The Guardian gave it 2/5. Meanwhile, on Weibo, one reviewer after the other gives the film 5/5 stars.

Weibo blogger Lang Yanzhi (@郎言志) writes: “Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks and slander directed at the China-made science fiction movie Wandering Earth 2, especially coming from from Western media and pro-Western forces, because the film’s “Chinese salvation” narrative made them uncomfortable. This was already the case when the first film in the series was released. It is very clear that Wandering Earth is not just a movie: it is a symbol of great influence.”

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Zilan Qian

 

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Behind the Short Feature Film of the Spring Festival Gala

The first-ever ‘mini film’ of the Spring Festival Gala struck a chord with viewers for its strong storytelling and authentic production.

Manya Koetse

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This precious and powerful short film by Zhang Dapeng has touched the hearts of Spring Festival Gala viewers. But there is more to the short film than meets the eye. Here’s the noteworthy story behind the 7-minute Spring Festival Mini Film.

On January 21, 2023, China’s Spring Festival Gala, hosted by China Media Group, kicked off the Year of the Rabbit. The annual show, which featured forty different acts and performances, lasted over four hours and attracted millions of viewers worldwide (see our liveblog here, and see a top 5 highlight of the show here).

Traditionally, the Spring Festival Gala always shows several short public service ad films in between the performances, but this year was the first time the Gala featured a “mini-film” or “micro film” (微电影).

Titled Me and My Spring Festival Night (“我和我的春晚”), the 7-minute film was praised among viewers. On Weibo, one hashtag dedicated to the short film received over nine million clicks (#我和我的春晚#).

The film was directed by the Beijing director Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏). Born in 1984, Zhang is a Beijing Film Academy graduate who previously attracted wide attention for directing the Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year movie and the brilliant ad campaign that came with it. Titled What Is Peppa, that short ad film featured a grandfather living in rural China who goes on a quest to find out what ‘Peppa’ is. The promotional video became an absolute viral hit back in 2019 (see/read more here).

Still from ‘What is Peppa.’ 2019.

This time, Zhang’s latest Chinese New Year film is about a hard-working former military man from China’s countryside named Zhang Jianguo (张建国), for whom coming on the show to play the trumpet has been a dream for many years. By featuring his story, the film takes us from the Chinese 1980s, 90s, 00s – as we see him change jobs, move around, and start a family – up to the present.

The main idea behind the film was to honor all the ordinary viewers who have written – and are still writing – to the Gala ever since it first aired in the early 1980s, and to tell a story inspired by these personal letters and ordinary viewers.

Short Summary of “Me and My Chunwan”

At the start of the film, we see Zhang Jianguo dusting off his military honorary awards (光荣军属), putting on his jacket, grabbing his thermos flask and trumpet, and setting out on a journey in the midst of winter.

Riding an electric tricycle in the icy cold, his driver (actor Huang Bo 黄渤) asks him where he is going. “Can you keep your mouth shut?” Zhang replies (“你嘴严实不严实”). “I can,” the driver says, and Zhang then says: “So can I.”

The voiceover narration, a first-person narrative by Zhang himself, explains that he has always been busy: “I never had time for the Spring Festival Gala. My Spring Festival fate is all because of something my captain said.”

The film jumps to a scene showing Zhang as a young military man during the Chinese New Year’s Eve, working outside while people are watching the Spring Festival Gala on a small black and white television inside. As his commander (played by Wu Jing 吴京) hands him his trumpet, he says: “Go and play your trumpet on the television.”

“If the leader asks me to go on the Spring Festival Gala, it’s a task I must complete,” the voice-over says.

But in the military scene itself, duty calls and Zhang has to blow the trumpet to announce dinner time.

In the years that follow, Zhang is always busy during the Spring Festival Gala. Working in the factory, getting married, working on a train, farming cattle, taking care of his family, and always cooking. His trumpet is still there with him, to announce dinner time or hanging on the wall as a memory of times past.

As the years pass by, Zhang realizes that he has gradually forgotten about his commander’s words. Time moves fast. First, he had a son, then his son grew taller than himself, and then his son had his own son. “And I still had never been to the Spring Festival Gala.”

With his captain’s words back on his mind, Zhang, now an older man, sets out on his journey without telling anyone. By foot, by electric tricycle, by bus, and by train, Zhang travels all the way to the famous Beijing Studio 1 to perform at the Spring Festival Gala after being “too busy” for forty years.

Backstage at the Spring Festival Gala, Zhang sits down with famous Chinese Spring Festival Gala performers (Ma Li 马丽 and Shen Teng 沈腾). While unpacking his lunchbox, he tells them he was finally not too busy to come on the show: “I wrote a letter and here I am.” “It’s that simple?” Ma Li wonders.

The producer then rushes to come and get Zhang, who bravely walks towards the stage with his old little trumpet.

A female voice-over then reads out a message, while we see various scenes throughout the years showing Zhang – from young to old – writing letters to CCTV from wherever he is.

The female narrator says: “Dear Uncle Zhang, we’ve received your letter regarding your hopes to realize your cherished stage dream. In this age of emailing, and knowing that you’ve been writing us for 39 years, we’re moved and feel guilty. Our reply may be late, but not our sincerity..

Meanwhile, we see a flashback to a mailman pulling up to old Zhang’s home (the mailman is the actor Wang Baoqiang), and the old Zhang finally receives that much-anticipated letter from CCTV at his remote rural home.

The female narrator continues: “This year, we proudly invite you to be a guest at the Spring Festival Gala and to “ring the dinner bell” [play the sound announcing dinner]. Sincerely, the Spring Festival Director Committee.

In the final shot, we see Zhang blowing the trumpet at the Gala, with flashbacks showing him blowing that trumpet in all those decades before. He has finally made it to the big stage.

A Noteworthy Story

While Me and My Spring Festival Night received a lot of praise on Chinese social media, the story behind the film was not immediately clear to many viewers celebrating the Chinese New Year, but it was explained in several articles and interviews with director Zhang Dapeng.

During the live-televised Spring Festival Gala itself, the airing of Me and My Spring Festival Night was directly followed up by a shot featuring a person (a veteran) in the audience standing up and actually playing the trumpet.

Directly after, the song “Goodmorning Sunshine” began, representing multiple people from all kinds of professions and social groups. About one minute into the song, the camera turns to another audience member: the person who plays ‘Uncle Zhang’ in the mini-film. Later in the song, we can see he is wiping away tears, visibly moved.

Why was he so moved? The older man in the audience, the main ‘Uncle Zhang’ actor in the film, is Jin Changyong (金长勇), and he actually is not a professional actor.

Somewhat similar to the character Zhang Jianguo, Jin Changyong or “Uncle Jin” (金叔) is a hardworking veteran from Hebei’s Huailai County in Zhangjiakou.

Jin Changyong is a 63-year-old farmer who is also active at the Hebei Tianmo Film and TV Park doing security and logistics-related jobs. He served in the army for four years from the age of 19, as, among others, a military chef.

Director Zhang Dapdeng came across ‘Uncle Jin’ one day while shooting another film at the studio. While Jin was busy doing kitchen work, director Zhang saw him and, as he later recounts, was struck by his face that showed he had “lived through many changes” (“这种饱经沧桑的脸”).

Zhang later invited Uncle Jin to star in the movie, and he also made sure Jin’s own story played a role in the script.

Director Zhang Dapeng, image via CCTV.

This makes this short movie all the more special, something which has since been discussed on Chinese social media (#春晚微电影的主演是普通农民#).

The surprising twist in the story is how Zhang Jianguo tells other people he has just always been “too busy” to attend the Gala, while he had in fact already written to the show for 39 years with the hope of one day being invited.

Another noteworthy aspect of the film is how Zhang Dapeng chose to cast some of China’s most celebrated actors as supporting roles to lift up the main character and actor, Jin, who was inexperienced and learnt from his fellow players.

In an interview, Jin expressed that the entire experience of playing in this short film left his overcome with emotion. After the filming had ended, he told reporters that he had sleepless nights because he had not received an actual invitation to the Spring Festival Gala yet, something which he so very much hoped for. Just one week before the show, that invitation finally came.

The fact that Jin, in a way, played a man like himself in the short movie has added to the film’s popularity.

“I was sincerely moved by this film,” one commenter wrote, with others saying: “This was the best program I’ve seen on the Gala over the past decade.”

While some people also remarked that the short film seemed to have been influenced by The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, others praised it for its originality.

“This was just the best part of the night,” several commenters said: “It made me cry.”

“Zhang Pengda – a name to remember,” others wrote.

You can watch the short film on Youtube here.

By Manya Koetse 

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