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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.

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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

China’s New Hit Drama ‘Nothing But Thirty’ Thrives in the “She Era”

Chinese latest hit drama ‘Nothing but Thirty’ has 20 billion views on its Weibo hashtag page.

Yin Lin Tan

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China’s latest TV drama hit Nothing But Thirty is flooding Weibo discussions. With over 20 billion views on its hashtag page, the show is one of the most popular shows of the season and demonstrates that China’s ‘she era’ (ta shidai 她时代) dramas are all the rage. What’s on Weibo’s Yin Lin Tan explains.

“Have you heard of ‘independent at the age of thirty’ (sān shí ér lì 三十而立)?” Wang Manni asks, her hair pulled back neatly and white shirt cleanly pressed. “I hope that, before I’m thirty, I’ll be promoted to supervisor.”

Riding on the wave of female protagonist (‘heroine’ 大女主) shows that have been taking over China’s entertainment scene, Nothing But Thirty (三十而已) is a 43-episode drama by Dragon Television that follows the challenges of three different women who have reached the ever-important age of thirty.

In a society where women are often expected to be married by their late twenties, a show like this, which tackles women’s present-day struggles, both in their personal and professional lives, has resonated with many.

In fact, the show is so popular that at the time of writing, the show’s hashtag (“Nothing But Thirty”, #三十而已#) has over 20 billion (!) views on Weibo.

 

Depicting the struggles of China’s thirty-something women

 

Nothing But Thirty revolves around the lives of three female leads from different walks of life. Gu Jia (Tong Yao) is a capable businesswoman turned full-time housewife; Wang Manni (Jiang Shuying) is an independent, career-oriented sales assistant; and Zhong Xiaoqin (Mao Xiaotong) is your run-of-the-mill office lady.

For Gu Jia, the birth of her son was what truly transformed her into a full-fledged housewife. In many ways, she seems like a perfect wife and mother: well-educated, capable, and thoughtful. But, eventually, she too has to face life’s challenges.

Driven and hardworking, Wang Manni is confident in both her looks and abilities. Her immediate goal, at least at the start of the show, is to achieve professional success. Throughout the show, her resilience is put to the test, personally and professionally.

Zhong Xiaoqin is described by many netizens as the most “average” or “normal” character. She is kind-hearted -sometimes to the point of being a pushover -, and has spent years at the same company without rising the ranks. Though her story might seem mundane at first, this peace is disrupted when her marriage takes a turn for the worse.

 

A story that resonates with the masses

 

“The show attracted wide attention, and it strongly resonated with female audiences. Many thirty-something working women saw their own lives reflected in the show,” Xinhua recently wrote about the show.

Nothing but Thirty currently carries a 7.6 out of 10 rating on Douban, an online reviewing platform.

Though some reviewers criticized how the later episodes of the show were unnecessarily draggy, most praised it for its portrayal of strong female characters, good acting, and largely realistic depiction of women above the age of thirty.

“I saw myself, and also saw the friends beside me,” a reviewer notes.

In China, women are, more often than not, burdened with expectations of getting married and settling down by the time they are in their late twenties. If you’re single and thirty, that’s made even worse.

Those who fall into this category carry the derogatory label of “leftover women” (剩女), a term that reflects how single women above the age of thirty are seen as consolation prizes or even unwanted goods.

Thirty is thus an incredibly important number, especially for women — something that’s clearly reflected in the show’s concept trailer.

Aside from societal expectations of starting a family, some women now also take it upon themselves to build their careers. In fact, you can chase after professional success without burdening yourself with the idea that you must be married – a notion exemplified by the character of Wang Manni.

Nothing But Thirty also showcases the sheer diversity of experiences for women above thirty: you don’t have to be married, you don’t have to be super capable, and you don’t have to be thinking about having children. Each woman goes through her own unique struggles and isn’t necessarily endowed with the so-called “protagonist’s halo.”

Ultimately, the popularity of the show is driven by the three female leads and the actresses who bring these strong characters to life.

By telling a story that is relatable and touches on relevant social issues, namely on expectations of women in society, Nothing But Thirty was able to achieve widespread popularity and is adding another notch on the trend of China’s ta shidai (她时代) dramas. 

 

The rise of ta shidai shows

 

Ta shidai literally translates to “her era” or “the ‘she’ era.”

Ta shidai shows explore what it’s like to be a woman in China today. The female characters are diverse when it comes to both their backgrounds and character arcs; they might have different jobs, different levels of education, or different personalities. These shows mostly center around a strong female lead and/or a main cast that is primarily female.

More importantly, they often feature capable women and how these women overcame the odds to achieve success.

Recent shows like The Romance of Tiger and Rose (传闻中的陈芊芊) and Sisters Who Make Waves (乘风破浪的姐姐) also fall under this category, as do somewhat older hit shows such as Ode to Joy (欢乐颂) and Women in Beijing (北京女子图鉴).

The Romance of Tiger and Rose is set in a society in which women are in charge and men are subordinate, in a daring reversal of gender roles. Though the show has been criticized for using social issues to attract attention, it gained a decent following for tackling topics like gender inequality and women’s rights.

The Romance of Tiger and Rose (传闻中的陈芊芊)

A reality TV competition that swept the Chinese entertainment scene, Sisters Who Make Waves attempted to rebuke stereotypes of women over 30 as “leftover women.”

The show brought together female celebrities above the age of 30 (the oldest competitor was 52), and had them go through a series of challenges, culminating in a girl group formed by the final competitors.

Nothing But Thirty is just another example of a show that’s attempted to depict the realistic struggles of women in modern-day China.

More Chinese dramas that feature women — specifically, their struggles and the expectations that society places on them — are slated to be released in 2020.

Over the past few years, more attention has been focused on women’s rights in China. As feminism becomes an increasingly important topic of discussion in China, strongly facilitated by social media and not without controversy, companies are likely to hop on the bandwagon and continue producing shows that fall squarely in the ta shidai category, given the genre’s rising popularity.

Though we can’t expect every single show to perfectly, accurately, and realistically portray women’s struggles, the fact that more stories like these are being produced already helps bring such conversations into the mainstream. 

Hopefully, the trend of ta shidai shows is a sign that these issues won’t just be tackled on camera, but in real life as well. 

 
Read more about Chinese TV dramas here.
 

By Yin Lin Tan

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©2020 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

Two Hour Time Limit for KTV: China’s Latest Covid-19 Measures Draw Online Criticism

China’s latest COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures are drawing criticism from social media users.

Manya Koetse

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No more never-ending nights filled with singing and drinking at the karaoke bar for now, as new pandemic containment measures put a time limit as to how long people can stay inside entertainment locations and wangba (internet cafes).

On June 22nd, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism (文旅部) issued an adjusted version to earlier published guidelines on Covid-19-related prevention and control measures for theaters, internet cafes, and other indoor entertainment venues.

Some of the added regulations have become big news on Chinese social media today.

According to the latest guidelines, it will not be allowed for Chinese consumers to stay at various entertainment locations and wangba for more than two hours.

Singing and dancing entertainment venues, such as KTV bars, can only operate at no greater than 50% maximum occupancy. This also means that private karaoke rooms will be much emptier, as they will also only be able to operate at 50% capacity.

On Weibo, the news drew wide attention today, with the hashtag “KTV, Internet Cafe Time Limit of Two Hours” (#KTV网吧消费时间不得超2小时#) receiving over 220 million views at the time of writing. One news post reporting on the latest measures published on the People’s Daily Weibo account received over 7000 comments and 108,000 likes.

One popular comment, receiving over 9000 likes, criticized the current anti-coronavirus measures for entertainment locations, suggesting that dining venues – that have reopened across the country – actually pose a much greater risk than karaoke rooms due to the groups of people gathering in one space without a mask and the “saliva [drops] flying around.”

The comment, that was posted by popular comic blogger Xuexi, further argues that cinemas – that have suffered greatly from nationwide closures – are much safer, as people could wear masks inside and the maximum amount of seats could be minimized by 50%. Karaoke rooms are even safer, Xuexi writes, as the private rooms are only shared by friends or colleagues – people who don’t wear face masks around each other anyway.

Many people agree with the criticism, arguing that the latest guidelines do not make sense at all and that two hours is not nearly enough for singing songs at the karaoke bar or for playing online games at the internet cafe. Some wonder why (regular) bars are not closed instead, or why there is no two-hour time limit for their work at the office.

Most comments are about China’s cinemas, with Weibo users wondering why a karaoke bar, where people open their mouths to sing and talk, would be allowed to open, while the cinemas, where people sit quietly and watch the screen, remain closed.

Others also suggest that a two-hour limit would actually increase the number of individuals visiting one place in one night, saying that this would only increase the risks of spreading the virus.

“Where’s the scientific evidence?”, some wonder: “What’s the difference between staying there for two hours or one day?”

“As a wangba owner, this really fills me with sorrow,” one commenter writes: “Nobody cares about the financial losses we suffered over the past six months. Our landlord can’t reduce our rent. During the epidemic we fully conformed to the disease prevention measures, we haven’t opened our doors at all, and now there’s this policy. We don’t know what to do anymore.”

Among the more serious worries and fears, there are also some who are concerned about more trivial things: “There’s just no way we can eat all our food at the KTV place within a two-hour time frame!”

By Manya Koetse

*” 餐饮其实才更严重,一群人聚在一起,而且不戴口罩,唾沫横飞的。开了空调一样也是密闭空间。电影院完全可以要求必须戴口罩,而且座位可以只出售一半。KTV其实更安全,都是同事朋友的,本身在一起都不戴口罩了,在包间也无所谓。最危险的餐饮反而都不在意了”

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©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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