Family values

China’s latest hot TV drama

Family values

Paper, scissors, rock: loser exits the flour business

Jiang Qing was Mao Zedong’s third (and final) wife. But mention her name in China today, and you will likely be told she was the twentieth century’s most evil woman. Most will recall her inflammatory role as a member of the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution.

Less well known is that the woman who styled herself as ‘The Great Flag-Carrier of Proletarian Culture’ ranked Gone with the Wind as her favourite American film.

So you have to wonder what Jiang would make of the new television drama, Prominent Family. The film’s director compares the drama – of course – to Gone with the Wind.

Would Madame Mao have been more irked by the comparison to her favourite flick or by its reactionary setting in 1920s capitalist Shanghai?

The director is Hu Mei, who is no stranger to controversy. She caused a stir earlier in the year when she cast Hong Kong star, Chow Yun-Fat as Confucius. The actor – who is better known for his action roles – will play the famous sage in a biopic movie set for release later this year (see WiC10).

Compared to the forthcoming Confucius movie, Prominent Family looks to be on much surer territory for Hu. She has made a number of historical television dramas before, most famously the Yongzheng Dynasty.

And by Chinese standards this TV drama is a big budget affair. Hu revealed to the Chongqing Morning Post that it cost Rmb30 million ($4.39 million) to make, in part due to the director’s efforts to recreate an ‘authentic’ old Shanghai.

It turns out that the director’s comparison with Gone with the Wind is less to do with plot and more with the teledrama’s historical sweep. The Hollywood movie – based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel – married a (complicated) love story to the events of the American civil war. Similarly, Prominent Family focuses on turbulent times – a nation torn apart first by warlords and later by the invading Japanese – and sets this to a tale of impossible love.

In this case the heroine Wang Yuqiu – like Scarlett O’Hara – comes from a prominent old money family. She falls in love with the male protagonist, Du Qingyuan, who has arrrived jobless and penniless from the countryside but who builds up a successful flour empire.

It seems there are two reasons why Prominent Family – or Wang Zu in Chinese – is being labelled the hottest TV show of the moment. Much of the drama is about the ups and downs of businesspeople and in contemporary China there is a fascination with business. Last year a 45 episode show called The Qiao Family Courtyard was a huge hit. Set in pre-Communist Shanxi audiences were riveted by this “businessman drama.”

But as Hu’s comments about authenticity indicate, the other reason for the serial’s success is its setting in ‘old Shanghai’.

As the China Youth Daily points out there is a great deal of “nostalgia” for this period. “The old Shanghai was a first class international metropolis,” writes the paper. “It stood shoulder to shoulder with New York, London and Paris, and was a very complicated and rich city where Chinese and Western culture co-existed, interacted and integrated. Order was kept, but there was a spirit of tolerance and a colourful culture that indulged human desires. That is the reason for the tidal wave of nostalgia.”

This being Hu, of course, there has to be some controversy about her casting. In this case, she shrugs it off saying her leading lady deserves full marks.

But some critics have said it would have been more authentic to have a Shanghai-born actress play the role of Wang Yuqiu. They quibble that Yin Tao is from Chongqing, a city 895 miles west of Shanghai.

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