“I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand.” For Leonardo da Vinci, that meant grasping why lightning is visible to the eye, or understanding why thunder takes time to travel.
But for Zhao Benshan, probably China’s best-known comic, the quest is a little more prosaic. The answer he’s probably searching for: why is it that my latest TV series doesn’t seem as popular as prior seasons?
Zhao directed the first series of Country Love three years ago. It was a hit, telling the story of daily life in a small village. Drama and tragedy, plus Zhao’s trademark comedy, won over the viewers.
But with Country Love now well into its fourth series there are signs that the audience is beginning to tire of the format.
More interesting than the plot is the tone of criticism coming Zhao’s way, arguing that the drama is glossing over the true nature of rural life and that he has lost the real meaning of countryside existence.
This is the view being pushed by a clutch of academics bothered enough by the Country Love phenomena to arrange a series of seminars on the drama over the last year.
Series three was the first to earn a disapproving review, from Zeng Qingrui, a professor at Communication University of China in Beijing (alma mater to many journalists). He slammed Zhao for being too concerned with the ratings, which led to storylines of “ungrounded puffery”.
In part, that might reflect disappointment in Zhao himself. Born in rural northeast China, and speaking with a rugged Dongbei dialect, he has built his reputation with simple humour, infused with a feeling of homeliness. Zhao is a national institution, having written skits for the CCTV Spring Gala for more than 30 years (see WiC6).
The criticism now is that this authenticity is disappearing. In May, a doctoral student at Communication University penned a similar critique in the People’s Daily, complaining that Zhao’s latest work failed to meet the “aesthetic ideal” of rural drama.
Zhao’s response also lacked the aesthetic ideal (“I hate those smug professors…”).
Much of the displeasure now being aimed at Country Love seems related to product placement, a feature of Chinese television production that WiC has discussed before (see issue 59).
Could so many characters in Zhao’s fictional village really afford their own cars? Probably not. But it seems even more implausible that they would all choose to drive an identical brand – Chevrolet – around the village streets.
Plenty of other commercial reference points crop up. A domestic supermarket chain is very much the retailer of choice (whatever happened to digging up your own potatoes, country folk?) and a familiar TV set has pride of place in village living rooms.
Commercial overkill? Maybe, although millions of rural dwellers have seized the chance to purchase items like televisions and fridges in rural subsidy programmes recently.
Whether the storyline really needed an appearance from Zhu Xinli (the real-life chairman of Huiyuan Juice: see WiC7 for the story of his attempt to sell up to Coca-Cola) is more debatable.
Zhu turns up to open a new bottling plant in the village (rural idyll destroyed, it would seem), following a bout of construction work courtesy of some highly visible Sany excavators.
All of this cloying commercialism seems to have jarred with some viewers, not least in clashing with their sensibilities of what countryside life is really about.
That imagined lifestyle – of a simple but steadfast existence, shorn of unnecessary materialism and rooted in a traditional, less cluttered outlook on life – could well say more about audience nostalgia than Zhao himself.
Clearly, the notion of the countryside as the real China still plucks on the patriotic heartstrings. And the political ones too: which is why Bo Xilai, ambitious Party secretary of Chongqing, has been running campaigns sending local students off for a month of rural work.
Mao made use of similar tactics (rather more forcibly, admittedly) so that millions of urban residents could also “learn from the peasants” by being sent to the countryside.
In a China that is changing at warp speed, the idea of rural idyll – that is, a stable community of decent folk – is a cherished anchor for politicians, professors and (so it seems) Country Love viewers.
Some of that sentiment surfaces in the criticism of the plot.
“The villagers were honest in previous episodes, now they compete to have extra-marital affairs,” is one gripe.
Another: “Rural people are warm and generous, but in this rotten drama the characters are not even willing to lend one another salt.”
But is this view of the countryside a romantic myth rather than a reality? The truth is rural folk have a standard of living that trails their city brethren, and there are few signs of China’s new middle-classes dumping their urban lifestyles for a return to rural simplicity. In fact, millions of migrants make the opposite journey, leaving the countryside behind for city employment each year.
Even in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing (see WiC77) – where the charm of rural life is getting a big propaganda plug – 10 million more country folk are expected to arrive in the next decade.
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