Brain power

The nation’s latest hit TV show focuses not on singing, but intelligence

Zhang Ziyi w

Getting cerebral: actress Zhang Ziyi was a guest judge on Super Brain

Acting superstar Zhang Ziyi has been less in the news for her films recently, and more because of judging decisions. Last week Chinese media reported that Zhang had won her court case in Hong Kong against Apple Daily and its parent Next Media, after Apple Daily made allegations about her sex life. The judge ordered the publishing group to pay her legal costs (still awaited: the final damages that Zhang will receive from the defamation suit are yet to be decided).

In the same week Zhang also found herself in the judge’s chair, after Jiangsu Satellite TV invited her to appear as a judge on its science-themed show Super Brain. The format, which is inspired by the German hit Superhirn, has done well in the TV ratings since its premiere early this month. Before Zhang’s guest appearance, Robin Li, the chief executive of search giant Baidu, and Jay Chou, a Taiwanese singer and actor, were also guest judges on the programme.

“To be honest, I’m a huge fan of the show. If I’m in town on Friday I will definitely watch it,” Zhang gushed to Xinmin Evening News.

Readers of WiC will remember that the last time Zhang was a guest judge on a reality competition it wasn’t so well received (viewers thought she wasn’t qualified to comment on The X Factor: China’s Strongest Voice because she doesn’t have a musical background). So was she cerebral enough to cope with Super Brain? The episode has yet to air but one of the other judges on the show has been singing her praises. “Zhang did very well. She uses analogies to interpret the challenges, and sometimes she even tries to solve the challenges herself,” congratulated Wei Kunlin, a psychology professor at Peking University. “That shows her analytical thinking, which is also an embodiment of the spirit of science.”

Super Brain contestants complete science-related tasks which are assessed for difficulty by the panel of judges. No one is going to be winning a Nobel Prize for their work, admittedly. One man memorised every tile on a gigantic wall of Rubik’s Cubes and then identified the single tile that had been changed (he succeeded three times). Last week a blind contestant guessed at objects placed in front of her by blowing onto them (a bicycle, a globe and a heater), claiming to identify each by how her breath bounced back.

Naturally, the series wouldn’t be a popular one without a little controversy. And for Super Brain this was provided by mathematical whiz Zhou Wei, who solved a difficult problem in his head by calculating the 14th root of a 16 digit number. Zhou did it much faster than a professor and professional mathematician but as so often the case with Chinese reality television, producers then played his story for full emotional impact. Medical experts have diagnosed him as ‘a person with learning difficulties’ (the Chinese press uses less politically correct language) and according to his mother, who was quickly ushered onto the stage after Zhou had solved the math question, he was bullied at school and has never been taken seriously.

Mother, judges and audience were soon deluged in tears (one judge couldn’t even talk because he was sobbing so dutifully).

“His talent should have been discovered a long time ago. We should thank Jiangsu Satellite TV for providing this platform for people like Zhou. I believe that in China – and in other parts of the world – there are many people like Zhou who weren’t acknowledged for their talent or allowed to shine bright,” another judge lamented.

Soon netizens were labelling Zhou as a “genius” and “China’s Einstein”, while others dubbed him as “China’s Rain Man” in reference to the autistic savant role played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film of the same name.

“Not everyone can become a great genius. But a great genius can come from anywhere,” Professor Wei wrote on his weibo.

But not everyone was so impressed, including Fang Zhouzi, who campaigns against pseudoscience and fraud in China (see WiC69).

“You cannot say a person has a ‘super power’ just by solving that math problem,” Fang told the Global Times, adding that Zhou could have memorised all the possible results, rather than calculating them on his own.

Other experts agreed, saying that although the questions looked complicated, their solution was more simple because the 14th root of a big number is much easier to solve than, say, the square root of a big number. (WiC chooses not to contribute to this particular debate, for fear of embarrassing itself.)

Others said the debate was silly and that what matters more is that Super Brain has sparked audience interest in science.

“Most ordinary people’s scientific knowledge is not very high and they think that science is something that’s not relatable to everyday life. But shows like Super Brain have made science popular again. Since its release, many people want to find out how the contestants solve the questions and science has suddenly become a hot topic at dinner tables,” the Beijing Morning Post noted.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.