Dramatic success

New historical drama seeks to cast Chiang Kai-shek in better light

Jiang Ruijia w

Jiang Ruijia: stars in the hit show All Quiet in Peking

October 1, 1949 was one of the longest days in Chiang Kai-shek’s life. According to the People’s Daily, the Kuomintang leader spent it mulling whether to bomb Tiananmen Square from the air as Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Chiang decided against it. He calculated that even if he dive-bombed Mao into the dust, he wouldn’t win over the people, the People’s Daily suggests. The entire population would have resented him and he might even have destroyed the Forbidden City, it speculates. Chiang didn’t want to be condemned for generations as the man who decimated China’s history too.

As Beijing’s relations with Taiwan have improved in recent years, a slightly more flattering portrayal of Chiang has slowly started to emerge in the mainland press. A lengthy and sympathetic biography by Yang Tianshi, a well-known historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was a big seller. Chiang’s wartime villa – just outside Chongqing – has even been restored as a memorial of sorts. Photos and their accompanying captions paint him more as a patriot who stood firm against the Japanese, in what looks like an effort to rehabilitate some of his historical contribution.

But will the latest TV hit further narrow the divide in cross-straits relations? All Quiet in Peking, which is based on the battle between the KMT and Communist forces during the 1940s, has dominated ratings since its premiere on the Henan, Beijing and Tianjin satellite networks in early October, while critics have suggested that the 53-episode series will even appeal to Taiwanese audiences.

All Quiet in Peking differs from most other war dramas because the stories are less driven by propaganda and more closely resemble historical events. The show, which has rated as 9 out of 10 on Douban, a social media website that allows members to score films, books and TV series, offers a strong cast that includes Liu Ye, Chen Baoguo and Liao Fan, as well as starlets Chen Lina and Jiang Ruijia.

The Global Times says screenwriter Liu Heping took five years to research the story, much of that spent collecting historical material including unpublished diaries from mainland China, Taiwan and the US.

The series tells the tale of the battle through the eyes of a Communist mole who is embedded in the KMT. Mao and Chiang are mentioned frequently in the action, but they do not appear directly as characters at all.

“A drama with such a complicated structure requires extreme attention to detail, not just when it comes to politics and history, but also in capturing the personalities of all these characters. Liu has proved himself up to the task, maintaining a certain amount of creative freedom while basing everything on historical fact. This is something that is very difficult for a screenwriter,” Shi Hang, a culture critic, told the China Daily.

Audiences seem to agree, saying that they are drawn to the engrossing plot. “I turned around to take a phone call and already I couldn’t follow the storyline,” one netizen said of the fast-paced and complicated story.

Liu, who has also turned the TV screenplay into a novel, says his hope is that Taiwanese audiences will watch the drama too, as he feels that the story is objective in its portrayal of the KMT (whose members largely decamped to Taiwan after losing the civil war to Mao).

“My conception of history is fair. And my audiences and readers are not stupid. My books sell well in Taiwan and are recommended by many celebrities and the media there. If you’re fair, your books will definitely be accepted,” he told the Global Times, explaining that the only difference between the mainland Chinese and Taiwanese versions of the novel All Quiet in Peking is that the book published in Taiwan is in traditional Chinese characters (as opposed to the simplified type used in the mainland).

In a TV market usually dominated by sit-coms and palace dramas, more accurate historical fare is few and far between, so Beijing Daily hopes that the success of All Quiet in Peking will encourage more producers to explore the genre.

But industry insiders say that may prove unlikely. That’s because TV regulators introduced new rules in April that ban broadcasters from airing the same series on more than two channels during prime time (see WiC234). The media watchdog explains the move is intended to boost viewing choices for consumers. But producers say the new ban restricts the number of buyers for a programme, which makes it more difficult for expensive productions like All Quiet in Peking to recoup their costs.

“Under this business environment, producers need to control the cost of a drama production to Rmb1.2 million ($196,227) per episode. On the other hand, most A-list actors charge about Rmb600,000 an episode. So unless they are willing to drop their salary, there is no way for shows like All Quiet in Peking – which boast an A-list cast – to be made,” warns Wang Hailin, another TV screenwriter.

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