In 2002, Fox televised the reality series The Simple Life featuring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. It followed the two celebrities as they traded their Beverly Hills mansions for an Arkansas barnyard. It wasn’t an easy adjustment. In episode one, Richie asks her host family if they hang out at Walmart. “What is Walmart?” the pampered Hilton immediately exclaims, revealing it’s not the sort of shopping she’s used to on Rodeo Drive. Not surprisingly both women struggle to cope with rural life, while their hosts struggle to adjust to the two of them. For instance, in another episode Richie tells one proud local farmer that she finds rural Arkansas boring.
Perhaps the celebrities from China will fare better when they head for the countryside? Since October, Jiangsu Satellite TV and Tianjin Satellite TV have both released reality shows that send a group of famous women into the sticks.
The Jiangsu show – called She’s My Family – features actresses like Cecilia Cheung, Li Jinming, Huang Shengyi and Korean star Choo Ja-hyun. Meanwhile, Tianjin TV’s Here Comes the Bride boasts starlets like Charlene Choi, Zhu Dan and Jia Ling.
“For three months, these stars are to be ‘married’ into the farm, so as to be the family’s new daughter-in-law, where they eat, live and work just like all the rural peasants, and experience the hardship of country life,” comments the Beijing Times of the new genre.
The producers from She’s My Family claim that life in the countryside (the filming was in Pu’er in Yunnan province) hasn’t been easy for the stars. For instance, most of the households lack flushing toilets. If the actresses have to go, they have to head out into the fields. Equally incredibly to these well-heeled city folk, there’s no mobile phone reception, rendering their smartphones useless. “Even ordinary city-dwellers like us will have a hard time adjusting to that kind of surrounding,” one of the producers told the Beijing Times, adding that a few of the stars had taken to genuine fits of sobbing during filming.
The Simple Life was heavily scripted for laughs (Paris Hilton’s follow up riposte about Walmart was “Do they sell walls and stuff?”). But the two Chinese series prompted more tears than laughter. In Here Comes the Bride, one of the actresses complains that she “almost got a heart attack” when a rat crawls on her face in the middle of the night.
Another starlet turns her nose away from the pit in the backyard which serves as the family toilet (“What if it overflows?” she asks in horror).
In She’s My Family, Cecilia Cheung was housed at a family of pig farmers. During her stay she has to help them make breakfast, plough the fields and feed the hogs. But the actress soon riles her hosts by getting up late (everyone rises at six in the morning). Instead of making breakfast she serves the family instant cup noodles.
Of course, conforming to a storytelling arc, the actress wins over the family as time passes. She even grows so attached to the lifestyle that she weeps in the arms of her host when it is time to leave. “I was very emotional. I didn’t expect myself to feel like this before I came. When this programme ends, I’ll miss it very much,” Cheung told the camera.
WiC will keep an eye out for how often she heads back for a visit.
Still, the trend of sending celebrities on visits to the countryside shows no signs of abating. In late October another reality series on Zhejiang Satellite TV – this one called This is Life – also hit the schedules. It sent a group of stars into a rural wilderness where they have to survive a slew of physical challenges.
Perhaps the trend marks an attempt to echo President Xi Jinping’s efforts to bring greater attention to rural China (a key part of his political education was living a peasant life for seven years as a younger man too). Recently, the media watchdog, the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, announced that it “will organise film and TV series production staff on a quarterly basis to go to grassroots communities, villages and mining sites to do field study and experience life”. According to the directive, scriptwriters, directors and show hosts will be sent to live for at least 30 days “in ethnic minority and border areas, and areas that made major contributions to the country’s victory in the revolutionary war,” says Xinhua.
The goal is to help “artists form a correct view of art and create more masterpieces”.
The announcement follows a major speech by Xi back in October in which he told artists, authors and actors that their work should promote socialist values and avoid the “stench of money”.
Xi instructed his audience: “Fine artworks should be like sunshine from blue sky and a breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.”
This practice of sending city dwellers to the countryside is certainly not new. During the 1960s and 1970s, Mao Zedong ordered 17 million urban youths to go to rural communities to better learn socialist values. Xi was one of those to make the journey. Back then, of course, no one thought of turning the experience into a TV show…
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