Lingering dreams

Why a mid-80s drama by CCTV still resonates with Chinese audiences

Red Chamber w

The original cast of the 1987 hit The Dream of the Red Chamber reunite

Asked to choose a single TV show or movie to illustrate the starting point of China’s opening up and reform era in the past 30 years, overseas film buffs would probably go for something like Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum or Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine.

Fine films both but for anyone living in China in the 1980s, The Dream of the Red Chamber, produced by state broadcaster CCTV in 1987, was a landmark work that still tugs the heart-strings three decades after it was filmed.

The 36-episode adaptation of Cao Xueqin’s classic novel of the same name (first published in 1792) was directed by Wang Fulin, and it resonated deeply in China in the mid-1980s, a country emerging from the depredations of the Cultural Revolution yet looking forward tentatively to a new period of prosperity. The show answered a growing need for high quality, domestically-produced television just as TV sets became more popular in Chinese homes.

The preparation work that went into Red Chamber was unprecedented, and is unlikely to be repeated. Back in the 1980s, it was virtually the only entertainment in town – watched by everyone who could do so – meaning there was a dedication shown by the actors that cannot be matched in today’s super-busy schedules. The cast lived together for a year, and were trained on how to walk, talk and drink tea like eighteenth century nobility. The precision and detail was ensured with the advice of scores of “redologists” – academics and critics who devote their careers to the study of The Dream of the Red Chamber (the novel is as well known and revered in China as Don Quixote in Spain or War and Peace in Russia).

“The classic characters are still fresh in our memories. This show was the first that overall Chinese audiences could access. The Dream of the Red Chamber is the classic of our hearts,” gushed the presenter on a recent CCTV show to mark the 30th anniversary of its creation. In an Oprah Winfrey-like format she spoke to the cast about their memories of the period – the male lead, for example, recalled being paid Rmb60 per episode, while the female members of the cast discussed the rigid diets imposed by CCTV. She also interviewed director Wang, composer Wang Luping and screenwriter Zhou Ling, one of the chief redologists working on the script (director Wang recalled that he deliberately hired a young screenwriter to ensure the drama would not be laden with ideology and emphasised that CCTV only went ahead with the enterprise thanks to the support of senior figures in the Party who wanted to signal with the production a definitive break with Mao and his Cultural Revolution– which had attempted to eradicate the Chinese classics).

The Dream of the Red Chamber is a complicated and intricately woven story, against the background of a feudal family’s rise and fall, with strong characters such as the beautiful and wise Lin Daiyu, and Jia Baoyu, who is born with a jade stone in his mouth.

The titles of the episodes highlight some of the complex and tragic themes of the book such as Daiyu Weeps Over Falling Blossoms, The Theory of Gold and Jade, and The Profligate Secretly Takes Second Sister Yu as a Concubine.

The series was shot in Beijing in Mandarin, and was subsequently translated into Cantonese, Shanghainese, and other regional tongues – a first at the time – and aired nationwide.

“Even today, the characters portrayed in the TV show are still deeply imprinted in people’s minds. The show was repeated more than 700 times at all levels and it influenced a whole generation and beyond,” the drama’s original narrator told the CCTV retrospective.

The 1980s version of Red Chamber is almost terrifyingly iconic, and anyone attempting to make a new version of the novel faces intense critical scrutiny.

“These original actors and actresses really conveyed the souls of the book’s character and it never can be performed or interpreted by anyone else as well as they did,” opines online news portal China Whisper, somewhat dogmatically.

Li Shaohong, the director of Baober in Love and The Door, made a 50-episode version of Red Chamber in 2010, and she likened her anxiety about making it to “walking on ice”. When the show aired, the reaction online was overwhelmingly negative, even though some critics liked the different take on the dreamy atmosphere in the text.

“It is like a horror film. It’s always so dark in the room – every character seems to float rather than walk and the music is just frightening,” a 29 year-old woman surnamed Ma, told China Daily.

It was a lesson that directors should tamper with the 1987 version at their own peril. In response, Li noted how there was also some harsh criticism when Wang Fulin’s show was first broadcast, too.

“Wang moved me by encouraging me to do it my way … The Dream of the Red Chamber is such an important book for Chinese, so everything about it raises controversy. I have made the show, and that is a breakthrough already,” she said at the time.

There is a modern message too in the enduring affection for The Dream of the Red Chamber. The novel takes a critical view of feudal corruption, something that will resonate today as the crackdown against graft in public office gathers pace.

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