During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) the capital Chang’an (today Xi’an) was one of the largest cities in the world and a starting point of the ancient Silk Routes. Arabic, Persian and central Asian traders travelled there, and some settled and married locals. These immigrants are thought to be ancestors of the Hui people, the second largest Muslim community in China. They have much in common culturally with the Han Chinese, aside from the religion inherited from their ancestors.
Fast forward a millennium and it’s a Chinese visitor to Iran who has been reigniting the Silk Road ties: in this case, an actress starring in a popular Iranian drama.
The Capital tells the story of a truck driver from a village in northern Iran and has been popular since its inception in 2012. But it became more of a talking point in its third season two years ago when the plot featured the marriage of the Iranian man to a Chunchang, a Chinese waitress he meets on his way to Iran from Turkey.
Chunchang is played by Zhang Menghan, a Persian-speaking PhD candidate at the University of Tehran. Recommended by her teacher for the role, she has now overtaken the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as the best-known Chinese face in Iran.
“Seven out of 10 can recognise me when I go out in Tehran. Many people want to take photograph with me. I can’t even go to the supermarket,” Zhang told Chengdu Economic Daily.
The popularity of Zhang’s role in The Capital even inspired shooting for season five to move to Beijing late last year. The new plot line sees Chunchang go missing, leading her Iranian husband on a journey that takes him to the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square.
Friendly diplomatic relations between Beijing and Tehran may help to explain some of Zhang’s celebrity status in Iran. Despite international sanctions on Tehran’s nuclear programme, China kept up robust trade ties, buying Iran’s oil and investing heavily in Iranian roads, factories and infrastructure (this week Washington announced new restrictions against telecom equipment maker ZTE for alleged violations of US export controls on Iran).
Iran also plays an important role in President Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. In fact, it wasn’t long after Xi’s visit to Iran earlier this year that the Chinese media began to report more extensively on Zhang’s success.
“A fan told me on the street that Chunchang has given her a lot of happy times,” she told the Beijng News in another interview. “When season three of The Capital was aired, the Iranian currency had depreciated a lot because of the economic sanctions imposed by the West. The jobless rate was climbing. It meant a lot for many Iranians to see a foreigner taking part in one of their TV series and speaking the Persian language.”
Zhang and The Capital may foster more exchanges between the two countries. “In the TV drama my Iranian husband calls me ‘my China doll’. Now Chinese wives in Iran have this common nickname,” she told China Daily.
There is no official data for the number of Sino-Iranian intermarriages. But Zhang is convinced her TV union is just one of many in real life: “China has strengthened economic cooperation with Iran, and there are many Chinese women married to Iranian men too. Television drama is a reflection of reality.”
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