In the past decade or so China’s TV channels have struggled with the balancing act of showing the politically correct material ordered by the Communist Party’s propaganda department and delivering the entertainment that boosts viewer ratings. As a result, China’s TV was often dominated by patriotic war dramas at one end of the scale and silly reality shows at the other. That’s why I haven’t been a big fan of Chinese television for years.
However, with the rising popularity of internet streaming and social media, and a growing demand for high-quality content, I’m delighted to see the emergence of some tasteful and intelligent programming on traditional television channels and online platforms.
Early last year I binge-watched Langya Bang 琅玡榜, a period drama so beautifully produced that I called it China’s Game of Thrones (see WiC314). I was also a fan of a drama about five distinctively different women in modern Shanghai in Ode to Joy 欢乐颂 (see WiC324) and the recently acclaimed In the Name of the People 人民的名义 (see WiC362), which broke a few taboos in depicting corruption in the government.
A new semi-theatrical format called Letters Alive 见字如面 has been winning millions of viewers in recent weeks. Aired over the past four months on Heilongjiang Satellite TV, as well as Tencent’s video streaming platform, Letters Alive is based on a UK show. It sees well-respected actors like Zhang Guoli, Zhang Hanyu and He Bing read out letters to a live audience while two on-site scholars provide historical and literary comment. During its first season, over 90 beautiful and sometimes heart-wrenching letters were featured – selected from key personalities from two thousand years of China’s tumultuous history.
Hailed as “a breath of fresh air” by many viewers, the series had received 240 million online views as of mid-April, according to China.com, and enjoys an envious score of 9.0 out of 10 on the authoritative Douban review website.
The oldest letter to appear was carved on a wooden tablet by two Qin soldiers, and asked their families for clothes and money. It is dated back to 233 BC. Many of the other letters are by political figures. One memorable one is by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to Chen Jieru in 1920.It tells her that, if she loves her country, she should agree to date him because he was a revolutionary who could save the nation. That’s quite a chat-up line…
There are also letters between friends like the one by artist Huang Yongyu to playwright Cao Yu criticising the latter’s lack of creativity since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Another of the letters from parents to children includes a missive from The Three-Body Problem author Liu Cixin’s to his young daughter which predicts a future without death, windows or homework. Letters written by children to parents included a message from Nobel laureate Mo Yan to his father that told of his homesickness and bemoaned that “All food in Beijing is tasteless”.
I like Letters Alive for its simple yet authentic format, and its historical and cultural connotations. It also has an ability to showcase the enduring beauty of literary correspondence. This is especially meaningful in China today when Sina Weibo and WeChat have replaced letters as the country’s main communication tools. It may also explain why more than 75% of the show’s viewers are said to be 29 or younger – a generation which has probably never written a letter by hand. As one commentator noted of the show: “If Weibo and WeChat communications are like fast food, these letters are equivalent to magnificent banquets from a different and more interesting age.”
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]
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