“The female Jack Ma”

New drama about Shaanxi’s most famous businesswoman tops TV ratings


She’s the gold mine of Chinese television: actress Sun Li

At last weekend’s Emmy Awards many of the shows that took home the biggest prizes were female-centric series like The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, and Veep. “It’s been an incredible year for women in television,” Reese Witherspoon, an executive producer of Big Little Lies, declared, accepting the award for the series. Her co-star Nicole Kidman urged her colleagues to create “more great roles for women”.

China has produced plenty of television fare with strong female leads. First there was Red Sorghum, which starred actress Zhou Xun in 2014, and then there was starlet Fan Bingbing’s The Empress of China. More recently, Princess Agents, which featured newcomer Zhao Liying, broke records as the most-watched domestic TV drama online (accumulating 40 billion views), says Yulezibenlun, an industry blog.

Since late last month, another drama with a strong female protagonist has grabbed headlines. Nothing Gold Can Stay, starring actress Sun Li, is a primetime winner for Shanghai’s Dragon Satellite TV and Jiangsu Satellite TV. The historical drama is also the highest trending topic across social media, generating over 21 billion tweets on Sina Weibo, and on Douban, the TV series and film review site, it received a strong rating of 8.4 stars out of 10.

While critics had predicted the star power of Sun would boost the series – her past hits include Legend of Zhen Huan (2011), Hot Mom! (2013) and The Legend of Mi Yue (2015) – the show’s popularity and its impressive word-of-mouth promotion still caught many by surprise.

“Stunning cinematography and a superbly crafted production. Finally, we can enjoy a series that is not about overly melodramatic characters,” one fan gushed on Douban.

“Most costume dramas feel so heavy but this one is so lively and so fun. It breaks the mould on the subject matter, giving audiences a fun and relaxed viewing experience,” the People’s Daily added.

Nothing Gold Can Stay is based on the story of Zhou Ying, a strong-willed woman from Shaanxi who inherited her husband’s salt business. Defying societal expectations that women should stay at home and raise children, Zhou resuscitated the flagging business and even expanded her empire into silk and tea, which soon made her the richest woman in the province.

“The moment we came across her story we found her irresistible,” says producer Zhao Yi. “How did a woman thrive during a period of chaos in the late Qing Dynasty and turn around a family business that was on the brink of bankruptcy to become the richest woman in Shaanxi. Moreover, she also had a great reputation and was widely recognised as an upright businesswoman. This is why the story is so compelling.”

However, the producers admit that the screenplay was hard to write. For a start, even though Zhou is a well-known figure from the past, there was little historical record to base the narrative upon. The producers admit that apart from Zhou’s husband, all the other characters in the biopic are fictional.

Sun, too, acknowledges that her character was challenging to play. To hear the actress describe it, Zhou was something of a tomboy, getting into physical altercations with men. She was “a bit like a sassy girlfriend, probably the most disobedient woman in the entire city,” the actress suggests.

The success of the series will provide some relief for its producer HS Vision, which knows that the show might give a crucial boost to its upcoming initial public offering on Chi-Next. “The success or failure of Nothing Gold Can Stay will seal the fate of the company’s IPO,” predicted Yiyu Guancha, another entertainment blog.

According to the prospectus, HS Vision invested Rmb210 million ($26.89 millio) in the series, no small sum for a firm with a spotty track record in finding winners. Apart from backing actress Zhao Wei’s directorial debut So Young, which went on to become the second biggest domestic box office opening in 2013, other films like Time to Love (2015) and The Third Way of Love (2015) were disappointments. There were even rumours that the production company was short of funds when Nothing Gold Can Stay ran over budget midway through filming. But based on the early rushes, it was able to cover the production budget before the series aired. Tencent Entertainment spent Rmb178 million on exclusive online broadcasting rights, while Shanghai’s Dragon Satellite TV and Jiangsu Satellite TV paid a combined Rmb115 million for the right to air it on television.

Meanwhile, the popularity of the series has made Zhou Ying into much more of a household name, earning her the moniker among netizens as the “female Jack Ma” of her age.

Others see her life story as something of a business school case study. “Zhou Ying was extremely savvy. She also had her own management philosophy, developing processes on how she ran her business. What’s even more impressive is how she managed to pool together resources. For instance, she allowed her employees to own shares in the company. This is something that has become a hugely popular way to raise capital today. For someone in the late Qing Dynasty to come up with this idea, no wonder many people think that she could time-travel,” reckoned Daily Headline.

The show’s success certainly bodes well for the forthcoming IPO and may even inspire a new generation of female entrepreneurs too…

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