CHINESE REALITY TV: POPULAR DATING SHOWS AND SUPERGIRL IDOLS

CHINESE REALITY SHOWS

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Super Girls
Weird shows found on Chinese television have included a World’s-Strongest-Man-style show featuring teams of midgets; a game show that pitted families against one another in series of stunts that left the losers either inconsolably upset and bickering at one at the end of the show. In September 2004, one television station held an e-lottery to determine the death toll in school siege tragedy in Beslan, Russia, which left hundreds of schoolchildren dead.

Reality shows are very popular in China. “Ying Zai Zhongguo” (“Win in China”) is a reality show inspired by Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” which features fledgling entrepreneurs presenting ideas to a panels of judges that has included some of the best known names in Chinese business such as Jack Ma of Alibaba.com.. The winner at the end of th run of the show is awarded $1.3 million in seed money from a venture capitalist to start the business and he presented it.

The judges on “Ying Zai Zhongguo” grill the entrepreneurs on their ideas and evaluate them as they compete in teams and perform tasks such as rasing money for a charity or coming up with a solution to a business problem. Contestants on winning teams come back for the next show. Those on the losing team go through various other trials to decide who comes back and who goes home. In the “PK,” or “Player Kill”, segment two contestants face off against one another issuing questions, challenges and taunts under a timing and buzzer system with the audience at the end determining which player gets “killed.”

"China's Got Talent” has featured armless paino players, disabled modern dancers and break-dancing migrant workers, has been a hit since its launch in July, despite skepticism among some viewers about whether all the participants' stories are genuine. The Dragon TV program is drawing attention to the hopes and challenges of the disabled and otherwise disadvantaged in China.

Sun Ganlu, a writer and arts critic in Shanghai, said that, whatever the commercial motives behind "China's Got Talent," the show is raising awareness in a positive way. "The fact is that people are touched by these great performers, regardless of whether they are disabled or poor," he said. "They are struggling in life compared with others, but they also have hobbies and talents to get them through their tough lives." "It helps people be more aware of whether we are doing too little to help these people," he added.

More Reality Shows in China

In January 2007, the government began cracking down on “vulgar reality shows. The television talent show “The First Time I Was Touched” was banned because a bizarre stunt involving a contestant who insulted and then gave a present to a judge.

“Lovely Cinderella” is a Chinese version of Fox TV’s “The Swan”. Produced in Changsa in Hunan Province, it shows guests undergoubg cosmetic surgery and enduring extreme makeovers. Some of the footage is quite graphic: showing fat being sucked out, scalpels carving up a face and the face swollen during the post-operation recovery. In one episode a women is shown moaning to her husband for more anesthesia while on the operating table and throwing up in her hospital room because she misses her five-year-old son. [Source: AP]

In July 2006 China imposed a ban on television and radio advertising of products that promised breast enhancement, weight loss or increased height. The Beijing news service reported: “Recently some medical organizations have exaggerated the results of treatment provided using experts and previous patients on television commercials to mislead others."

Interest in Chinese Reality TV Wanes

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CTS Super Game Crazy
Press Conference

Reality television singing competitions, the once king of reality shows on China's small screen, are losing their bite, the China Daily reported. Li Hao, director of the editor's office, Hunan Satellite Television, says talent shows, where participants not only sing, but also dance and present mime and acrobatics, help create a more multifaceted stage. In addition, he says dating shows and TV recruitment programs are popular because they fulfill to people's demands. "Today, finding a decent job or a suitable date may be more important and meaningful than being a singing star," Li says. But the fading appeal of reality television singing competitions is not just a matter of the growing popularity of other kinds of reality shows. [Source: China Daily September 8, 2011]

Han Naiqing, senior researcher with China Radio and Television Association and a veteran reality TV programmer, says shows such as Super Girl must take most of the blame themselves. Han points out that most contestants in recent years have been run of the mill, and are no match to the early stars such as Li Yuchun and Zhang Liangying. "When a reality singing show cannot identify and celebrate people with a stunning voice, how can you expect people to watch it," Han asks.

Han says considering the fact that Chinese TV programmers lag behind their Western counterparts in creating an original show, it is more advisable to buy the copyright of a foreign reality show than to copy it.

As part of the Got Talent franchise, China's Got Talent receives assistance and guidance from its British producers. Likewise, Southeast Satellite Television's Happy Choir, a reality singing show that puts the spotlight on chorus singing and is based on BBC's Last Choir Standing show, is able to leverage BBC's professional expertise, Han says. "It is better for us to learn how to do a reality singing program from our Western peers after buying the copyright. This also applies to other kinds of reality shows," he says. "Before creating an original show, it's important to understand how to run a show well."

Sex and Psychotherapy on Television in China

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A show called “(Really, Really Want to) Talk About Love” has billed itself as the "Chinese Sex in the City." The show is not explicit about sex but it can be very suggestive and is very popular in Shanghai. “Sex and City” reaches a large audience through pirated DVDs.

“The Mask” is a half hour show that consists of frank discussions about sex with guests who hide their identities by wearing masks. The show is meant to be educational and inform the public about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases and other rarely discussed sexual topics

On late night television there are a number of “infomercials” with scantily clad women advertising exercise equipment of breast enlargement products. A television talk show shown on a Qinghai provincial television station featured two Chinese women as guests. They talked about their boyfriends. One had a foreign boyfriend and talked about the wonders of his large penis. The other talked about the inadequacy of her Chinese boyfriend and said he could use a penis-enlarging tonic. Following the discussion was an advertisement for the aforementioned tonic.

Such “sexually suggestive advertisements” were banned in 2007. A total of 1,466 advertisments worth $240 million were taken off television and radio for containing “sexually provocative sounds or tantalizing language as well as vulgar advertisements for female underwear.” An earlier ruling banned shows about cosmetic surgery and sex changes as well as radio shows that discussed sex and drugs.”

left Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “A few years ago, Chinese television launched a program called "Xinli Fangtan"---"Psychology Sessions"---in which people sit at a heart-shaped table and talk with a therapist about their troubles. It provides a running tally of the side effects of the national growth spurt: bankruptcy, extramarital affairs, gambling, health-care costs, unemployment, loneliness. Unlike Americans, who can look comfortable divulging details of their private lives on Dr. Phil's stage set, the guests on "Psychology Sessions" favor earnest, if hasty, disguises. One woman told her story from behind a large pot of bamboo. A couple and their young son wore oversized baseball caps and sunglasses, which made them look like a blind family at a ballgame. The titles of the episodes are crafted to drop a scrim of propriety over the indignities of modern life: a dysfunctional rich family tells its story in "Millions of Wealth, Millions of Hatreds"; the sad tale of an affair is titled "An Encounter with My Husband's Close Female Friend." [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 10, 2011]

Dating Television in China

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One of the most popular television shows in China is a matchmaking program called “We Meet Tonight”, which is sort of a cross between the “Dating Game”and a talent show. "We receive very few applications from young women who are willing to appear as contestants," the host of the show told the New York Times. "The men are much more bold about agreeing to appear. And they are bold because they have to be."

Viewers are encouraged to write in for a date with contestant. "Maybe a man who appears on the show will get 30 letters," Ms. Yang said. "But a woman will get over 50, sometimes 60. Sometime many more. Our record holder is a 24-year-old woman who got more than 500 letters." The show’s host claims he has set up several hundred marriages.

If You Are the One , Chinese Dating Television Show

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screenshot from
"Wise Man of Chinese Characters"
“Fei Cheng Wu Rao” (“If You are the One”), a matchmaking show, was one of the most popular television shows in China in 2010. It attracted viewers with its frank comments by guests and racy jokes by the host. It broke viewership records in the first half of 2010. More than 50 million people tuned in. It prompted copycat programmes by other broadcasters and attracted huge interest from Chinese overseas; some students on American campuses even filmed their own versions. It increased the nation’s cultural influence, which China’s leaders crave.The high ratings of such programmes and their relatively low production costs meant bigger profits for the satellite TV stations. But regulators, however, saw red over the sensationalist and ''vulgar'' content. [Source: Xiyun Yang, New York Times, July 18, 2010]

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “If You Are the One,” is set up like a tribunal. Twenty-four single women stand behind brightly lighted podiums and pepper a potential male partner with questions. Directing the talk is Mr. Meng, a bald, witty former news anchor. His sidekick is Le Jia, a younger, slimmer (but also bald) man dubbed the show’s “psychological analyst.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 1, 2012]

Produced by Jiangsu TV and first shown in January 2010, “If You Are the One” , stirred up controversy from the start and quickly became the most watched reality television program in China. Xiyun Yang wrote in the New York Times, “In each show, 24 women are presented with a parade of eligible bachelors. The men are subjected to abrasive questioning and ego-deflating sound effects of rejection. The entire process, 30 minutes in taping, is edited down to about 10 minutes on screen. The result is what might happen if The Bachelor and The Gong Show produced an offspring with attention-deficit disorder.”

“Courtship tended to focus on financial matters, and the decisions were swift and ruthless. Personal introduction videos were stamped with owns car, house (or the unfortunate opposite) on the bottom half of the screen.” In one “episode, a woman said to a potential 33-year-old suitor, You say you’re good at what you do, but then how can you still just be a salesman?...Another contestant, the 20-year-old son of a wealthy businessman, showed off his multicolored sports cars and bank statements that indicated a balance of six million renminbi (about $884,000).”

There were also questions about the credibility of some of the participants that included people who said they were PhD holders, models, restaurant owners and emergency workers. One contestant who said she entered the show in the search of true love was in fact and intern for the show’s producer. The male contestant who said he had 6 million yuan was rumored to an ordinary university student. There also accusations that contestants who said they were single were in fact married and several women were models. “If You are the One” was not the only Chinese reality show to come under question for being real. Hunan Satellite's Womenyuehuiba (Let's Date) had a contestant rumored to be an intern at the channel. [Source: Global Times]

“Viewers flocked to the program for its off-screen scandals as well as for the on-screen romance. Producers were accused of making up life stories and using actresses as contestants. After every offensive comment or awkward moment, video clips quickly appeared on Web sites. As the ratings of the show climbed, its critics became louder and more numerous, calling it a frightening window into the degradation of social values.”

History of If You Are the One

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Wang Peijie’s idea for what would become the most-talked-about show in China was simple: Throw a spotlight on this country’s bright young things as they court each other on stage to pop music and audience applause. The men boasted of their bank accounts, houses and fancy cars. The women were svelte and sassy, dousing suitors with acid putdowns. But mixed into the banter were trenchant social issues that urban Chinese from their 20s to 40s grapple with, if not always so publicly: living together before marriage, the unabashed pursuit of wealth or the government’s one-child policy. “Through this show, you can tell what China is thinking about and chasing after,” said Mr. Wang, a veteran television producer.

One of its original goals was to push the limits of what could be discussed on Chinese television. “We hoped there would be some clashes between different ideas,” Mr. Wang said. The show was conceived in cigarette-fueled talks between Mr. Wang and Xing Wenning, a media entrepreneur now with the Hearst Corporation. In the fall of 2009, Mr. Xing, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia, was working for Fremantle Media , owned by Bertelsmann, and his task was getting Chinese stations or production companies to buy the rights to adapt foreign television shows. One of FremantleMedia’s properties was “Take Me Out ,” a dating show popular in Britain. Mr. Xing approached the two most adventurous stations, Hunan and Jiangsu.

Mr. Wang at Jiangsu was receptive. He had worked at the station since the late 1980s and had witnessed the industry’s transformation. In 1997, satellite television was established, allowing some provincial stations to broadcast nationally and compete with CCTV for advertising money. CCTV and provincial stations had increased production of entertainment shows around that time. “Competition is fierce among the top few stations,” Mr. Wang said.

Mr. Wang said he wanted a new dating show to capitalize on the concept of “leftover girls” and “leftover boys,” career-oriented people without a partner, a hot topic in China. The show, too, would be a window into the lives of the “rich second generation,” the children of China’s new money. Hunan beat Jiangsu in the bidding for “Take Me Out.” But Mr. Wang pushed ahead with his version, which Unilever had wanted to sponsor.

The first episode aired Jan. 15, 2010, and set the tone. “Any woman who comes with me won’t have to worry about her livelihood,” said the first male contestant, Zhang Yongxiang, 23. His family ran a factory with more than 1,000 workers. A video showed off his large apartment, white sedan and endless rows of clothing. Other male contestants had their incomes advertised in graphics on their videos. Later in the episode, a female contestant in red, knee-high vinyl boots and a tight black dress performed a chair dance that would not have looked out of place in a strip club.

But serious issues wormed their way into the talk. Women interrogated Mr. Zhang on why he clung to a traditional mentality of wanting to sire at least one son. “Today’s youngsters dare to express themselves,” Mr. Wang said. “You can’t be authentic if you don’t dare to express yourself.” The show’s notoriety surged after one contestant, Ma Nuo, rejected a man with her “cry in a BMW” remark. Ms. Ma got thousands of messages from fans and critics alike. Supporters said she was only publicly voicing what many women think. Ms. Ma, 23, said in an interview that producers had told the women not to spare the dignity of the male contestants. After the BMW comment, “Because they saw that I was outspoken, they wanted me to say more controversial things,” she said.

On another episode, Zhu Zhenfang brushed off a suitor by saying that any man who wanted to shake her hand had to pay 200,000 renminbi, almost $32,000, because “my boyfriend must have a monthly salary of 200,000" renminbi. Another woman, Yan Fengjiao, made the headlines when nude photographs of her appeared online.Viewers swarmed to the show. By May 2010, its ratings were second only to those of the CCTV evening news, which all satellite stations are forced to carry. China Daily called it “morally ambiguous and visually electrifying.” Copycat dating shows sprang up, ones that were even more explicit.

If You Are the One Censored

Things were going well for “If You are the One” until June 2010 one of the contestants crossed the line and said wanted a rich guy with a flashy car and the censors moved in and said the show would be yanked off the air unless the sexual innuendoes were cut and traditional values were promoted. The move was part of a larger campaign nationwide and across many sectors to get rid of pornography, clean up the media and the Internet, and stop the corruption of young people. [Source: Xiyun Yang, New York Times, July 18, 2010]

The offending female contestant was asked by a possible date whether she would like to go for a bicycle ride. “I’d rather sit and cry in the back of a BMW,” she said. Another woman was asked for a handshake. She said: “Only my boyfriend gets to hold my hand. Everyone else, 200,000 renminbi per shake,” or about $29,475.

After that the show was given a makeover. Xiyun Yang wrote in the New York Times, “Gone are fast cars, luxury apartments and boasts of flush bank accounts. Now the contestants entice each other with tales of civic service and promises of good relations with future mothers-in-law. One show now uses a professor from the local Communist Party school as a judge.”

“Ma Nuo, 22, the woman who professed to prefer crying in a BMW over riding a bike, denied in an interview that she thought too much about money. She said the producers played up her comment for publicity. I only wanted to reject him, but in a creative way, she said. Men began sending Nuo marriage proposals attached with pictures of themselves in BMWs. She did not write back to them. She chose a photographer as her date on the show.”

“The shows are now forbidden to hype up marginal issues, show the ugly side of things, or overly depressing, dark or decadent topics, according to the directive. Instead, the shows have to maintain core Socialist values. Some dating shows, like Zhejiang TV’s Run Toward Love, were canceled. All have toned down references to material wealth and sex.”

One new episode, Yang wrote, “Gao Fang, 23, enthused about his volunteer work during the Olympics, which led Yang Yi, 24, to fight back tears as she talked about taking care of disabled orphans. Ratings have slumped since the changes. One netizen said, “Volunteering” How fake is that?...Who doesn’t ask about houses and cars these days when looking for someone to marry? [Source: Global Times]

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CTS Super Game Crazy Press Conference

Crackdown on If You Are the One

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “But reality television proved too real for the censors. Disturbed by the program’s revealing portrait of Chinese youth and the spread of copycat shows, they threatened to cancel it. Producers raced to overhaul the show. They brought on older contestants and added a third host, a matronly professor from the provincial Communist Party school. “We’ve had more restrictions on expressions on the show, to eliminate remarks that could have negative social impact,” the Mr. Wang told the New York Times. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 1, 2012]

Censors were not amused. In June, the heads of the Jiangsu and Hunan satellite stations were both called to Beijing for a meeting with SARFT officials. “They were quite harsh,” said one person briefed on the meeting. The message was simple: Tone down the shows or face cancellation. The agency issued two edicts. One said: “Do not humiliate and assault participants in the name of dating; do not discuss vulgar topics involving sex; do not hype materialism and other unhealthy, incorrect viewpoints on marriage; and do not air the show without censorship and editing.”

Zhejiang Satellite Television canceled a dating show. For a time, it looked as if all stations might have to do the same. One person on the set of “Take Me Out,” the Hunan show, recalled a producer telling the entire cast and crew: “I might get a phone call at any minute, and all of you will have to pack up and go home.”

Fans of “If You Are the One” immediately noticed the changes when the June 26 episode aired. Most obvious was the addition of a third host---Huang Han was a mother who taught psychology at the local party school. All the female contestants had been replaced. The new ones were more subdued. So were the male contestants. And there was no mention of their incomes. “We started to choose older participants who have a stronger desire for marriage,” Mr. Wang said.

Each episode now had to be reviewed at least six times in-house before broadcast, one person said. The producers still asked the hosts to steer talk toward social topics, but more subtly. “The comments made by contestants weren’t as incisive as before,” said Guo Wei, 34, a longtime fan. Mr. Wang said he hoped the censors, when they whittle down the entertainment shows, keep in mind that “If You Are the One” made changes when asked. The show now tries to win ratings not through fiery dialogue, but by promoting itself online and bringing on overseas Chinese contestants. On the show’s Web site, all the episodes from the show’s first half-year have been deleted. “Our show,” he said, “is one that obeys the rules.”

At a recent taping of “If You Are the One” in a Beijing studio, Wong wrote, a male contestant, Wang Yan, 23, told the women on stage that he appreciated women who wore silk stockings. The women grilled him, to the delight of the audience. That turned into a discussion of the sizes of women’s legs. “Do you prefer S- or M-sized women? asked one of the female contestants, Zuo Teng’ai, a single mother. “I’m sorry, I really have no idea about the difference between the two,” Mr. Wang said. The main host, Meng Fei, chimed in: “Is she asking whether you like S-and-M?” ?I didn’t ask him about S-and-M!” Ms. Zuo said. The audience laughed and applauded. But the exchange was excised from the episode that aired Nov. 12.

“If You Are the One” dropped in ratings after censors forced it to change its format last year. But Mr. Wang and his crew have found ways to keep it the top-rated variety show. When the parent station, Jiangsu Satellite Television, held its 2012 advertising auction in November, “If You Are the One” earned an astounding 82 percent of the station’s total haul of $345 million.

Jiangsu wants desperately for censors to allow the 90-minute show to remain in its Saturday and Sunday prime-time slots. The station is cutting a half-dozen other entertainment programs, Mr. Wang said, and is developing shows that promote “social responsibility.” But some wonder whether censors will show leniency. People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, ran a commentary in October that lamented the negative influence of two shows. One was “Super Girl,” an influential talent show that had been repeatedly punished for being “vulgar” since its 2004 debut on Hunan Satellite Television. It was suspended in September. The second was “If You Are the One. “Some programs seek novelty as their objective,” the article said. “They rely on peering into the privacy of others to achieve that, and they hype money worship and pleasure-seeking, which have aroused the antipathy of the audience.”

Chinese Game and Idol Shows

There are many celebrity games shows in China that are similar to game shows made in Japan and Taiwan. One such show, “Test Your Talent”, was hosted by a former reporter for Real Estate Information, who also had been the voices for Sean Connery and Gregory Peck in foreign films dubbed into Chinese.

In 2006, the government passed regulations limiting American-Idol-style shows to 2½ month runs and said no more than three satellite television shows could broadcast them during the same time slot. In September 2007, the government banned voting by mobile phone on American-Idol-style shows and bumped such shows off of prime time. According to 1½ page order issued by SARFT the action was taken because the shows “suffered" from “problems of cheap tone, betraying the fundamental position of being positive, healthy and striving for improvement, damaging the image of television broadcasting.” Happy Girls 2009 is one the Chinese version of American Idol that appeared after the ruling.

Super Girl

The Chinese version of “American Idol”--“Supergirl Idol”--has been enormously popular, attracting up to 400 million viewers, nearly a third of the population of China, with many of them voting for their favorites with text messages. The winner of the contest, Li Yuchan, who received 3.5 million text message votes ahead of 3.2 million for her nearest rival, became so popular she took the No. 6 spot on the Forbes list of China’s hottest and richest celebrities.

The sponsor of “Supergirl Idol”, the milk company Mengniu, saw it sales increase fivefold while the show was aired. “Supergirl Idol”, which originated on a Hunan satellite channel, was so successful that in August 2007 the Chinese government labeled the show “coarse” and shut it down. The crack down, Beijing said, was part its campaign against the declining quality of television programming but many think that it was really shut down over worries by the government that viewers being allowed to vote for favorites on a television show could lead to demands for democracy.

By that time American-Idol-style talent shows had became all the rage in China. By one count there were of 50 of them on satellite television at one time and dozens more on regular television. One of them, “Happy Boy Voice”, was criticized by the government in April 2007 for showing screaming fans and tearful losers. The show's producers was told to broadcast more “healthy” songs and “mainstream” clothes and to remove “vulgarity, weirdness and low taste.” A statement released by SARFT said, “The design of the show is coarse. The judges’ behavior lacks grace....The songs performed are vulgar.”

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Transgendered Super Boy

In May 2010, people were not sure what to do about a transvestite who appeared the show “Super Boy” singing a song wearing blue stockings, white heels, and a colorful dress. One of the judges said: “I am still suspicious about your identity. Can we examine your gender?” “How do you examine?” [Source: Shanghaiist May 5, 2010]

According to to Beijing List the contestant in question was Liu Zhu, who was born a male in Nanchong Sichuan and was a student at theSichuan Conservatory of Music. The judges appear to be at a loss of what to do next -- but it seems that, by and large, netizens are supportive of Liu Zhu's participation (Annie Rose's cynicism notwithstanding). Liu Zhu's Baidu Wiki page also indicates that he has long been accepted by his friends, family and teachers -- and that he identifies as a “she.”

Super Girl in Its Eighth Year

Although Super Girl, a trail-blazing reality show hosted by Hunan Satellite Television and China's answer to American Idol, has entered its eighth year, many viewers feel the program has become boring and is incapable of replicating its earlier success. "Super Girl-like reality singing shows are everywhere on TV now," says Che Xudong, a die-hard fan of reality shows, who works for an advertising agency in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. "But good singers are so few."

Says Li Hao, director of the editor's office, Hunan Satellite Television, "Let's face it. The heyday of reality singing shows is over. "Super Girl (which became Happy Girl in 2009) spawned a number of similar shows on other stations, including CCTV (China Central Television). (So) it is natural for audiences to be less passionate about the program. It has been on the air for too long. Besides, other novel shows have come up contributing greater variety to China's reality TV programming," Li adds, referring to other talent shows, dating shows and TV recruitment programs, such as Dragon TV's China's Got Talent, Jiangsu Satellite TV's If You Are The One and Tianjin Satellite TV's Only You.

The other problem with these shows is the quality of the judges, Han explains. "A judge with a tongue as sharp such as Simon Cowell's can greatly enhance a show's influence and boost its rating," he says, adding the popularity of the dating show, If You Are The One, owes a lot to its bald-headed panelist Le Jia, whose comments are always full of witticisms. In contrast, the judges of reality singing shows, Han says, have either little knowledge of music or spew such empty talk that it is embarrassing to watch. One way out of this mess, Han says, is to have programmers set the bar high for both contestants and judges so that the audience does not feel cheated.

In September 2011 censors told Hunan Satellite Television to take the popular talent show Super Girl off the air. They said the show, which featured women of all ages in a singing contest, was ''too long''.

Imag Sources: Chinese DVD and video rental webites such as China Culture Network

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2011


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