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TV Hero
Television programs are usually broadcast in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles so that people who speak other dialects can understand what is being said. As one surfs the channels in China one finds travel and wildlife programs, soccer games, song-and-dance shows, Chinese soap operas, dating shows, game shows, Chinese war movies with Japanese often being the bad guys, and Chinese versions of American idol.

There were about 13,000 television shows produced in 2009, 40 percent more than in 2001. Many television dramas deal with themes linked to the Sino-Japanese war era, many of which have strong anti-Japanese sentiments and are made with the aim of strengthening the legitimacy of the Communist government. On the positive side for Japan they have created a number of roles for Japanese actors. The Chinese government has banned some Korean shows.

Popular Chinese television shows in the 1990s and early 2000s included “True Encounters”, a Jerry Springer-like show that featured quarreling couples and other s that “showed their emotions openly”; “Ordinary Chinese People”, which once featured a episode about a beautiful woman raped by the father of her boyfriend; and “Kong Fansen”, a documentary about a Chinese cadre who spent his life "serving the masses" in Tibet.

In recent years freewheeling reality shows and costume dramas laden with political intrigue have become very popular. “Fashion China”, a show on Guangxi TV which features highlights from fashion shows around the world, consistently ranked as one of the top five shows nationally in China in the late 2000s.Traditionally, the most popular show of the year is the annual Spring Festival variety show, which is watched by an estimated 800 million Chinese during the Chinese New Year holiday.

It has been argued that “Journey to the West” — a 16th Chinese novel featuring a traveling monk accompanied by a monkey god, sand priest and pig spirit — is the most popular television show in China as it has appeared in so many versions and forms on TV. YouTube is banned in China

When Chinese television produced a version of “Ugly Betty” — called “Ugly Wudi” — newspapers and internet users complained that the star of the show was too good-looking for the role. According to the Oriental Morning Post, one of the cast had said that Ugly Wudi was so “extremely ugly” he did not have the words to describe it. But when the show's star appeared for her first press conference yesterday, “many thought she was in fact a beauty” behind her braces and frumpy clothes. The actress’s agent said the actress prepared for the role by putting on 10 kilograms and sunbathing to get a tan. Her efforts did not impress potential viewers. By early afternoon almost 3,300 comments on the show had been posted on the popular Baidu website — with some suggesting the show should be renamed “Pretty Wudi.” [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, September 19, 2008]

Television Programming in China

There are many celebrity game 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 recent years Chinese broadcasters have become increasing freewheeling and independent, pushing the line of what censors have deemed acceptable.

Television programming is controlled entirely by the state. Decisions about what programs are shown and censorship are handled by The National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), formerly the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT, 1998–2013) and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT, 2013–2018), s a ministry-level executive agency controlled by the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

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Chinese cooking show
In May 2004, SARFT issued guidelines to local stations required TV anchors to refrain from dying their hair strange colors and wearing bizarre clothes, ordered celebrities to not wear trendy clothing and Western fashions and told television station to show less foreign programming that does not fit China’s ‘social system and national conditions.” In 2007, SARFT instructed CCTV and other networks to limit prime-time programming to “ethically inspiring TV series “that could “reflect the reality of China in a positive way.”For an eight month period preceding the National Party Congress meeting in the autumn of 2007 the Chinese broadcasting monitor call for only “ethical inspiring “television shows to be broadcast during prime time as part of the effort to promote national harmony and “ensure a better television environment.”

One producer told the New York Times, "Government control is not the main problem for the entertainment business. The main problem is quality. Writers, especially, don’t know how to entertain people. Too many people in China — not just the Government, but producers and directors too — still think that main purpose of television is to 'educate' people. They want to tell people how to live their lives, which is kind of stupid."

River Elergy

River Elegy was an influential six-part documentary by Wang Luxiang, and co-written by Su Xiaokang, shown on CCTV in June 1988. It appeared about a year before the Tiananmen Square demonstrations during a period of post-Mao openness and portrayed the decline of traditional Chinese culture. Rana Mitter, Professor of Modern Chinese History at Oxford, said the series was perhaps the most influential TV series of all time given how it introduced critical views of China to such a large audience. [Source: Wikipedia]

Another famous historian Geremie R. Barmé wrote: “Heshang” (River Elegy) exploited the medium of television to present its own highly controversial view of Chinese history and its contemporary relevance. Seen by a number of critics as a natural corollary to the style of reportage and faction that had become increasingly popular since 1985, (58) 'River Elegy' also introduced to a mass audience some of the most unorthodox debates of the cloistered academy. This marriage of mass media and pop scholarship had an immense impact throughout China. Although the series was virulently denounced after June 4 1989, and its writers variously purged, detained or forced into exile, it has led to many imitations which in turn reflect a number of political and intellectual agendas. [Source: Geremie R. Barmé, History for the Masses, moringsun.org]

“River Elergy” among other things criticized the Great Wall of China,, saying that it "can only represent an isolationist, conservative, and incompetent defense," and that the Ming Dynasty's isolationism and emphasis on being land-based civilization led it to China being defeated by Western maritime states, backed by modern sciences, during the Opium War period in the 19th century. The Yellow River was the analogy of of China’s one robust civilization that later dried up due to isolation and conservatism.

River Elegy caused an uproar in China over its negative portrayal of Chinese culture. Rob Gifford, a National Public Radio journalist, said that the film used images and interviews to state that the concept of "the Chinese being a wonderful ancient people with a wonderful ancient culture was a big sham, and that the entire population needed to change." Gifford said that the Yellow River symbolizes China’s decline rather than the greatness ancient Chinese culture. Using the ancient Chinese saying that "a dipperful of Yellow River water is seven-tenths mud," the documentary makers argued use the river's silt and sediment was a metaphor for how Confucian traditions caused China to stagnate and hope traditional culture would end and be replaced by a more modernized and open culture.

In Focus

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TVG4news reporter
“ In Focus” was a popular 60-Minutes style muckraking show that was on every evening for 15 minutes at 7:38pm. Watched by 300 million viewers and launched in 1994, it featured reporters sticking microphones into the faces of corrupt officials and investigated controversial topics such as domestic violence and the flouting of pollution laws by factories. Although many controversial topic were addressed some topics such as forced abortion and the status of dissidents were still off limits.

Zhu Rongi, China's Prime Minister from 1998 to 2003, said he watched "In Focus" every night and sometimes showed taped segments from it during his meetings. The show gained such a reputation that many people said, "If you have a problem, don’t go to the police or the Communist party, go to 'In Focus'."

"In Focus" and other news magazine shows like “Oriental Horizon, Probe” and “Beijing Express” use hidden cameras and in-your-face interview tactics. They walk a dangerous line of investigating corruption and scandals, often involving Communist party members, but not digging up anything that might offend Communist party leaders.

Humor on Chinese Television

Michael Keane wrote: “Humorous moments are few and far between in the slate of TV serials that fill TV schedules. Drama reflects the importance of relationships, a central theme in East Asian society. Serials are predominantly melodramatic family affairs typified by shouting, crying and recrimination. Another popular genre is history. One of the most resilient themes is the retelling of Chinese resistance to Japanese imperialism; as one might expect there is not much humour on show. On the other hand, recreations of dynastic history allow satire and black humour; often this is a reflection on contemporary issues. [Source: “Are Chinese people less creative than people in the free world?”,Michael Keane, is Professor of Chinese Media and Communications at Queensland University of Technology., Creative Transformations, June 2013]

“While there are other outlets, formats are limited and censors keep a close watch on edgy material. One popular format is the ‘skit’ (xiaopin: literally ‘small taste’) in which ensemble casts of comedians and cross-talk (xiangsheng) actors perform to a live audience. The content of these performances invariably concerns peoples’ fraught relationships; for instances misunderstandings with authorities, tangled relationships and problems with regulations.

“Puns abound as performers exploit the richness of language and China’s traditional values. In some respects this is not unlike the blues: and there is no doubt that it has cathartic effects. There is a need for release. Situation comedy formats (sitcoms) are rare in Chinese TV schedules although Zhao Benshan, a master of the skit format, has managed to cleverly integrate comedy into family dramas, in the process nurturing an ensemble of performers.

“The other area where one finds humour is games and celebrity chat shows. These are a dime-a-dozen; every TV channel has such offerings and unsurprisingly there is considerable homogeneity in formats. Wanna-be talent contests and skill challenges are a staple fare. Celebrity banter and advice is punctuated by the insertion of squeaky noises, a background ‘boom-tish’, the equivalent of a laugh track.

“Where does humour go in China’s media, other than into these specified formats and genres? The answer is online. China’s internet is the site of carnivalesque pleasures, to use a metaphor recycled by academic researchers. Spoofs (egao) abound as do playful appropriations of government slogans. Satire and parodies of authority, exploiting a heavy dosage of puns, photo-shopping and word plays, are the currency of China’s new creative communities, the online masses.

Domination of Anti-Japanese War Dramas in China

left About 100 anti-Japan films and nearly 70 TV programs were produced in 2013, according to Reuters. By some estimates that meant that the anti-Japanese genre held as much as 70 percent of the film and television market that year.

Philip J. Cunningham wrote in the New York Times: “China, the late 1930s. A village is under siege by Japanese troops. A band of Chinese youth who would not look out of place riding skateboards in contemporary Beijing waits in ambush, guns in hand. As a sinister Japanese troop transport hurtles toward them, the hip Chinese guerrillas use a trip wire and an improvised explosive device to set off a blinding explosion. The bomb fails to kill all of the Japanese soldiers, who are bent on revenge as the episode comes to an end. But there is little suspense: Everyone knows that China will prevail.[Source: Philip J. Cunningham, New York Times, September 12, 2014]

“This scene from “Enemy Troops at the Village Gate” is one of the many dozens of virulently anti-Japanese wartime dramas airing this season in China. Despite waning viewer interest, the new season promises much more of the same. The government has ordered TV stations to increase the airing of “patriotic” shows, of which anti-Japan dramas are exhibit No. 1. On Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender, a headline in the Global Times, a party newspaper, said, “Prime time TV to be more anti-fascist.”

“China has a long tradition of producing war movies for propaganda purposes, mostly good-versus-evil dramas drawn from the all-too-real and brutal war against Japan. The classic of the genre is “Tunnel Warfare,” produced in the 1960s and seen by billions of Chinese, which depicts resourceful Chinese insurgents outsmarting Japanese invaders by digging a network of tunnels. In recent years, such government-sanctioned dramas have taken off, fueled by increasing tensions between China and Japan, and Beijing’s strategy of stirring up nationalism for domestic political purposes.

“With the collapse of Communism in all but name, nationalism has become China’s new ideology, and antipathy to Japan, past and present, has been seized upon as a way to shore up patriotic fervor. A common enemy is presumed to promote unity, and provides a useful political distraction at a time when China is burdened with domestic discontent and economic unease. Propagating popular suspicion of Japan also offers political cover to the Chinese military, which is rearming and expanding air and sea patrols at an alarming rate while using the perception of a Japanese threat to justify its actions.

“The surge in anti-Japanese entertainment is the result of business decisions based on the financial realities of dealing with state-run TV stations, which operate in service of the Communist Party. Quite simply, production companies have learned to churn out shows that are most likely to make it past the censors. Producers pump out dramas that pay lip service to the party line in return for easy green-lighting and distribution deals.

“But when the government acts as midwife in the marketing of nationalism as entertainment, there can be unintended consequences. “The genre, ridden with clichés, sex, flying kung-fu kicks and impossible feats of violent valor, has become something of a joke among Chinese viewers. When a bare-handed hero splits an enemy in half, top to bottom, while another downs enemy planes with hand grenades, the deluge of scorn and mockery on social networks indicates how badly the propaganda has backfired.

Television Comedies in China

One of the most popular show in the late 1990s was “Chinese Restaurant”, a situation comedy about a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles with colorful cast of characters that included a manager searching for a rich husband, a head waiter that loves her, an overweight chef, a hapless chef and a whole coterie of incompetent waiters. “Huayao Bride in Shangri-La” was popular romantic comedy in the mid 2000s about a village dance teacher that has trouble controlling his free-spirited wife.

“Our Lives” is a Chinese version of “Friends”, with a sophisticated book editor and handsome computer programmer as the central characters. Instead of hanging out at the Central Perk coffeehouse they hang at Fat Mama's Noodle Shop. The actors got paid $120 per episode as opposed to the $1 million the American actors in Friends received. “I Love My Family” is a Chinese version of “All in the Family” that pokes fun at an old fashion party cadre. Other popular shows have been based on “Cheers, The Cosby Show” and “Three's Company”.

Zhou Libo is a popular comedian with a following across China. He is known for using the Shanghai dialect and making jokes about Shanghai. In February 2010, “Mr Zhou Live Show” received the highest national ratings of any television show during the Spring Festival, weighing in at a whopping 7.62, according to CSM Media Research. The program borrowed heavily from the American Late Late Show by CBS. Economic and political issues were the main material in Zhou’s talk show. Yao Ming, the popular basketball player, was a star guest. Zhou lampooned current events such as the real estate market, Obama’s visit to China, A(H1N1) and Spring Festival transport. On the show, Zhou has dropped his Shanghai dialect in order to make his humor more accessible to a wider audience. [Source: Zhang Cao and Zhao Yi, Global Times]

Pulling the Plug on Popular Chinese Shows

The Chinese version of Saturday Night Live and !, a talk show hosted by Taiwanese celebrities Kevin Tsai and Dee Hsu, are shown exclusively on the video streaming platform, In July 2018, the shows were yanked off the air for no apparent reason. [Source: Jiayun Feng SupChina, July 16, 2018]

Citing an insider, Sina reported that the two shows were taken off because parts of their material needed “adjustments.” ! Was back on the air soon afterwards but Chinese SNL didn’t make it back. A total of three episodes were aired. “We are striving to improve ourselves to live up to your expectations. Remember to laugh when we meet again!” the show said on Weibo after it was pulled.

SupChina reported: “In addition, the latest episode of Chinese Restaurant 2, a star-studded reality show produced by Hunan TV, didn’t air on its scheduled date of July 13. The television station later announced that the show was postponed due to “some adjustments in the program’s arrangement and production.”

“This wave of cancellations, whether temporary or permanent, comes just as” Chinese government media regulator launched a campaign to crack down on TV shows “that do harm to teenagers’ health.” On July 10, the media watchdog issued a notice ordering online video platforms to cut down their production of reality talent shows, especially those that require public participation through paying to vote. But it now seems that the clampdown is affecting a broader scope of television shows.

Children's Television in China

Many Chinese parents try to prevent their children from frivolously squandering their time watching stupid shows on television. On his single child, one advertising salesman in Shanghai told the New York Times, “We don’t allow him to watch too much TV. I’m not against cartoons. But I try to encourage him to watch documentaries on dinosaurs and the Second World War. These programs are useful to his study.”

According to the New York Times: “Youth programming in China tends to be conservative and pedantic. It consists mostly of quiz shows, team competitions and endless lineups of youngsters dressed uniformly, standing erect and answering questions..There are no rock fashion shows and no Chinese-made SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Shows for children in China have names like “Reading Books", Studying the Arts", Seeking Answers to 100 Questions", "Chess Boy” and “Visiting Schools”. A show aimed for 13 to 14 year olds called “The Big Windmill” featured government officials punishing hotel owners for overcharging guests.

The Chinese version of “Sesame Street” is very popular in China. Produced the Children's Television Workshop and Shanghai Television, it features a Da Niao (Big Bird), Hu Zhu ("Puffing Pig"), and Xoao Meizi ("Little Plum"). The show includes some American-produced segments that the Chinese producers chose themselves and Chinese-produced skits that have minorities and teach Chinese values and democratic ideas. On the Chinese version Sesame Street the Muppets like opera and revere the philosophy of their ancestors. There was some discussion about replacing Big Bird with a big panda but in the end producers of the show decided to stay with Big Bird.

Broadcasts of “Sponge Bob Squarepants” began in January 2006. Nickleodean’s The Kid’s Choice Awards was allowed to go on the air. The episodes in which kids voted on their favorite burp was cut. In August 2006, the government decided to ban foreign cartoons such as “The Simpsons, Pokeman” and “Mickey Mouse” from prime time television to give Chinese animated shows such as Monkey King a better chance at success.

Image Sources: Wikicommons, Amazon 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 May 2022

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