Maintaining Purity in the Midst of Filth
Maintaining Purity in the Midst of Filth
by ZHANG BingZhejiang
International Studies University
Front. Lit. Stud. China 2014, 8(3): 492－512; DOI 10.3868/s010-003-014-0025-4
In his story “The Vegetable Garden,” Shen Congwen depicts the cabbage-raising Yu family by employing many different images of purity. When describing the potentially communist youth who sacrifices himself at the end of the story, for instance, Shen writes that “a young person’s heart is as pure as the feather of a dove.” For many years ever since, every time I see that sort of wonderfully pure character in a theme drama, this evocative metaphor comes to mind.
These days, however, these sorts of positive characters have become fewer and further between, and we instead often hear about actors who want to play the villain. When filming The Way of the World is Changeable (Renjian zhengdao shi cangsang), for example, two of the actors playing communist heroes apparently wanted other roles: Sun Honglei requested the part of Yang Liren, and Sun Chun preferred the character of Dong Jianchang. This should really come as no surprise, given that in the past thirty years the “good guys” in our literary and artistic productions have often been excessively predictable and vacuous, coming nowhere near the meticulous complexity of the villains.
Sometimes, one can really fret for the heroes of theme dramas. If the villain—we’ll call him Mr. B—is both handsome and evil and, aesthetically speaking, everything else is just right, where does this leave the upright and virtuous Mr. A? A theme drama like Traceless Snow (Daxue wu hen) presents Mr. A with just this sort of predicament. When the series was aired in 2000, the “Mr. B” character, Zhou Mi, sparked a lot of debate: A brand-new image of a corrupt official, he was both intelligent and cultured, and remained charismatic through hardship. As far as I know, this popular series—in which the main theme was anti-corruption and crime-fighting—marked the first time the image of a corrupt official was presented with such sparkle and shine. Even the feelings of the female protagonist wavered between the upstanding yet stern police officer Fang Yulin and the charming deputy mayor Zhou Mi. Fortunately Fang Yulin, who was actually quite handsome and trustworthy, eventually came out on top. Most impressively, he was even able to win the hearts of high school girls.
Some people say that when observing an era, one must look at the standards by which girls select their boyfriends. From shows like Traceless Snow to Living Like Snails (Woju),we can see not only the changes in the general image of the evil government official as represented in Chinese television, but also the changes in the ways that female characters choose their lovers. Occasionally I will notice something strange: How, for instance, could the corrupt official Song Siming become so enticing and defeat the pure, kindhearted Xiao Bei?
But let us return to theme dramas. The heroes of television series are becoming less and less able to live up to their ideals. Is this then to say that the problem is not just with the creation of the shows themselves, but with our own lives? I don’t think, however, that we can discard these sorts of theme dramas so easily. Although it is becoming progressively more difficult to play positive characters, there are still those actors who portray both the steadfastness of believers and the serenity of those who aspire to follow the Way—take, for example, the pureness and clarity of the character Qu En, played by Sun Chun, in The Way of the World is Changeable. Actually, the earliest example of Sun Chun’s talent appeared in the historical drama For the Sake of the Republic (Zou xiang gonghe), for which he gained over 30 pounds in eight months to play the role of Yuan Shikai. By the end of filming, Sun Chun’s wife had become enamored with his character, telling him “I don’t like you, I like that fatty!” Moving on to play the same role in the film China 1911, Sun Chun had nearly become a specialized actor. The role in which I most admire him, however, is that of Qu En. Indiscriminately drawing upon the logic of Beethoven, we could say that while contemporary film and television has many roly-poly Yuan Shikais, there is only one Qu En.
Just look at him there, cloaked in swirling plumes of incense smoke, examining the intricacies of the Hunan peasant movement with a group of Whampoa students; or placidly sitting on the floor under the threat of bayonets, instructing former students on matters both personal and ideological; or crying amidst the din of battle, “Those of you only looking to get rich in a government post, you have no business here! Those of you who only care about saving your own hides, stay behind!” I truly believe that there really were many people who were this pure and honest in 1920s China. Thanks to the persuasive power of such illustrious leaders, countless youths were called out of their desultory existences to enter into a great new era, forming a whole host of Yang Liqings. After all, isn’t one of the tasks of theme dramas to find the best way to communicate conviction?
Yes, “conviction.” The director of Soldiers Sortie (Shibing tuji), Kang Honglei, was once asked to describe the main character Xu Sanduo in one word. After a short, thoughtful pause, he gave his answer: “conviction” (xiangxin). These days, doubting is much easier than believing. Our directors can portray complicated characters with a dark subconscious and profound human weaknesses, but can they film positive characters that can fill people with conviction? Can the KMT villain of a National Day special release like Autumn Happiness (Qiu xi) ever say to a secret communist agent, “you’re so pure and honest!” without being laughed off the screen?
The problem is that not even the producers themselves believe that such purity can be attained in today’s China. In The Seal of Love (Qiu zhi baihua), for instance, the director needed to get Dou Xiao to play Qu Qiubai, as if only this Canadian-raised emigrant could convey a sense of revolutionary purity. After reading online blogs written in obsessively geeky, over-the-top, or willfully carefree styles, and looking at all sorts of cold, cruel, and meaningless youthful existences, I am tempted to think this is the case. When We Were Young (Qia tongxue shaonian), however, makes me think otherwise: This revolutionary model opera, which took Mao Zedong, Cai Helin and similar figures as its main characters, conveyed a youthful vitality and an atmosphere of brightness and clarity. Most surprising was the fact that such a clean and uplifting group of young actors like this could still be found in 2007, which gave me a new respect for Mango TV. A handsome young presenter from an entertainment series, for instance, became the broad-minded visionary Xiao Zicheng in When We Were Young.
What exactly is the magic that can draw out the actors’ purest qualities? The characters in the series are certainly not complicated by multiple considerations, as the show presents only one side of the leadership. But just look at the group of handsome and talented young Hunan students reciting in unison An Ode to Young China (Shaonian Zhongguo shuo),or Cai Helin and Liu Junqing in the classroom vehemently debating the duties of the teacher, or Mao Zedong saying outside the doors of the hospital,
No, this is all too unreasonable, this all must change. I believe there will come a day when I can enable all Chinese people—whether man or woman, urban or rural, rich or poor—to be able to buy medicine, and to have their illnesses treated....
These moments, I think, truly capture the core of history. Perhaps Xiang Jingyu is too much like the impetuous women in Korean dramas, and Tao Siyong a bit too much like a sentimental depressive from a Qiong Yao drama, but when comparing When We Were Young to other model youth productions, there is still a world of difference. Nobody could have predicted how much the show appealed to young people, who posted comments on the internet such as, “even thought it’s an attempt at brainwashing, I have to admit that I still get totally into it.”
This statement can be approached from the opposite direction: Perhaps in a historicized context, a certain portion of the audience is not really concerned with the actual facts of revolutionary history; this, however, does not detract from the ability of this history to once again move and excite people today. When We Were Young once again proves that we really possess rich resources, which we can continually draw upon to provide what appears to be a rotting heart with infusions of fresh blood. When you try to enter into the depths of history, history itself reveals its power. I heartily recommend that every primary and middle school teacher watch When We Were Young—there you will find conviction, and there “the youth of China have hope.” Even though I’m a huge fan of Super Girls (Kuaile nüsheng), I still must say to Mango TV: Super Girls can be done away with, but When We Were Young is a necessity. Our malnourished youth is too much in need of this infusion.
Calvino once said that the important thing is not to keep oneself apart from dust and smoke, but to live amongst it. Only when one lives in the midst of grit and grime, breathing in smoggy air much like this morning’s, can one really recognize the substance of a problem and have a chance at solving it.
What I’m trying to say is, today’s theme dramas must exist in the midst of filth while maintaining their purity.
This purity is not water that is easily polluted, nor is it snow that melts as soon as the sun comes out; even Shen Congwen’s dove feather appears a bit too fragile. It should be an “endless stretch of clear water and white rocks.” Purity and steadfastness are of the utmost importance, drawing out our power to resist reality. Perhaps the question of what a theme drama really is must come under discussion. At least on a metaphorical level, there can be no doubt that in these tumultuous times we are in need of the purity of theme dramas to help us maintain a positive world.
I still believe this is possible.
 Translated from Chinese by Todd W. Foley.
 Zhuxuanlü yingshiju. This refers to a work of television or cinema from Chinese mainland that promotes the general ideals of nationalism, socialism, and advancement. This and all following footnotes have been added by the translator.
 My own translation. For the titles of movies and television shows, I have provided my own literal translations if none appears to be in widespread use.
 Played the part of Yang Liqing, an officer in the CPC.
 A KMT officer.
 Played the part of Qu En, a communist revolutionary and military instructor for the Whampoa Military Academy.
 A crafty leading figure in the National Revolutionary Army.
 Mainland production directed by Lei Xianhe.
 A 2009 series directed by Teng Huatao based on a novel of the same name.
 A 2011 film directed by Zhang Ling and Cheng Long commemorating the Xinhai Revolution.
 A youthful revolutionary character in The Ways of the World are Changeable known for his personal conviction and sense of righteousness.
 A Mainland series aired in 2006.
 2009, dir. Sun Zhou.
 2011, dir. Huo Jianqi.
 A 23-episode television series directed by Gong Ruofei and Jiana Shaheti.
 The popular nickname for HunanTV, which comes from its round, orange icon.
 An essay by Liang Qichao published in Qing yi bao in early 1900.
 A contemporary Taiwanese author famous for her romance novels, which have been adapted to a number of films and television series.
 A televised talent competition for female singers, aired by Hunan TV.