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March 15, 2011

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Mistress and mortgages - It's all in the family in Chinese TV dramas

TWENTY years ago the TV series "Desire" ("Ke Wang") catapulted the family drama to nationwide prominence with its story of an ordinary woman's struggles with love, family and friendship.

Produced in 1990, it was set in the period of sharp contrasts, the 1960s to the 1980s, from the tumultuous "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) to China's reform, opening up and prosperity.

Leading actress Zhang Kaili, who played Liu Huifang, also became an overnight star. In the 56-episode series, Liu is first torn between two men who both love her - a factory director and a university graduate who is an ordinary worker. After she marries worker Wang Husheng, Liu again finds herself torn by the choice of whether she should give her daughter Liu Xiaofang, an abandoned girl, back to her birth parents.

Throughout the series, Liu endures hardship and acts with selflessness, a "typical good Chinese woman" as many viewers said.

Since then, no matter how times change, stories about ordinary family issues have been the most popular genre on Chinese television. They are more popular than period dramas, thrillers entertainment and dating shows.

They are often concerned with seemingly trivial issues, such as relations with neighbors, but they also emphasize family bonds, traditional ethics and values.

They address eternal issues such as strife between a wife and her mother-in-law and more current issues such as pressure on children to succeed; pressure on young people to marry; pressures on single children and caring for elderly parents; pursuit of money and quick riches; the impossibly high cost of housing that makes marriage virtually impossible for many young men; lovers, mistresses and other interlopers.

Last year China produced around 14,000 episodes of TV dramas, but it's the heartwarming family dramas that create the most buzz, according to a recent TV/film industry seminar held in Shanghai.

"It's not a surprise to sees preference for family dramas," said Tian Tao, vice president of CTR Market Research, during the seminar. "Compared with spy thrillers, historical series, idol dramas and the chuan yue or time-travel shows, the family drama caters to a larger audience."

Chinese viewers are more enthusiastic about these dramas than Western viewers are about shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "Growing Pains," according to Tian.

Most viewers are people in their 40s and 50s who have lived through major turns in Chinese history.

Nevertheless, hit Western family dramas and sitcoms such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" are much edgier and creative, taking on issues such as gay friends and making gay people important characters. Conflicts are sharper. Family members are more outspoken and independent and seek creative problem solving, rather then simpler compromise.

In China today the family dramas have a lighter touch than in the 1990s when they tended to be ponderous and have a narrative style.

Critics and media experts say the boom in family dramas is not just a fad and predict they will endure since the family structure is undergoing major transformations as the nation itself is transformed.

The topics of tension and conflict are endless.

"Experienced directors and scriptwriters often use big themes and social changes as a backdrop for daily lives with pots and pans," says Professor Wu Gang, an expert in film and TV from East China Normal University. "The audience can easily relate to the realities and pressing social issues."

For instance, the popular 50-episode series "Golden Wedding" ("Jin Hun," 2007) by Zheng Xiaolong reviews 50 years of marriage of an ordinary couple who lived through the ups and downs of modern history.

It follows them from when they were young lovers to grandparents during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), the "cultural revolution," reform and opening up, the rush to go overseas, the SARS epidemic (2003) and the stresses of the market economy.

"Plays about ordinary people's emotions and destinies can resonate deeply with the audience," he said in an earlier interview.

Of course, there are fun family TV dramas about child-rearing issues, but the target audience is usually limited to younger people.

Crystal Wu, a 40-year-old office worker, says watching family dramas has given her tips and helped her deal with her own marriage and the relationship with her daughter-in-law.

Like the character in the 2006 series "The New Age of Marriage" ("Xin Jiehun Shidai"), Wu married a "phoenix man," a rural-born person who goes to university and lands a good job in a city.

In the series, magazine editor Gu Xiaoxi from an intellectual family marries He Jianguo who leaves his country hometown for Beijing for study and work. Conflicts and fights never cease as relatives and friends from He's village keep coming to Beijing for visits - and Gu finds these visits highly disruptive.

"I used to be frustrated about the sharp differences between us in thinking and lifestyle," she says. "The TV drama teaches me to respect cultural difference and be more tolerant and patient."

Family matters aside, the hot social issues addressed in TV dramas appeal to all ages.

The hugely popular of "Snail House" ("Wo Ju" 2009) was the first-ever family drama in China to take on the issue of rocketing housing prices and the problem of becoming fang nu (a house slave, burdened by a mortgage). It generated debate over buying houses beyond one's ability to pay and tapping parent's and relatives' funds.

Housing is so out of reach, that one character, after agonizing over morality and leaving her boyfriend, decides to become the mistress of a rich man to help her elder sister buy a house. The mistress issue is controversial today since more and more men of means are keeping and lavishing money and benefits on mistresses and their families.

"I reflected on the meaning of life after seeing the tragic ending of the drama (the rich man is killed in a car accident and the mistress sister loses everything)," says Wu Bei, a 30-year-old fang nu herself. "Inner peace and happiness are more important than material things."

"A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era" offers a brand-new interpretation of the relationship between mothers-and-daughters-in-law - one that's not filled with conflict but mutual appreciation.

"The strong family bonds in this TV series moved me a lot," says Xu Ziyan, a retired teacher and a mother-in-law. "This relationship used to be a nightmare for many Chinese women and was considered the hardest to deal with. But this program showed us it needn't always be a war."

All the successful family dramas have one thing in common: They are largely based on conflicts between traditional values and modern reality in China.

Professor Wu from East China Normal University says there's a stark contrast between traditional values and the requirements of modern society. The definition of what it means to be a success and lead a good life are different.

"In stressful times, audiences seek psychological comfort, relief and reassurance from heartwarming family-themed TV series," he says. "Hopefully they remind people to learn to trust each other again."

An upcoming Shanghai Media Group production will be a light-hearted family drama titled "Life of Two Cities," about a native Beijing woman's long-distance marriage with a Shanghai man. Long-distance love and China's north-south cultural divide are popular topics. The series is to be aired in November.


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