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A recipe for intrigue: an opportunistic novelization, an anonymous blurb, and the censorship board

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Listening to the enemy's wireless

"Plot Against might be the best Chinese television series of the last ten years."

This blurb appears on the back cover of the novelization of the popular counter-intelligence drama 暗算 (the official Chinglish title would be better rendered as Intrigue; an expanded title is 无名英雄之暗算).

The quotation is credited to 新浪网友评论, "A critique from a Sina netfriend", where 网友 basically means anyone who does anything online that you've run across. The remainder of the quotes are attributed to various well-known publications — Beijing Daily, China Film News, and Beijing TV Weekly, for example. Though the authors aren't mentioned, these papers have a certain reputation that stands behind their words. Why did the publishers feel the need to include a quote from an anonymous online source among their pedigreed blurbs? The anonymous online critic may have posted his glowing review on the well-known portal Sina, but anyone can post pretty much anything they wish on Sina.

If we Baidu the line, we can come up with a Sina blog titled "Tired and Worn Out" which has a May post containing the blurb in a review credited to one Nalan Murong. Whether this is the origin of the quote we don't have any good way of telling.

It's not like they really needed the quote, anyway — Plot Against was widely praised as a triumph of suspense and a breakthrough for the director/star Liu Yunlong, especially in today's television climate where practically every new series is a disappointing remake or an expensive, star-studded disaster. The acting is good across the board, the cinematography evokes the 30s, 50s, and 60s nicely, and the pacing is excellent. And regardless of whether it's self-indulgence on the director's part, there is something just plain cool about having close-up after close-up of smoke curling over the lips of a code-breaker who sits stoically listening to Morse code. But the publishers apparently got greedy and lifted a hyperbolic quote from an online nobody.

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"Rooted in but surpassing the original"

Actually, the novelization itself is an exercise in pointless opportunism. The original Plot Against novel was written by the relatively well-known thriller writer Mai Jia (Mao Dun prize nominee) and published in 2003. Capitalizing on the success of the series, World Affairs Press published a TV tie-in version, essentially a quick prose edit of the shooting script.

This is not unusual; many dramatic series have novelizations, one chapter per episode, that appear for a month or two before vanishing from bookstore shelves. In this case, however, it seems that the publishers were in too much of a hurry to inform the original author about their plans:

Following the popular broadcast of Plot Against, Writers Publishing House recently put out a television novelization of Plot Against. Although the authors listed on the novelization are scriptwriters Mai Jia and Yang Jian, Mai Jia himself was completely unaware of this book. The editor responsible for the book, Liu Yingwu, explained that the the book was 300,000 characters longer than the original, revealing many interesting things that were not originally present.

In an interview with Mai Jia, he turned out to be unaware of the book's publication. He said that it was probably done by the Beijing Oriental Union Film and Culture Company, which filmed Plot Against, since the other listed author Yang Jian directs that company and participated in the novel's script adaptation. On the telephone, Mai Jia was both angry and pessimistic. "There's nothing I can say. Since they've put my name on it, they should have at least let me know."

Why did the author of a television novelization not know of the appearance of the book? Liu Yingwu explained: "We signed a publication contract with Oriental Union, since that company had acquired a lot of the rights of the book, including the television novelization." They put Mai Jia's name on as author because the television series had been based on his novel, and the novelization had its origins in the television series, meaning that it contained quite a bit of Mai Jia's creation. But he emphasized that the novelization of the television series was done by Yang Jian, and Mai Jia had no part in it.

People's Literature Press also sought to take advantage of Plot Against's popularity through a re-issue of some of Mai Jia's older novels. Presumably he was aware of this edition.

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The Taiwan edition

In 2004, a traditional character edition was published in Taiwan, the enemy against which these anonymous heroes are scheming in parts of the novel. It's unlikely that a fictionalized account of the exploits of Taiwanese intelligence against the mainland would be publishable over here, even in a bowdlerized version.

Even patriotic counter-intelligence is sensitive stuff. Mai Jia's first novel about code-cracking, De-Code (解密), was temporarily pulled from shelves until a panel of experts determined over the course of 8 months that no national secrets were leaked. And of course the TV version of Plot Against had to navigate SARFT's oh-so-accommodating censorship process. Director Liu Yunlong relates the story:

We cooperated on this series with the Sichuan State Security system; at the time it was an "industry series". Industry series need to be examined by that industry before being submitted to SARFT for review. After we had reached the end of filming, we received a phone call from the State Security Department requesting an examination.

At the time I was very nervous — working hard to film this thing, I was afraid of problems, of not passing the inspection. The review was performed by several high-level officials in the State Security system who all had incredible stories of their own. They sat there silently and watched; at the beginning they had some ideas, and I was worried. After they finished watching the whole thing, the few leaders stood up and were quite moved. They gave this evaluation: it incisively shows off the revolutionary romanticism of the comrades of the state security department....I got very emotional then, and couldn't help shedding tears.

Since we had a memo from the state security system, we had an easy time with SARFT later on.

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The original novel

One Internet commentator (posting on Sohu under the name SwimmingSwim), in the midst of laying bare the series' many flaws, identifies one bit of subversion SARFT appears not to have caught:

There is a bit of meaning to the aliases of underground Communist Party members, like "Poisonous snake", "Bull", "Hen" [and "Attack dog"]. In the past in movies from socialist countries, aliases for one's own side were shining, lofty, imposing, and always praiseworthy: "Yangtze River", "Taishan", "Diamond", "Azalea" and so forth. The enemy's code-names were always made to humiliate them, scrawny, sneaky, generally derogatory, and often poisonous: "Old fox", "Old poisonous snake", "Cobra", "Owl", "Fieldmouse", "Gecko" and so forth. Plot Against has completely up-ended and reversed this, giving things an entirely new feeling.

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There are currently 4 Comments for A recipe for intrigue: an opportunistic novelization, an anonymous blurb, and the censorship board.

Comments on A recipe for intrigue: an opportunistic novelization, an anonymous blurb, and the censorship board

Oh yeah, Plot Against is my favorite. The third story -- about kuomintang and the underground zhonggong -- is my favorite.

Well, I have to say that I don't like too much skill to be used in this film. It's interesting, attractive, unique, showing the director's personal style, but the scenario has to many logical mistakes.

I have always found it interesting that a language with many noun/verbs (Chinese) would have such trouble rendering such constructions into English, another language with a lot of noun/verbs.

"A plot" vs. "to plot" - discuss...

A more accurate rendering of the title, if you want to keep the word-for-word aspect, which most Chinese-English translators seem to, would simply be "Plot" -- since you can't have one without it being against something or someone.

I personally prefer Danwei's "Intrigue" -- but that would never get past any producer's English-language-major girlfriend, who is, after all, always the final arbiter on these things.

Ant: I'm not too bothered by the historical complaints, myself. Characterization-wise, the two heroes are too pure, too idealized, too selflessly devoted to the revolutionary cause, but somehow it works within context. On the other hand, women's roles in the series are something of a disappointment.

Shan: The Chinese title has a simple explanation, really: look up 暗算 in an electronic dictionary like Kingsoft, and sure enough, the first definition is 'plot against.' Of course, given English-language TV conventions, it'd probably get called something like 'The Code Breakers' or even 'Division 701' if it were shown in the States.

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