Posted by Joel Martinsen on Tuesday, September 19, 2006 at 6:15 AM
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(the official Chinglish title would be better rendered as Intrigue; an expanded title is ).
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.