Costume dramas sing the main theme

Chen Baoguo as the Jiajing Emperor and Huang Zhizhong as Hai Rui.
SARFT last month announced rules requiring China's major television stations to broadcast only "main theme" television (主旋律电视剧) during prime time hours. Wang Weiping, an official with SARFT's television department, provided a rather vague definition - anything "ethically inspiring", including wholesome love stories, may be acceptable; reading "main theme" as party building, economic development, and national reform and opening up is too narrow of an interpretation.

What about historical dramas? January saw several imperial epics - Ming Dynasty 1566 (大明王朝1566), The Zhenguan Reign (贞观之治), and The Great Revival (卧薪尝胆), and over Spring Festival, CCTV-8 will broadcast Qin Shi Huang. That series has been delayed for five years, reportedly because it gave the First Emperor too many concubines (though because it will air at 10:30, it doesn't fall under the new rules).

In a late January feature, The Economic Observer took a look at Ming Dynasty 1566 and how it compared to other historical epics as well as contemporary politics. Here's an excerpt from an essay by EO's Zhong Weizhi, "Ming history, Hai Rui, and the main theme":

As Ming Dynasty 1566 was being broadcast, an official in SARFT's TV show department revealed that starting in February and lasting for at least eight months, all cable TV stations would have to broadcast "main theme" television shows during prime time. As the news circulated, many local stations expressed confusion over the concept, not understanding where the line would be drawn - for example, would Ming Dynasty 1566 be considered main theme? Subsequently, an official at SARFT explained that "main theme" should be interpreted broadly, that it would primarily be a look at the value orientation of a show; as long as a show had a positive, uplifiting attitude toward life and expressed desirable emotions, there would, in general, be no problems. This could be a very innovative definition. Judging from this interpretation, Ming Dynasty 1566 ought to fall under the "main theme."

This is not an imperial drama that preaches reverence for royal power. What it describes is not the "rise of a great nation," but rather the lessons of a great nation's fall. This is the critical era when feudal Chinese society moved from prosperity into decline. Here, we see the corruption of the political system and the loss of humanity, we see the rulers issuing decrees and the insecurity of the common people, and we see the long-absent Hai Rui - he lambasted the emperor, was dismissed from office, and 400 years later even became the fuse that set off the Cultural Revolution - at odds with the bureaucratic system. The show discovers the impotence of morality yet praises moral beauty. It seems to lead us to believe that the just, upright, filial Hai Rui is the backbone of the Chinese people, a representative of outstanding culture, the hope of modern China. There is no question that the Hai Rui of Ming Dynasty 1566 is yet another performance of the "main theme" of the traditional spirit of the Chinese people.

However, in that age of exploding population, a calcified system, slack law enforcement, and an insular country, regardless of how pure or corrupt the officials or how worthy or foolish the emperor, the sun would ultimately set on the massive, once-flourishing empire that had exhausted its potential. Hai Rui used a Puritan-like moral self-discipline and lofty ideals as instruments to transform society, intervening in land rights, placing limits on the brutal gentry, and controlling corruption, but ultimately things could not be repaired, and things even turned out contrary to his desires. Morality evidently cannot replace the rule of law; public opinion cannot replace the rule of law; severe penal codes cannot represent a true legal system. Hai Rui used all his strength to sound the "main theme," but it was the "Guangling Melody"* of the old era, and ultimately never entered the powerful current of modernity.

The same issue of The Economic Observer contained an interview with Ming Dynasty 1566 director Zhang Li, who discussed the political climate surrounding his historical TV projects.

"I first had to take a step back" - an interview with director Zhang Li

Wang Xiaolu / EO

Economic Observer: The current TV broadcast of Ming Dynasty might remind audiences of Toward a Republic. After Toward a Republic aired, people were rather attentive to the issue of censors; there were some problems when it aired, and things were being deleted while the broadcasts were going on. Could you talk a bit about the situation with the censors back then?
Zhang Li: Actually, everything went according to schedule. I was there when it was inspected, they made suggestions as well as edits, and after parts were broadcast, problems arose in connection with evaluation of several key characters - Ci Xi, Li Hongzhang, Yuan Shikai, Sun Yat-sen - actually, in the field of history, there had already been new results in the 80s; the evaluation of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi and Yuan Shikai were solved problems. Our TV series did not go outside those lines. This TV show was given quite a high appraisal by experts on Qing and Republican history as well political historians. Problems arose for other reasons.

EO: What were the deletions like?
Zhang: When deletions came it was already late. Deletions started with the 30th episode, and at first they were relatively minimal, a couple minutes an episode, maybe. At the end, there was one episode that only had 20 minutes left. There was a large soliloquy by Sun Yat-sen near the end - a 12 minute scene that imagined Sun Yat-sen talking, describing the republic using a jacket for illustration. It was cut to nearly nothing. Some things that expressed Yuan Shikai's administrative ideals were also heavily cut; they wanted to make Yuan Shikai more of a stock character. There are already verdicts for people like Li Hongzhang and Yuan Shikai; they are tightly bound to history's pillar of shame, and their cases are not permitted to be overturned.

EO: Was there this sort of problem during Ming Dynasty's review?
Zhang: No. This when filming finished, review took four and a half days, I think. On the last day I attended the inspection, and there were no inflexible opinions. Viewing finished at noon, then lunch, then a meeting at 1:30. By 3:30 the meeting was over, and it had passed unanimously. At 4:30 the director of Hunan TV said, we want it.

EO: I had a thought while watching Ming Dynasty: this TV show was written by Liu Heping; Hu Mei's Yongzheng Court (雍正王朝) was also written by him. That show came under quite a lot of criticism. Yongzheng Court told its story from the position of a person in a pre-modern society, while Ming Dynasty is, at the very least, a look at history through the eyes of a modern person. I think the reason Ming Dynasty is different from the past should be ascribed to the growth of the script writer; perhaps this is also a case of different directors using different means to turn a script into a television show.
Zhang: Yongzheng Court is ten years old - that was back in '97. At that time there was a new authoritarianism; she [Hu Mei] herself thought that society needed tough authority. Perhaps she was affected by that. After Yongzheng Court, she filmed Emperor Wu of the Han, and this was a continuation of her awakening.

EO: Wasn't Liu Heping's script not really like what appeared on TV? Didn't Hu Mei do a great deal of work on it?
Zhang: Liu Heping is a scholar, a man of letters down to his bones. The theme he gave for Yongzheng Court was the problem of household leadership. Later we expressed reservations: first, was this a legitimate theme? Who made you master of the house? In the feudal era, sovereignty was granted by the gods; in a legitimate government, sovereignty is granted by the people. Constitutional monarchy or republic - they are selected by the people. Sovereignty from the gods, from the point of view of the Yongzheng era, is legitimate, but when you put this in the perspective of people today who stand in an era of democracy and rule of law, do you still think it's legitimate? This was the question raised by Toward a Republic; "toward" meant the process of moving toward, but it actually talked about the relationship between legitimacy and political power. There's no need to mention that Yongzheng Court definitely had problems in its politics. But the literary and artistic accomplishments of that show reached a peak for the time around '97. First, Eryuehe's novel was quite well written and, putting aside the political perspective, Liu Heping's adaptation was extremely successful.

EO: You were the overall artistic director, and Chi Xiaoning was the cinematographer at the time. The assessment is that the cinematography was innovative, from the perspective of the development of Chinese TV series.
Zhang: Yes. At the time we got very high ratings. The two producers of Toward a Republic (also the producers of Yongzheng Court) - Luo Hao and Liu Wenwu - why, after those producers shot Yongzheng Court, did we wait three or four years to start shooting Toward a Republic? Actually, the two producers first had to reflect on the theme; the "problem of household leadership" theme had been shot, and we had become aware of the limitations and uncertainties of this theme - bluntly, its ugliness. Later, we prepared three years to shoot Toward a Republic. Toward a Republic was also three words - "finding an exit" (找出路).

EO: When Toward a Republic was airing, I remember there was an article titled "Clear the way for TV series to reform the system". This time, there is another article that says that Ming Dynasty uses historical drama as an aid to government. Evidently when you film TV shows you pay attention to their immediate significance.
Zhang: Of course, otherwise what would you use a historical drama for? If you can't even reach the level of "aid to government," then you might as well make it a farce.

EO: In the past I had guessed that Ming Dynasty was a continuation by the writer of Toward a Republic. Right now there are two areas of influence on TV series - capital and politics - and individual expression occupies just a small portion. So I want to know - in this TV series, where is your individual expression?
Zhang: To me, I start work after I've worked it out. Two years to a cycle - no need to hurry. After two or three years, then express whatever ideas come up. Actually, in terms of outlook, Ming Dynasty is a step back. But I first had to take a step back. It's an obvious step back for me, but it's more concrete than in the past. I've truly considered China's current national conditions, this slow, yet still advancing, institutional reform. Standing still, not slowness, is to be feared. Why did I bring up Hai Rui? The true meaning of Hai Rui is not in his lambasting of the emperor, his honesty as a statesman, or his opposition to graft. The true meaning of Hai Rui is in those words - "Rectify the way of the sovereign, clarify the office of the ministers" (正君道,明臣职).

EO: I've seen the promotions for Ming Dynasty; a culture of honest government is being promoted, but I feel that this point is not as essential as the reflection on the system.
Zhang: Right. We have another idea, too: this film shows joint government by the sovereign and his ministers. Currently there are very few CEO-level leaders; countries' leaders are general managers. Churchill, Kennedy, and Stalin in past eras are few and far between, now; it is the responisibility system, general managers, several-year terms, with a reputation-based board of directors and lots of administrative personnel. In this age it is impossible to have power and the law all to oneself. Law out of the hands of a single individual in periods of history including the Wen-Jing reign [Han Dynasty], the Zhenguan reign [Tang Dynasty] was invariably due to a weak emperor. This weak emperor created a situation in which the sovereign and the ministers shared power. Joint government by the sovereign and his ministers has the potential to bring about stable reforms.

EO: It is said that when you were a cinematographer, you had the habit of taking part in the writing very early on. This series was written by Liu Heping; when did you enter into the process?
Zhang: When the script was being written, he'd write an episode and I'd read an episode. By the time he reached 30 episodes I had a production team put together. Out of all script writers, I have an especially obstacle-free relationship with Liu Heping. On the writing front, he is indeed highly talented.

EO: So you must have a rather deep understanding of that period of history. Otherwise you would have no way of directing the actors.
Zhang: I have this habit - if you want to shoot history, you become an expert on that period. This is a professional requirement as well as a personal requirement. As a director, you have to do three to five times more work; you can't let the actors put you in a corner. Working with everyone was generally pleasant, and the crew was very quiet. The four-story building I lived in held more than 200 people, but there was no sound at night. Everyone could be found in their rooms in the evenings, since we all were under a lot of pressure.

EO: When you turn a script into a TV series, how do you set a tone for it?
Zhang: The theme is the same - actually, when the theme is set, then it's up to how you shoot it. Last year there were 333 series; I watched maybe four or five. There were no problems with the majority of the themes, but few were well-directed. Some were not even professional - there were lots of non-movies shot.

EO: What do you mean by "non-movie"?
Zhang: For example, we tell an anecdote. You tell it lifelike and vivid; I tell it dry and bland, so no one laughs. The same text, the same media, but professionalism has not been reached. It's the same a director - he must have a sensitive grasp on his camera language. I'll give you a specific example. Looking at optical lenses, you often hear 25, 35, 85, 135, 180, 600....why are there so many types of lenses? Why use a 75 rather than a 45 when shooting this close shot? Shooting scale is narrative accent and tone.

EO: You reportedly used fixed lenses to shoot Ming Dynasty.
Zhang: For two reasons. First, when shooting with fixed lenses, image quality is high, since you have optical rather than composition. As for the image itself, the depth of field is close to that of a film, closer to the human eye. Our current lenses for shooting TV shows were designed for news; foreign television shows don't use these lenses. We use them because they are cheap; cinematographers can use higher than 10x zoom to zip in and out. That is one reason. Next is that it basically puts a stop to lazy cinematographers. With fixed lenses, the cameramen must move the cameras themselves.

Note: "Guangling Melody" - 广陵散 - one of the classic pieces for guqin. Listen here (the 20M version is complete); more info from John Thompson's Guqin pages.

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