Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Friday, December 11, 2009 at 4:00 PM
The series Narrow Dwellings was first reported in the foreign press by Sue Feng at the Wall Street China blog. She wrote:
The series has drawn a lot of criticism as well as recommendation (for an elaboration of the plot, skip to the Time Weekly article translated below). The former for its poor script and one dimensional characters, and the latter for its social commentary, which focuses on people of different social statuses, nailhouses, corrupt officials and mistresses, all wrapped up in the setting of a consumerist metropolis. There are edited versions of Narrow Dwellings on Youku and broadcast on TV. For lines that have been deleted for its "bone-baring" (露骨) directness about sex see the video from this Qianlong report, which doesn't appear on the online Youku series. First aired on Jilin TV, it stopped airing on BTV Youth Channel (北京青少年电视台) after 10 episodes. SARFT denied having stopped its run.
Narrow Dwellings comes from the Chinese phrase 蜗居, which has a variation of usages, mostly to mean "humble abode." Usages of the term can be found in the Yuan and Qing dynasties. Narrow Dwellings has been used in this post instead of Dwelling Narrowness, which is being used elsewhere and on the official poster for the drama.
Not only is the drama a description of life in a metropolis, but its script has come under attack by SARFT, who approved the script to begin with.
Netease (via Qianlong.com) reposted SARFT's announcement to limit TV dramas next year to under 30 episodes. The department director of TV dramas at SARFT (广电总局电视剧司管理司司长), Li Jingsheng (李京盛), criticized on 9 December that Narrow Dwellings is popular because, "It uses the topics of sex and officials to raise its profile."
In addition the TV dramas department has declared that from next year onwards, TV dramas cannot be take more than 40% of the entire list of programs, especially on provincial TV stations. Furthermore, the department director criticizes the competition between different provincial channels to broadcast My Chief, My Regiment (我的团长我的团). However, whether these actions will have an affect is yet to be seen.
There has been a proliferation of content about Narrow Dwellings in the Chinese media, forums and blogs. Aunt Bear (熊阿姨) at my1510 wrote down some of her thoughts about watching about six episodes:
Blogger Zhuang Dikun (壮涤坤) wrote about the series, via KDnet:
Newspaper reports on the subject have been increasing, including those in the China Daily and Global Times (see Links and Sources section below). Time Weekly, which is financially backed by the Guangdong Publishing Group, ran a lengthy piece on the show. It expounded on the core ideas of the show as well as elaborated on the "ant clan" (蚁族) － university graduates who live in settlements on the fringes of big cities, looking for jobs and living on small budgets. It also likens Narrow Dwellings to previous television dramas such as Struggle (奋斗), which shows off rich second generation students able to live flashy lifestyles, highlighting the wealth gap in China's big cities. The article from Time Weekly is translated below.
Narrow Dwellings: Awakening the pain of the timesby Yu Ying (喻盈) and intern Guan Xiaolei (关晓蕾) / Time Weekly
"A blood case that started with a house," "A cruel story of sexual plundering," "Anyone at the bottom rung of social benefits should be evil," "Do you call getting a mistress real love?" "The sadness of the Chinese education system"... These titles which comes from different angles, but all are Douban comments on a TV series which used the metropolis as its subject. On the Tianya forum, Narrow Dwellings is the "focus" top headline; on Sina microblog the topic has been hot without dropping; and on one of the most important internet social communities of Chinese higher education: Newsmth, discussion around Narrow Dwellings has been put to the top of the top ten best posts list － not only is the focus on discussion about the series' different sections: the working world, family, love, real estate, cars. There is even a section for jokes, so that that the craze around Narrow Dwellings is still ensuing.
Why is Narrow Dwellings so popular? From a superficial level, it's the continuation of a collaboration between director Teng Huatao (滕华涛) and 66 (六六), who in the past worked on Shuangmianjiao (双面胶) and Wanggui and Anna (王贵与安娜). The style remains the same: from details in the home and the small pieces of reality and conflicts that occur in a marriage, to then trying to refract the dispositions of an era; with plenty of asides, the characters' internal fluctuations are directly manifested, the layers of the characters' world where sadness and happiness meet are peeled away. But in this case, their ambition is blatantly bigger than in the past. In Narrow Dwellings, the story of three couples is set in the metropolis of "Jiangzhou." Starting with housing prices that rocket like a roller coaster, then going onto corruption in official circles, taking mistresses, deals made between officials and businessmen in the real estate world, demolishing and removing nailhouses, underpaid university graduates, white-collar "house slaves," all these hot topics and current social problems. Teng Huatao says, "Idealistically 66 and I want to use Narrow Dwellings to create a small history of China from 2002 to 2009."
Writer Xiao Fuxing (肖复兴) writes, Narrow Dwellings is a sting aimed at reality, revealing the "cruel and hateful destruction buying a house is for the emotional value system of a generation of people." In the series, sisters Guo Haiping (郭海萍) and Guo Haizao (郭海藻), coming from a small town, scored enough to enter a famous university in the coastal city of "Jiangzhou," after graduation they dream of buying a house in the city and settling down. Haiping and her husband starts off by living in a small, 10 sqm room for 5 years, after their daughter was born, the problem of owning a house becomes an urgent matter. But real estate prices are getting higher day by day, sadly, not their salaries. There are more problems than they can cope with. Haiping suggests that they can borrow money from their parents. Her husband finds it hard to ask, thus they borrow high-interest loan, causing a crack in the marriage. The elder sister's desire to be a house slave means that she has to work hard in a cruel environment. She is anxious and full of complaint. Because of this, her sister Haizao's romantic relationship and fantasy of marriage vanishes into thin air. In the process of helping her sister pay back the 60,000 high-interest loan, she half-willingly falls into the arms of the city mayor's secretary, Song Siming (宋思明). In the end she breaks up with her boyfriend Xiaobei (小贝), beginning her journey as a "professional mistress."
Profound significance comes from the character of the "corrupt official" in the series, Song Siming, who is handsome and steady, carries himself in an elegant and smart manner, romantic and it seems that he really does have deep and sincere affection for Haizao, plus the fact that he has power and wealth, many viewers have him in their favor. A survey participated by 6,447 people on Sina shows that people who were asked, "If in real life you are put in the same place as Haizao, would you choose Song Siming or Xiaobei?" 46.2% chose Song Siming, far more than the people who chose Xiaobei, which was only 22.2%. Their reason was, "Love with material benefits is better."
In order to clearly express their own value systems, the writer and the director arranged a tragic ending for "corrupt official" Song Siming and "mistress" Guo Haizao: one dies in a car crash and the other has a miscarriage and her uterus is taken out. But this ending has caused a big debate: many people have expressed sympathy, there are even people on the Internet and in the newspapers who have started a huge debate over whether Song and Guo are really in love, as if the affirmative would mean that everything could be forgiven.
66, the writer responded to this issue: "Every time I hear voices like these I can't help but smile sarcastically inside. What is real love? Real love is when you throw away all your clothes and jewelery and property and everything, and you still choose the relationship. If you really love a man, then whether he is poor or wealthy, whether he is seriously ill or healthy, you will still stay by his side. Does Haizao feel this way about Song Siming? Even your big toe knows that she doesn't."
Tencent uploaded a survey on "the relationship between happiness and property," which attracted 360,000 netizens. The result showed that 80% of people thought that happiness was related to property, within this number 69.9% decided that a happy family should have at least one house.
An employee of Jiayuan.com (a website for meeting potential spouses), Gong Haiyan (龚海燕) told this Time Weekly journalist that though only 37% of the female users put forward the requirement for someone "with property," in reality, she discovered women who minded whether their partners had property was significantly higher. “Some people are afraid that if they put property as a requirement on their profiles, men would be put off, but in reality owning property is very important to them. If 90% of young people had confidence that they would be able to afford their own houses then the situation would be very different. But in reality only 10% of people can afford their own houses, and so property is an important yardstick of capability and cultivation. In reality these factors might not be related at all; many people's parents buy their properties for them." From her own observations, Gong Haiyan thinks that Shanghainese women were the most concerned about whether their potential partners owned a house. "They are interested not only if their partner has bought a house, but also whether the mortgage has been fully paid. This is understandable, because Shanghai's property prices are the highest in the country."
Why did Song Siming win over admiration from female viewers in Narrow Dwellings, Gong Haiyan mentioned the influence that "model dramas" and media opinion has: "The male characters in 'model dramas' that has grown up with the post-80s generation all have the same traits: they're mature, romantic, rich. Love is always Cinderella-meets-prince, dream-like."
After a dating event for the wealthy organized by Jiayuan.com, 16 men worth than ten million, even 100 million, put forwards their requirements for a partner. More than 7,000 women took part in the event, even though they had to pass at least three tests before they get to see the diamonds. Test one is akin to "choosing from a sea:" the website will pick people using their computers; then interview, taking a photo of each participant, give them a number for the records, entering them into the “Jiayuan Beauty Storage Bank;" after they enter, there is a Relationship Consultant who will pick some to chat with according the needs of the rich person. In the end 50 young women will be put on the shortlist. But only 18 people met with the rich men; when they are facing them in conversation the two examiners give people marks based on education, talking mannerisms, facial features, skin condition, body shape and posture.
A piece of writing that has been reposted widely, written under the name Wang Feng (汪雷), a male viewer of the program, said: "This is a cruel but very realistic story. As the gap between the rich and the poor are pulled wider, in an environment where a standard for morality doesn't exist, and where sexual resources are increasingly flowing towards the class of the powerful and wealthy. Some might say that we have arrived at a new era where things have price tags: the quality and quantity of women a man can get is directly in proportion with how much money and power they have. The normal situation now is in entertainment circles, performing arts student circles, the unwritten rules of university campuses, the mistresses of the wealthy, the mistresses (二奶, 三奶) supported by civil servants, from when these were exposed explosively until today, social opinion has become used to it, turned a blind eye to it, sexual resources has been stripped away by the powerful classes ... This is where the cruelty of Narrow Dwellings lies, it displays a good example of an urban male youth, or who on the internet has been esteemed as a "economically-useful man" (经济实用男) and how he is brutally beaten in the face of a man with wealth and power. But the former group of people are more likely to have the responsibility of maintaining social stability － the middle class." A topical character and feminist, Muzi Mei, instead thinks that an opinion such as this one is disrespectful of women: "'Women' do not exist to be a kind of sexual resource. They are not a sexual resource that belong to either young men or powerful men."
Gong Haiyan also does not think that the idea of "sexual plundering" is correct, but she did mention that in China's marriage market, "25 year-old boys usually want to date 25 year-old girls, but 35 year-old men don't want to date 35 year-old women, but 25 year-old girls. Most of the mature, successful men who come here looking to get married were all hurt emotionally when they were young. In their youth they were pursuing young girls but got rejected, so when they have successful careers, it's as if they want to make up for this." Around 25, beautiful, with fair skin: there are the requirements of rich men are looking for marriage. "They also make requirements about education, but they would usually make a note: if she is especially beautiful, then the measures can be relaxed accordingly." Jiayuan.com has tried to provide offline services for older and successful women; these women are willing to pay 20,000 yuan to 30,000 yuan in fees, asking Jiayuan.com to contact men that meet their requirements. But when the matchmaker approaches elite men with their information, reactions are: why are you introducing me to women like these? Those young women who are writing to me online, they are much prettier!
From this it's clear that Song Siming and Guo Haizao in Narrow Dwellings － if we abandon the fact that one is a corrupt official and another is the mistress － represent the marriage market's mainstream anticipation of what men and women desire as idealistic partners.
Up to now the image of the “famous university graduate” has been spirits-rousing, a winner in the professional field, they are bright and clean and white-collar. One such example is Zhao Qingchu (赵青楚) and Gao Qi (高齐) in Master of My Youth (我的青春我做主), but the economic difficulties of Haiping and her husband, the uncertainty of their future, their inability to find a use for their university degrees in the real world, means that they have to smarten their brains in order to find a way of avoiding being very poor.
Lian Si (廉思), a teacher in the Public Management department of the University of International Business and Economics emphasizes with the phenomenon described in Narrow Dwellings. From his point of view, Narrow Dwellings is the real situation of the majority of university graduates. “Those who have just graduated in Stuggle (奋斗, another TV series) are already driving an Audi or a Changan Alto, and spend days playing pool, going to bars, what exactly are they fighting for? No wonder after watching the series many people concluded you might as well have good father rather than struggling and fighting for over ten years."
Lian Si and his team conducted research in the university graduate villages around Beijing’s Tangjialing (唐家岭), Xiaoyuehe (小月河), Malianwa (马连洼) for two years and brought out the concept of the “ant clan,” (蚁族) a way of referring to the low-income groups who live around each other and have all graduated from good universities. They are roughly over 10,000 “ants” in the Beijing area, they have been educated in good universities, and after graduation their average income is 1,956 yuan. In the face of pricey Beijing rent, they can only choose to live in the settlements between the outskirts and central Beijing, sometimes a dozen square meters houses four grown men and a couple. On certain levels, Haiping is a spokesperson for the “ant clan:" “From our research we found out that 10% of the ant clan have graduated from the 211 good universities, some of the researchers met their fellow students from PKU and Remin University, and this was a big shock."
In the past when they have conducted social research, they were facing migrant workers, sex workers and other disadvantaged groups, the researchers had personal feelings, but after their contact with the ant clan, many people have started to worry about their own futures after graduation.
Lian Si told this reporter that the low-income graduates mainly come from the countryside and counties, and really live up to the name of the “poor second generation.” (穷二代) They work hard to get into university and shoulder the very high expectations of their families, but they watch the “rich second generation” (富二代) amongst the other students, and the “second generation of officials” (官二代) get good jobs after graduation, buying houses and buying cars. But they themselves have to go from one village to another village (their own countryside village to the settlement), finding it hard to find a job. “Their feelings of the rich and poor gap, the unfairness of society are different to other groups.” PKU Sociology professor Xia Xueluan (夏学銮) instead says, “Social psychology says that what they actually achieve is far different from what they expected to achieve. The individual feels a strong sense of relative deprivation. The lowering of the social and economic status of the university graduate has caused students of this group to feel different levels of relative deprivation. Relative deprivation is the same as absolute deprivation, which will also cause someone to feel hardship and anger. In a certain kind of situation, some people will change this hardship and anger into infringement, and directly attack social harmony and stability.”
Lian Si also explained contemporary youth's confusion of value systems: “The dreams of the ant clan, the dreams that they fight for, the expression of the dreams is simply that in 5 years they want to own a house and a car. Some people say that these young people are too materialistic, but this value system was taught to them by life. In the face of reality, education can’t get a punch in.” In 1980, at the beginning of the opening up and reform, a reader’s letter from someone called Pan Xiao (潘晓) was published in China Youth magazine (中国青年) entitled “The road of life, why does it get narrower,” which sparked a national discussion on the ideology of society and human values. Lian Si discovered that in his contact with the ant clan, with these youth born after the ‘80s and grew up in an era of fast-paced economic development, had the same desperation: the road of life, why does it get narrower? Perhaps it is exactly the anxiety and doubt for their own hard work that netizens question the ending of Narrow Dwellings: Song Siming and Guo Haizao are people who take such shortcuts, will they really pay?
Teng Huatao isn't surprised at all at the debate that has been aroused by Narrow Dwellings: "We really wrote this series directed at the Song Simings and Guo Haizaos of society today, there are quite a few of them. We hope that through this series people will begin to think and debate. Perhaps there are still people who are standing on the side of Song Siming and Guo Haizao, but we hope that at least after they have had their say, they will reflect on whether someone should really do something like this without thinking about the consequences. During an era of fast economic development, you can't ignore the problems that arise, to do with value systems, and morality. You can't forget about the law, about morality, in order to improve your living standards, in order to live in a beautiful house, and drive a nice car, and have a brief period of enjoyment.
"The main aim that 66 and I had in the series was to discuss the main problems a society incurs in 30 years of fast development. Just as Song Siming says: "Underneath the bright colors, there are only shabby clothes. A big international city is like a stage, and everyone concentrates their focus on where the spotlight is, what they see is the beautiful, the splendid and the surging. As for the corners that the light does not shine upon, even if there is dust, or even dead mice, who will notice it?" This isn't specific to China, and is not related to any particular social system; if you are in New York, Paris, Tokyo, it would be the same. But if you could choose, would you live in the current times or thirty years ago? I believe most people will choose to live in current times. My deeper concern is, since you've chosen to live in current times, what kind of person do you choose to be?"
66 gave the novel A Romance of House to Teng Huatao at the beginning of 2007, but the TV series didn't start filming until the end of 2008. Teng Huatao thought that the novel was lacking in something, but he hadn't decided what: "At the time it wasn't clear what it was, so we decided to make Wanggui and Anna. In the process of making that, I knew what Narrow Dwellings was lacking: a value system that I agreed with. If I solved this problem I solved the reason for why I wanted to make the series. To be honest the series isn't really about the story of the "third woman" and a corrupt official － if it were really this kind of story, I would have very little interest in it. I needed to talk about everyone who lived in this metropolis, but my values are also somewhere within these people. From the novel to the TV series script, we emphasized the characterization of Haiping. Haiping represents our value system: hard work, pain, even crazed outbursts, but she never lost her principles."
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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+ 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.