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Too traditional for modern tastes: the latest TV Red Chamber

A chubby Lin Daiyu. Source: Southern Metropolis Daily

The new TV version of Dream of the Red Chamber has just ended on Beijing TV, but the series has been surrounded by controversy. For example, there has been a lot of criticism over the costumes and the chosen actors and actresses, who won the prized roles through a highly competitive TV show. When the series first aired critics argued that it would serve better as a ghost story with its eerie music and pacing. Song Shinan (宋石男) wrote this for The Beijing News:

This is a horror show that will make you want to hit the director. Lin Daiyu, whose movements should be like a willow stroking the wind is, incredibly, played by a chubby little woman with baby fat all around her face. In the future when she dies by spitting blood, God knows how many mouthfuls she will need to spit before she dies. Her fishy, bloated eyes also adds a few cents to the tragedy of her story. The precocious playboy Jia Baoyu is a little brother in the new version, with the stink of milk on his breath. What will happen to the bedroom scene with Xiren? The actor who plays sassy Sister Feng is weak and fake, and totally without the usual imposing manner; she’s not like Jia Lian’s wife, more like a mistress! (Apart from the main characters, the minor characters are also extremely unreliable. Grandma Liu is such a legendary figure, but in the new version is played by a big fat auntie. I tested her with my eyes, and her weight is at least 150 jin! How could a poor countrywoman get so fat? Does she eat pork sausages for every meal?)

Song Shinan, who also goes by the name of Si Yi (四一), contrasted in the same blog post the current version with the classic '87 version, talking about the difference in idealism between the two eras:

In my opinion, it’ll be hard to replicate the idealism in the ’87 version of Dream of the Red Chamber. At that time, from the director down to the actors - even the stage manager - are devoted completely and are spectacular. Not only are they in awe of Dream of the Red Chamber, but they also have a deep relationship with it. Not only the main characters but the minor characters are also deeply involved in the story. For example Lin Daiyu and Qingxia, they are both using their lives to act. Nietzsche said, love everything that’s written with blood. We say, love all shows that are acted with life. Now, idealism has been stripped away by material gain, and using your life to act has long ago become history. How can we hope that, with a show that was built on money, a show that loves to plagiarize vulgarity, and one that is flooded with the lowly unwritten rules, how can this become a classic? It can’t even be exquisite. The water has flowed away, a classic cannot be repeated; what we can enjoy, is its memory.

The most vociferous response to the 2010 adaptation has been how awful it is compared to '87 TV version of Dream of the Red Chamber. Out of the four classics, a few has seen new adaptations for TV, including the 2010 version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义).

In terms of Dream of the Red Chamber, the press also had various criticisms about its actors going to events in fashionable nightgowns, and plenty of online discussion revolve around how the actors of the new cast has deviated from the purer and more ascetic lifestyle supposedly kept by the actors from the '87 version.

Shi Kang, novelist and writer of the TV series about the lives of six post-80s graduates, Struggle (奋斗), recently wrote two posts about Dream of the Red Chamber on his blog, indicating why he turned down writing the script for a TV adaptation of the classic, and how the story can’t appeal to today’s generation of TV viewers. His Struggle and Big Shot’s Funeral (大腕) scripts were both irreverent and funny, but he hadn’t done much historical writing. However he expresses resentment at the lofty position of Dream of the Red Chamber and the inadequacies of Redologists. At the same time, we hear Shi Kang's mockery of commercial culture today, which is up against the quotidian of ancient Chinese civilization.

Dream of the Red Chamber Came and Then Went

by Shi Kang (石康)

A few years ago when I was still employed in a TV crew, someone asked Zhao Baogang (赵宝刚, the director of Shi Kang's Struggle 奋斗) to direct Dream of the Red Chamber, and he asked me whether I wanted to write a script for it. My mind did a quick whirl around the stories of the main characters, then I thought about the relationship between the characters and modern living. Then I shook my head, and said that I couldn’t do it with my level of education.

Scriptwriters are usually proud of how they write stories, how could they simply refuse to do something that can make money easily?

The reasons are simple. Looking at it purely in terms of the story, Dream of the Red Chamber is a story that’s really hard to structure. It’s a fluid life story, and you have to use your literary accomplishments in handling this kind of story, not your scriptwriting skills.

On the other hand, with the change wrought by age, the cultural background and the experience of reading Dream of the Red Chamber changes. When you’re young you can read it like a romance, reading about the arguments between young boys and girls derive a certain satisfaction. Those with a background in Chinese culture can see from the artistic conception of Dream of the Red Chamber the endless distress of the scholar, and of course, the better read you are, the more levels there are to reading Dream of the Red Chamber, the joys within, its coldness and the warmth. And this is the exact weakness for scripting a popular show, because it’s very hard to get a scriptwriter who can simultaneously please this many people.

(I’d also like to say that as for critics, I have never seen anyone use new tools, such as cultural anthropology, symbolism to analyze it. This shows that the new generation of Chinese culture critics long ago lost interest in Dream of the Red Chamber.)

The main creators of new Dream of the Red Chamber have been trying to do fashion from the start. Purely from the angle of speculation, it’s not very sensible. If Dream of the Red Chamber really expresses a kind of fashion of the ancient Chinese rich, transferring it to today will make audiences impatient because of how irrelevant it is. There is only one thing to do to make Dream of the Red Chamber fashionable, and that’s to make into an erotic film, play heavily on the sex, so that audiences can watch the good-looking actors, the clothes and the renovation. But this wouldn’t be allowed by our national situation.

If I think about it more, I think there is another way for Dream of the Red Chamber to succeed, and that's to do it according to the stories and to the topics of each individual character. So it turns the story of a family into stories of individuals struggling for survival in the big family, and mainly showing their survival strategies, and analyze their successes and failures, honors and disgraces, but this needs the main creator to be brave, and ignore the opinions of the Redologists, whilst at the same time not completely plagiarize the original work.

But it’s hard to produce this kind of courage, and it’s equally not worth it to put so much effort into it.

In China, a work of entertainment such as Dream of the Red Chamber is admired for being a kind of scholarship. This kind of scholarship should only be an elective offered by University professors. Just like in British universities, where the works of Jane Austen are packaged with a code like “English Literature 21B" written on it. Later on ask a professional to write a few dissertations to get them some academic points. Unfortunately, Dream of the Red Chamber is now on the syllabus of China’s night schools. As long as you have the time, and you can read Chinese, and you can say a few words about Dream of the Red Chamber [then you are a Redologist], there are one thousand times more Redologists in China compared to Jane Austen specialists in the West. Then, a problem is produced: who has more authority?

The answer is no-one.

Then what can we say about Dream of the Red Chamber that's correct? Just say that Dream of the Red Chamber wasn’t well made and you might just be on the ball.

Dream of the Red Chamber Came and Then Went II

by Shi Kang (石康)

The skill and techniques of character construction in Dream of the Red Chamber is outstanding, but at its core the show still depends on pity to attract viewers. But the TV viewers of this era are living under huge pressure, they don’t even have time to pity themselves, so pitying others is of course attempting the impossible. Asking them to pity ancient Chinese people is a flight of fancy - it's extremely hard for them to be moved by the pains of the ancient second-rich generation of Dream of the Red Chamber.

It is extremely hard for contemporary Chinese people to understand “Pages full of idle words, penned with hot and bitter tears.” [David Hawkes's translation]

The book is simply a silly way for expressing the emotions of a writer in ancient China who is feeling depressed. His expression of emotions is rather full of personality, and can transform the fleeting emotions and moods in the Tang and Song poetry into a huge-scale story with luxuriant foliage. Its style is a kind of Chinese Rococo, it's also actually a kind of Persian Pattern. This point you can see by just reading two or three hundred volumes of ancient Chinese texts.

In 1990, there were big families everywhere in China, often one village made up one family. After New China was established, the Big Family System was dissipated after the system transformed and the economy busted, and as contemporary China quickly stepped into modernity. The old ways of living described in Dream of the Red Chamber is hard to understand. Viewers watch characters that don’t have a care about getting clothes or food, and are so bored waiting for the characters' hairs get longer and walk around a big garden, and they will ask: What are these long-tongued women doing together? That rare person in the group of women, the super stay-at-home boy, the king of rebels in Chinese literature — little Baoyu, why doesn’t he go and be an official, get rich, travel, do sports, do research into scholarship, or simply join the revolution? Each day he maintains his high-level attention on all the women, what does he want? If he is played again by destiny, why doesn’t he think of a way out? In the past the image projected by Jia Baoyu might still be admired by poor single men, now poor boys have turned into ‘angry youth,’ they would rather imagine themselves driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution traveling the world, and are too lazy to socialize. In terms of women, two or three days is enough for deep emotions, and poetical words, they don’t understand what's there to talk about after having dinner and going to bed, and feel puzzled if they have to do this long-term. It’s better to be Wei Xiaobao [the fictional character in Jin Yong's the Deer and The Cauldron], apart from picking flowers and being naughty, he still gets into a series of adventures and stories which entertains people.

But Chinese girls who fantasize about second-rich generation will hardly be interested in Xiaobao because he is a ‘playboy,’ because ‘he is too sticky,’ because ‘he is too girly,' because ‘he doesn’t have a career.’ Also, winning the competition of the King of Xiaobaos in China is too hard, it takes too long to get to the excitement, it’s better to apply to Super Girls and get famous overnight, and attract men of various types. In contemporary China, although Jia Baoyu is in the league of the second-rich generation, he’s still not that advantaged, as he is already not a great prospective lover. Although he is very earnest and has a lot of pity for others, he is still too boring, too fragmented and too inexperienced. He isn’t an excellent youth who can take a girl to see a brighter world. He’s more like a weak little stay-at-home boy who is good for talking on the phone when you’re really bored, and all you need is to get a midnight snack from him, then he's enough.

Then, who will go see Dream of the Red Chamber? Who will keep discussing topics like “women are made of water” and other conventional topics? Okay, there is still another reason for people to read it, and that’s because Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the very few literary heritages that we have in this country. Treating it as capital for chatter isn’t bad. Talking about Africa, you can say that hippos are fat and antelopes are skinny, and talking about Chinese history, is it enough to say that Daiyu is skinny and Baochai is fat?

But Dream of the Red Chamber is a profitable business, the novel is highly known, and the ratings can’t be low, and the price of sales is high, and you don’t need to pay the author any royalties. In the name of respecting the original work, find a cheap scriptwriter and just plagiarize it. Because the characters are young, you don’t need to use big famous stars,so you can pay actors less. In terms of production it’s easy to make it look good, making a few costumes is far cheaper than buying brand names, but of course this will make the production budget lower-of course this is an business opportunity, why not use it to make some money? It’s legitimate to use the ancestor’s great work to make profit, it would be even better to apply for a World Heritage status, and would be great to make it once a year. If I was the director, then the next version of Dream of the Red Chamber will get its actors from the prettiest girls in the junior highs all over the country, so that the Chinese people can see what the prettiest of schoolgirls look like. Calling up the ‘beauty queens’ is a good way to cleverly go into the forbidden area, because the State doesn’t allow for teenage beauty competitions. Therefore we can tactfully play line balls.

In my opinion, there are many problems in the first few episodes of Dream of the Red Chamber. For example, the unveiling was a failure. But later on it got okay, just that this ancient story was still unrelated to modern life, because inside the Jia household it's neither like the officialdom of those days, or like a State enterprise or a private enterprise. It's a painting from the kind of ancient China that has already passed away. It's conventional and without anything new, Chinese people today lack curiosity for that kind of lifestyle and would rather raise their heads and look forwards in order to understand modern civilization. Very few people are deeply grieved about losing the old civilization, because the protectors of old civilization are slowly becoming like fallen leaves. They’re spoiled like mud, and they don’t leave any shadow.

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There are currently 7 Comments for Too traditional for modern tastes: the latest TV Red Chamber.

Comments on Too traditional for modern tastes: the latest TV Red Chamber

There's a Lin Daiyu working at the Flushing Queens New York Branch of Popeyes. True, she's dyed her hair orange but the natural features are unmistakable. I also knew another NYC woman and her lookalike daughter who both looked exactly like Lin Daiyu. It's not that hard to find these lookalikes.

It's conventional wisdom to say that the Cultural Revolution destroyed traditional chinese culture, but it's evident from Shi Kang's second essay that cultural links to the past were still very strong even in 1990, as his comparison of China then (and reaction to the '87 version) to today shows.

What is destroying traditional Chinese culture today is modernization. We can observe as it is happening a transformation that took hundreds of years in other societies. In short, Shi Kang is saying, "the classic work remains the same - but we as a culture are changing so much that we can no longer appreciate it". And this troubling thought: what are we becoming when we cannot even relate to this work which meant so much to us before?

Thank you for translating this, Shi Kang's wit and humor are pretty sharp and refreshing; like a York peppermint patty for my head in a good way.

I had a little different take on the article than perspectivehere. Shi Kang isn't saying that the modern audience is completely detached from Dream of the Red Chamber but that artists don't have the freedom to interrupt the works in a way that would make them relevant. Shi Kang came up with several amusing ways to make the story appeal to modern audiences and then examined why nobody goes through the trouble to do it. Without the reimagining of the story, China is left with making copies of the past artwork and transforms the living artwork into a museum piece that people will pay admission to see simply because it is famous. That’s what I got from it and I think the points made are pretty valid.

Thanks for these translations! A great resource for seeing what people are saying…

Yes, the old catch-22 of Chinese culture. Either you keep repeating the same tired thing over and over again, or you make some changes to the past tradition and are berated for being disloyal to Chinese culture. (sigh)

Having read the book twice, actually I kinda like the current show. Unless other historical, literature drama, it is not afraid to throw classical Chinese! And it is page for page copied from the book, though with some obivious but forgettable mistakes.

It's failing though is in its story telling style, it's feels too much like documentary then a drama. Exactly like those PBS version of Jane Austin or Dickens drama. No emotion, feelings or for that matter drama, simply acting out the plot like it is in the book. If you expect a show can shine in its own medium, then it fails greatly. If you see it as audio book that shows you the scenes, then it's actually pretty good at what it does.

As the 1987 version, it's quite nice and artistic. Which owes much for it casting of Yue opera actors and actress for parts and much of the crew are from a opera/stage drama tradition; and they does have worry about luring a audience. However, the down side being, it's really does feels like a stage drama. With almost no camera movement and awkward setup scenes as well as quite confusing storytelling for people who haven't read the book or seen the operas.

After the mention about PBS's drama series on western classics on my last post. I though about would say epic TV drama/movie series about War and Peace (though I think it is still too modern, but at a comparable scale, length and impact. And being a novel that people knows of, but few has read.) be too traditional for modern tastes. How would such a thing compare to the memorable if not too boring 1965 Soviet version. Or would be not even be notices like the 2007 French version.

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