Posted by: thelocaldialect | October 19, 2008

Propaganda and Spiritual Pollution: The TV

CCTV1 is the big daddy of Chinese television stations, providing the creme of the crop in prime time entertainment. While I never paid much attention to CCTV1 in the past, being that it is also the mouthpiece of the Party, recently I’ve been sucked in by miniseries after miniseries, usually a 24 part story with a handy moral, unlike some of the edgier series produced by say, Beijing TV or the Arts Channel.

Last week it was “Black Gold Woman,” a story about miner’s wife who gets together a group of other mining wives and starts a “Service Team” to bring the miners water and wontons at the mouth of the cave, so that the first thing the men would see when they rose from the underground would be the smiling faces of people who cared about them. A parable about loving the workers who sacrifice their youth, their health, and sometimes their lives, in order to build a better China, Black Gold Woman had a lesson for everyone. I learned about the danger of visiting a man’s quarters past ten — the town gossips will certainly spread lies about you and you’ll be forced to attempt suicide in order to clear your good name; the dangers of gambling — your wife will get pissed off and embarrass you in front of your buddies; the dangers of relentlessly persuing material possessions — you’ll practically whore yourself and your family out for a few bucks and end up with nothing to show for it anyhow. My husband did not approve of the fact that I was hooked on Black Gold Woman. “Turn of that crap,” he’d say to me night after night, “it’s blatant propaganda!”


Serving the Workers

But I watched it until the (rather anticlimatic) finale, where the evil private owned mine finally collapsed and the miners from the righteous state-owned mine, who were working there on the side in order to earn enough cash to actually be able to send their kids to college and get out of the mining town, made it out alive. Whew. Tragedy averted, series ends.

This week, however, we have been treated to a story that even my husband can get behind: The Legend of Bruce Lee. Yes, the story of Bruce Lee has been made into a Chinese miniseries. You’d think that with a subject matter as classic as Bruce Lee, they’d pull out all the stops and give us a top knotch series, but the show is really disappointingly half-assed. It amazes me that Chinese TV can recreate the Han Dynasty but they can’t recreate America in the late 1950s (we are told it is 1959 when he arrives in America). We see characters wearing Justin Timberlake T-Shirts, we see Honda Acuras and Suburbans, we see a skyline that couldn’t possibly have existed 50 years ago, and finally, we see a ridiculously diverse cultural landscape. Bruce Lee’s classmates are black, white, and Asian, and they all love each other. That is, everyone is happy happy buddy buddy except the Japanese, who are arrogant and pick fights with Bruce, belittling Chinese Wushu, and making general asses of themselves. Apparently even The Legend of Bruce Lee has an agenda when its on CCTV1 and in the number one Prime Time spot, and the agenda here is Nationalism. In the very first episode, when Bruce is still a high school student back in Hong Kong, he’s called “The Sick Man of Asia” by a white student and gives the offending student an ass-kicking. “But he called me the sick man of Asia!” Bruce exclaims to the teacher, a white woman who will have none of it. “You Chinese!” she says, showing her obvious disdain for his kind.

Bruce Lee’s story becomes one of bringing glory to China, of restoring China to its rightful place in the world. CCTV’s Bruce Lee is absolutely disgusted that Japanese Karate is so popular in America and vows to show the Americans where martial arts reallycame from — China. While I’ve only watched half of the series so far, I can already imagine how Bruce Lee’s marriage to a white woman will be portrayed. While marriages like mine are quite rare over here, usually any coupling of a white woman with an Asian man is portrayed in the Chinese media as a sort of “sticking it to the man” type situation. It is something to gloat over, something which makes the man “lihai” or “hardcore.” A Chinese man who can get a white woman is obviously not the sick man of Asia, in other words — he’s just as good as any white man, possibly even better, because white women are known to have insatiable sexual appetites. While this portrayal is meant to be empowering for an Asian man, those of us who live these kinds of relationships don’t always appreciate having our marriages reduced to some sort of revenge on the white man type fantasy.  And while I’d like to hope that in this series, Bruce Lee’s romance with his white wife will be portrayed as just that, a love story, I don’t hold out high hopes, not from the station that brought us propaganda … er, parables like Black Gold Woman.

I continue to watch because CCTV offers a chance to improve my Chinese skills, and occasionally a decent series will emerge (I’ve enjoyed several stories about the Cultural Revolution, sweeping historical dramas, and sometimes an edgy tale of modern life). Mindless entertainment is mindless entertainment, and afterall, if we compare our mental poisons, a lot of the TV fare offered up in the United States (remember “Temptation Island”?) might not be propaganda, but it is probably exactly the sort of thing Mao had in mind when he talked about “spiritual pollution.” Black Gold Woman type shows are mostly, when all is said and done, promoting a relatively positive message (let’s face it, greed usually is bad). Even when the message is a bit less black and white, like the Nationalism promoted in The Legend of Bruce Lee, it is rarely outright disgraceful, unlike a lot of what I see on TV back home.  While I don’t think that propaganda makes for the most entertaining or thoughtful programming, there is rarely anything on CCTV that I would feel uncomfortable allowing my son to watch.  Could I say the same about Fox? And would I want to?


  1. I think if you can see past the propaganda these shows are providing, then there’s little harm in gaining some entertainment from them. The TV shows coming out of the US, while entertaining, are hardly conveying great messages (or any messages at all in many cases).

  2. Ohh black gold woman in her sparkly white apron! And you just know she’s going to race home and wash those filthy work clothes before she even changes into something more comfortable!

    I like the expression on the face of the guy at far left. 😉

    I think the Japanese equivalent would be the NHK drama. I’m not watching the current one but previous ones have been about a girl wanting to do traditional cooking, a girl wanting to join NASA, a girl from Okinawa moving to Tokyo, a girl living in an orphanage… Seeing a pattern here? And the girls are always virtuous, traditionally beautiful (no dyed hair here), love their families, are stoic in despair and courageous in a quiet achiever kind of way. They will be tempted by something but at the last minute realise the error of their ways. I’d never thought about it before but it does sound like they’re pushing a message. The main audience here is retirees and office workers who get to watch the replay at lunchtime. Who is the main audience of your dramas?

    And let us know how brave Bruce Lee does in evil America!

  3. Wow I had no idea about those stereotypes of white women in China! I love the movie of the Bruce Lee Story- have you ever seen it? I really like the actress who plays his wife.

  4. Great writing and very salient points.

    I’m going to speculate that the Mainland Bruce Lee miniseries conveniently ignored that Bruce’s two best friends were non-Chinese. One, named Dan Inosanto was of Pinoy descent, and the other, Taky Kimura, was Bruce’s best friend – and JAPANESE.

    Back in 1993 or 1994, ATV Hong Kong produced a miniseries called ‘Bruce Lee – Spirit of the Dragon,” starring ABC David Wu Da-wei. Lots of totally false history injected into an otherwise satisfying action-drama. In their version, Bruce married a half-Chinese lady.


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