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Sisters carry their weight
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On the way to Mamuchi Village in Yinan County - a small town in East China's Shandong Province - stands a "General Primary School". Amid the shabby cottages, the school stands out with its bright glazed tiles. A careful look at the building reveals an inscription by Chi Haotian, China's former defense minister.

Chi set up the school as a tribute to the residents' support of millions of Communist-led soldiers during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) and the following Civil War (1945-49). The local women, known as "Red Sisters", backed the communist troops not only with their hand-made shoes and clothes, but also with their care of the soldiers and officers as well as their offspring.

The Yimeng Mountain where the village is located, and these patriots, are to feature in a TV drama titled Yimeng, which is currently in production in Shandong.

The 30-episode show will tell the story of one of the Red Sisters, Yu Baozhen, and her family - from 1939 until 1990.

Director Guan Hu, who is also from Shandong, was reluctant to take up the work when he first read the script, which was categorized under "main theme", a genre seen as unpopular with audiences for its dubiously perfect characters and grand themes.

"We have all heard of Red Sisters," he says, standing beside a millstone at the production location - the Mamuchi village. After months of shooting in the village, he and his crew have now become accustomed to the dry and cold air, and the patriotic ardor of the local people.

"I did not quite understand their behavior then, such as saving all the food in the household for the soldiers' children while their own families were starving," says Guan.

But the desire to learn about his ancestral land finally convinced Guan to take the directorial seat. For six months, before production started, he lived in the village and talked to the locals, including some 90-year-olds. Although Shandong residents are known for their passionate and accommodating nature, Guan was still surprised by what he encountered.

"When you pass by someone's house, the owner will ask if you are thirsty and give you some peanuts," he says. "They believe all acts of kindness must be remembered and returned."

Guan is also impressed by their dedication to keep a promise, and shared this true story. During the war, a trapped woman soldier requests a local farmer to send a letter to her lover. The man buried it when the Japanese invaded. In the years that followed, his family even paid with their lives to keep it secret, leaving only an old grandmother and a small child alive. They kept the letter until they found the soldier's lover, decades later.

Guan also pointed out that the village "is close to Qufu, hometown of Confucius, whose philosophy of loving people and the country has had a profound influence on the local people".

But, the director does not want his characters to appear perfect. In fact, his focus is not the war.

"War and history are pushed far into the background," he says. "The story of human beings is the most important. This is a story about a family on the edge of war. They can see and feel the war taking place in the distance, but it is by their fate, and not through the war scenes, that the cruelty of war is explicitly presented."

Yu Baozhen, the show's heroine, is modeled after late Wang Huanyu, who died at the age of 101 in 1989. She used to run a war-time nursery, housing 42 children of the Eighth Route Army soldiers and officers. Scores of senior officers such as Luo Ronghuan and Xu Xiangqian lived in her house.

Actress Chi Peng who plays this female lead, while not as tall and strong as the typical Shandong women, saw her confidence grow as she gradually came to grips with the character.

She sees both Yu Baozhen and Wang Huanyu as strong-willed people. Despite their age, the expression in their eyes remains clear and brave.

"Farmers are very simple folk who believe that if you treat me well, I should treat you the same," she says. "They understood that the Communists' troops were fighting for the common people's interests."

Chi wanted to live with the locals, but was refused by the director. But she insisted on wearing the costume even after she returned to her hotel. She did not brush her teeth, and often took the mud and rubbed it into her hair, to give herself an authentic look.

But even Chi's character is not perfect. When faced with a chance to run as village leader, she tries to lobby the villagers by offering some precious bean flour. She is affected by vanity too, but that only makes her real, says Chi.

Ma Shaohua, a senior actor who plays Yu's husband Li Zhonghou, agrees. In one scene, in which Li dies the day the Civil War ends, his line in the script was "finally the new China is born". Ma changed it to "finally the good day comes".

"Farmers are very modest," he says. "Their biggest desire is to live a steady life. Dramas on 'main themes' often tend to present some perfect and great characters, but real farmers are different."

Director Guan is not very optimistic about a positive audience response, given that the show has no superstars, no dramatic plot, and no dazzling war scenes. But Ma and Chi are sure the show will be loved for its down-to-earth portrayal.

(China Daily December 5, 2007)

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