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Story of Liu Laogen
China Central Television (CCTV) Channel One recently aired a serial, Liu Laogen. Its theme was rural life. Directed and produced by famous Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan, and designated the golden 8-9 pm time slot, this country comedy was highly successful. The Chinese viewing audiences was compelled by Liu Laogen's strong rural flavor, in particular its country idioms and true-to-life dialogues. But why, one wonders, was it chosen from among the many historical, and therefore more costly, series CCTV also has to offer at peak viewing hour? Could it be due to the good relationship Zhao Benshan has with CCTV by virtue of his annual performance in the CCTV Spring Festival Gala?

Zhao Benshan was originally a folk comedian. His education ended at junior middle school level, and some of his critics have suggested he might benefit from a formal drama course. To this, Yu Qiuyu, former president of the Shanghai Drama Institute, says: "Zhao Benshan has no need of any drama course. His success should, on the other hand, be one of our institute's professorial research projects." Although the Drama Institute enrolls and trains thousands of students every year, Yu is emphatic in his belief that none of them could hope to equal Zhao's artistry and stage presence.

It was indeed Zhao Benshan's star quality that brought about Liu Laogen's selection for the golden hour slot.

Zhao's performance style is rooted in his rural background in Northeast China. Many great actors come from the countryside, but Zhao Benshan stands out for the value he still places on his hometown friendships, despite having become a national star. On coming across difficulty or trouble, he always returns to his native village to talk to his friends and seek a psychological balance. Most of the characters he plays are very similar to him -- candid, intelligent, generous and cunning when the occasion calls for it. The story begins when the central character has been living at his son's home in the city for over a year. Tired of the routine of cleaning, cooking, taking his granddaughter to school and picking her up, and doing exercise in the park, decides to go back to his home village for a change of scene. On returning, he has completely changed his persona. He wears suits without ties, and takes the filter tips off his cigarettes before lighting them in exactly the way a farmer within Chinese society, regardless of its bewilderingly rapid pace of change would. Viewers found portrayed traits such as these, along with his frequently quoted wise country homilies, irresistibly funny.

Liu Laogen eventually decides to take up the challenge and overcome all difficulties involved in helping his fellow villagers live a life of affluence. He expects to achieve this by opening a holiday resort, on the basis of the natural tourism resources in his village. He subsequently experiences misunderstandings, and emotional and moral conflicts that force him to re-evaluate from time to time. He is also obliged to balance the developments in his new career with those of the village, as well as maintain the quality of his own family life. In attempting to achieve all this he endures great pressure, is framed by corrupt village cadres, and cheated out of 30 million yuan. At the end of it all he is a psychologically broken man.

The character Liu Laogen represents the price paid by Chinese farmers in their transition from a planned to a market economy, and his misadventures reveal the prejudice and challenges they face in contemporary society. Although the plots in Liu Laogen seem a little dated at times and the stories far-fetched, its ratings stand at 13.9 percent -- the highest of any recent topical CCTV serial.

When taking into account the 900 million share of Chinese farmers in the overall population, it is surprising that only now have Chinese TV producers decided to put on a topical rural serial. A sample survey of TV viewers taken in 2002 showed that 54 percent thought there were too few TV serials with a rural background. Based on this result, Liu Laogen was subsequently produced, broadcast and enthusiastically received.

At the conclusion of Liu Laogen, another rural TV serial, Field of Hope, will take over the CCTV-1 golden hour. It differs from Liu Laogen in that none of its cast is particularly famous, and its storyline is comparatively simple. The central character, Xu Dadi, is party committee secretary of a township in northeast China. He is preparing to go to his new post as county finance bureau chief when the government suddenly decides instead to send him to a poor, remote township. He uses his wits to alleviate poverty in the township and lead his fellows to a better and happier life.

This would appear to be a standard storyline, but the leading character is distinctive for his capacity always to have a smile on his face, and for his indefatigable spirit. Xu Dadi is played by actor Cheng Yu, a Chinese Everyman. He believes a TV serial should attract viewers through its quality performances and plot, rather than famous faces.

Field of Hope has been screened three times in Dalian, and chalked up impressive ratings. Unlike Liu Laogen, the Field of Hope script does not include local dialects or idioms, and is consequently equally well received by rural and urban viewers.

(CCTV May 30, 2003)

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