With handmade costumes and props, the laobaixing -- "the old 100 surnames," or the common people -- of Mengjinsi are retelling the history of their centuries-old village for a 10-part television series.
Titled Legend of the Liu Family, the drama tells the story of Mengjinsi Village and its inhabitants in Ningjin County.
Mengjinsi is home to 465 people, 95 per cent of whom share the surname Liu.
The villagers' ancestors migrated from Beijing suburbs during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Sixty-year-old Liu Qiyun, the director and screenwriter, came up with the idea of immortalizing their past on film after chronicling the village's history for 10 years.
Born in the village, Liu moved elsewhere in the county in his early 20s. He was away from the village for nearly 40 years, but he retained such a strong affection for his birthplace that he frequently returned. And after retiring he moved back to Mengjinsi.
One day in 2002 when he was telling fellow villagers stories about their ancestors, a villager suggested that it would be wonderful if they could see what their ancestors' lives were like.
That whimsical remark planted a seed in Liu's mind. The best way to let people see how their ancestors lived, Liu decided, was to shoot a TV series.
He was so enthralled with the idea that he felt compelled to realize it. The following three years saw him persistently and industriously making financial and technical preparations.
He first went to Jinan, the provincial capital, to learn how to use computers, editing machines and film-editing software.
That was extremely difficult as Liu had not used a computer before. Worse, he had never learned English so the 26 Roman letters were meaningless.
Liu invested in a photo studio, hoping that any profit would help fund filming.
Shooting finally began last autumn.
The drama covers 600 years in the village's history. It begins with the Liu family's migration from Beijing.
Then the focus moves to how the family survived all kinds of hardships during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, as well as in modern times -- before and after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
"The storyline is both mysterious and heartwarming," Liu said.
At first, his family thought the idea was crazy, but seeing his passion and persistence, they were won over, and ended up offering to help.
His wife is costume and set director, while his daughter-in-law is the assistant camerawoman.
Liu's screenplay, which was jointly written by his wife Zhang Xiuzhi, a retired teacher, contains 85 roles.
Fellow villagers, from an 85-year-old grandmother down to a 4-year-old girl, play all the parts. Liu's 12-year-old granddaughter also takes a role.
Since all the actors and actresses are amateurs, the drama has to be shot after they have finished their farm work.
Although they are all unpaid amateurs, they show professionalism that would dwarf that of well known actors, says Liu.
"All the actors and actresses are very serious and passionate. They know that this is a TV drama of our own," Liu said.
What challenges Liu most is that for most of his actors and actresses, acting is a really big challenge.
Being farmers, they have not received much education.
This makes it difficult for them not only to comprehend the screenplay, but also to perform some basic tasks like reciting their lines.
To make things easier, the villagers use the local dialect.
"Despite that, for some people, it takes several hours to memorize several sentences, and while shooting, they still say the wrong words," Liu says.
To overcome the difficulties Liu makes adjustments to his original shooting plan. He tells the actors and actresses that they do not have to act strictly in accordance with the screenplay and encourages them to ad-lib. Liu oversees all the changes and then makes adjustments to the screenplay to ensure consistency.
"Actually this achieves unexpectedly good results," Liu says. "It makes the drama closer to real life."
So far two episodes have been completed. It took 20 videotapes and more than two months to finish the first episode, which is called "Migration" and lasts 50 minutes.
The second episode is a "bigger production" because there is a scene showing villagers fighting against bandits.
In order to make the fighting scene more attractive, the director has even designed some kung fu stunts.
Although Liu and his crew try to save money, each episode costs at least 50,000 yuan (US$6,024). And he estimates that with post-shooting editing, he will need at least 1 million yuan (US$120,480) for the entire project. Some 310,000 yuan (US$37,349) has been spent on costumes alone.
Based on information collected from history books and historical TV dramas, Liu's wife has made many costumes from the Ming and Qing dynasties on her own, to save money.
Liu has almost used up his savings, and his family is not by any means rich with their conbined pensions amounting to 1,800 yuan (US$217) a month.
But Liu says he does not care too much about money. He only wants to record his village's history.
(China Daily March 9, 2005)