When Zhang Jizhong joined other young people to work in Shangyuan Village in Yuanping County in North China's Shanxi Province at the age of 17, he thought he would end his life in the fields working as a farmer.
It was late 1968 and the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) was under way, changing the fates of tens of millions of urban Chinese youth.
The following years, however, surprised the young man with a series of opportunities.
As the result, he then tried many careers, such as high-school teacher, movie actor and television director.
Now he is one of China's most successful television producers, with some great hits. He has moved back from Shanxi to Beijing, the city where he was born.
It was a long journey from a farmer to a nationally famous TV veteran, of course.
Many people attributed his success to luck, but Zhang himself would never agree with that.
"I had been working hard to wait for chances. When they came by, I was ready and did not let them go," he said.
Zhang does not even consider himself particularly successful.
"My name is often mentioned in newspapers and magazines, of course. But people can also read frequently about pills for a cold and new types of household electronic appliances. So, like pills, I am also catering to people's needs. It does not prove that I am successful," Zhang joked.
Zhang's first stroke of luck came in 1974 when a high school affiliated to the Xuangang Coal Mine in Xinzhou City needed a history teacher. Zhang was fortunate enough to be recommended for the vacancy.
During the following four years, in addition to teaching Chinese history, Zhang -- out of his love for the arts -- organized the coal mine's performing-arts troupe.
Zhang was in charge of almost everything, from arranging shows to public relations.
"I was actually a producer at that time," Zhang joked.
In 1978, after watching a modern drama delivered by the Shanxi Provincial Modern Drama Troupe, Zhang decided that his small troupe would also perform drama.
He then went to the provincial capital, Taiyuan, to consult the provincial troupe.
The troupe principal, however, thought Zhang had good potential for modern drama and offered him a chance to enter the provincial troupe.
His first role was a university student.
Today, Zhang still remembers his lines in his first ever modern drama with the provincial troupe -- eight-and-a-half sentences in 141 Chinese characters.
In 1979, he went to the Shanghai Film Studio to handle some private affairs. By chance, he met Li Geng, a director there, who asked Zhang a lot of questions such as "Can you skate?" and "Can you ride horses?"
Zhang did not take it too seriously until he was about to go on the train back to Shanxi, when he heard his name being broadcast by the loudspeaker and an announcement saying that someone was looking for him.
It was Li, who invited Zhang to act in a film.
Zhang's first appearance on the screen was Dang women nianqing de shihou (When We were Young).
The following years saw Zhang moving between movies and modern stage drama. Later, with the development of the television entertainment industry in China, Zhang also appeared in many TV series. In addition, he also directed TV serials.
"At that time, I was just like a spider extending all of its legs," Zhang said. "I did not know what was most suitable for me, so I just tried everything."
He constantly felt there was something wrong. "Although I did quite well as an actor, a director and a playwright, I felt I was not gifted enough to do these things," Zhang said.
Then, in 1988, he finally found the job that most suited him.
That year, Zhang Shaolin, one of his friends, was setting out to direct a TV serial funded by the Shanxi Television Station and the Education Committee of Shanxi Province, and asked Zhang to be the producer.
Zhang's first task was to mediate between the station and the education committee because the two sides had been quarrelling.
Being firm-minded and persuasive, Zhang did this quite well. It took him only one week to solve all the problems and make everything smooth for the shooting.
This greatly boosted Zhang's confidence and helped him find what suited him best.
His career as a television producer thus began.
In the following four years, he produced a crop of TV serials, many of which won awards.
But it was not until 1992 that Zhang really made his name.
Rise to Stardom
Zhang was supervising the production of a TV serial in Shanghai when he got the news that China Central Television, the national television network in China, was going to adapt Sanguo Yanyi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) for television.
The epic novel is one of the best known and most-loved literary classics in China. Therefore, the television adaption would be sure to generate a great reaction.
Zhang decided to snatch the chance.
He went to Beijing immediately, seeking to join the crew. He contacted CCTV and the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television but was told that all the crew members had been chosen.
But Zhang's efforts were not made in vain. One month later, CCTV adjusted its shooting plan and invited Zhang to join them.
"A door suddenly opened to me," Zhang said.
Zhang's assignment was to produce 13 episodes of the 40-part serial. They were actually the most difficult parts of the whole production.
Zhang did quite well. His crew of a few hundred members travelled more than 10,000 kilometres in 11 months and made a work of art.
When it debuted on CCTV, Three Kingdoms got extremely good ratings among people of all ages. At the same time, Zhang's name became known by both ordinary television viewers and industry insiders.
"It was like a turning point in my career. I had never before organized and led such a big crew. It was also a big challenge for me," Zhang said.
After that, Zhang got much more experienced as a producer.
In 1998, Zhang acted as assistant producer of Shui Hu Zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh), another of China's four greatest and best-known classic novels.
Last year, he produced Jiqing Ranshao de Suiyue (Years of Passion), which became a hit immediately after its release. Its leading actor Sun Haiying and leading actress Lu Liping won the Golden Eagle Television Award last December for their performance in the drama series.
The drama was about a soldier called Shi Guangrong, starring Sun Haiying. Over several decades, Shi and his wife, Chu Qin, performed by Lu Liping, experienced a great deal of minor friction. However, this made their love much deeper.
The production was well-received and was praised for its exquisite plots and the good performance of the actors and actresses.
Martial Arts Serials
The most influential production Zhang has produced is Xiao'ao Jianghu (Smiling, Proud Wanderer), from 1999.
It was based on the novel of the same title by Jin Yong (Louis Cha), China's most renowned martial-arts novelist.
Hong Kong and Taiwan television companies had already adapted Jin Yong novels for television and the cinema many times. However, it was the Chinese mainland's first attempt.
Zhang felt mounting pressure because some of the Taiwan and Hong Kong versions had become so popular and already had hundreds of thousands of fans.
And some of the leading actors remained idols in people's minds.
But the producer was not scared away by such difficulties. He insisted and his version of Smiling, Proud Wanderer became a hit.
When it premiered on CCTV, its rating was a record-setting 17 percent of viewers. Broadcasting rights for outside the Chinese mainland were sold for US$2 million, which was also unprecedented for a mainland television production.
Zhang is currently busy engaged in the production of another two TV serials based on Jin Yong's martial-arts novels.
Shediao Yingxiong Zhuan (The Legend of the Condor Heroes) will premiere during the coming Spring Festival holiday, while Tianlong Babu (Demigods and Half-Devils) is scheduled to air in August.
Zhang said he believes that the two productions, like the other series he has produced, will also be popular.
The two dramas have in fact already repaid their backers through sales of broadcasting rights.
Zhang said: "I can say they will be better than Smiling, Proud Wanderers."
(China Daily January 15, 2003)