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Eyes on spies

The spy show “All Quiet in Peking” has surprised everyone by infiltrating the top ranks of Chinese TV.

Domestic TV productions have been losing younger viewers because of their inferior quality and fierce competition from U.S. serials. But young, well-educated viewers who comment on creative works on rated “All Quiet” in Peking 9.1 out of 10 ― a score that surpasses most U.S. productions and perhaps all Chinese TV series.

The 53-episode serial focuses on the social upheaval before New China’s founding in 1949.

The Kuomintang government planned to clandestinely move monetary reserves to Taiwan in the face of economic chaos on the mainland. A Communist mole embedded in the Kuomintang worked to halt the project. Other conflicts between the two parties are derived from this main storyline.

Its fidelity to history ― the lack thereof is a common critique of similar Chinese TV series ― plus balanced depictions of the two adversaries is likely the reason the pilot received positive feedback when screened on four satellite channels on Oct. 6.

“The teleplay provides fair portrayals of the opponent’s (Kuomintang’s) intelligence and political ideals,” culture critic Shi Hang says.
A scene from the popular spy-themed TV serial Lurk in 2009. (China Daily)
A scene from the popular spy-themed TV serial Lurk in 2009. (China Daily)

Novelist Liu Heping developed the story over five years. Much of that time was spent poring over such historical materials as unpublished diaries on the mainland, in Taiwan and in the United States. Filming and production took another two years.

Liu’s reputation for rigorous historical research hails from two equally popular historical dramas ― “Daming Wangchao 1566” and “Yongzheng Dynasty” ― known for breaking out of stereotypical depictions of monarchs.

Media quoted Liu as saying he believes “All Quiet in Peking” fairly objectively depicts the Communist and the Kuomintang parties, and even Taiwan viewers would find it convincing.

Spy serials have been popular on Chinese TV since around 2009, when Lurk became a sensation. They’ve since proliferated to account for about a third of all Chinese teleplays.

This has made writers like Mai Jia ― “the father of Chinese spy literature” ― a household name.

Several of Mai’s novels have been adapted into high-profile films and TV series, such as the 2009 blockbuster “The Message,” starring A-listers Zhou Xun and Li Bingbing.

President Xi Jinping was quoted by media as telling Mai at a recent symposium of established writers and artists that he, too, is a reader of Mai’s novels and praised their patriotic themes. He also voiced criticism of many spy shows that disregard history and can serve as bad influences.

Mai announced on his micro blog in 2011 that he’d stop writing spy novels because he was disheartened by the flood of poor spy teleplays.

Most Chinese TV stations are cautious about risk and jump on the bandwagon once a particular type of show fares well. For instance, one station ran three months of spy shows in 2009 after Lurk became big.

It got to the point the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television stepped in to limit the number of spy teleplays in 2011. This brought the number of shows from a reported 27 to about five in 2013.

The low-end dramas often distort history, overly dramatize plotlines and feature absurd fight scenes.

Critics are particularly exasperated with the clich of spies from rival sides falling in love and struggling to choose between affection and obligation.

Film critic Mao Jian writes in the Shanghai Morning Post that even good shows like All Quiet in Peking require some sacrifice of historical truth to make room for romance.

Critic Shi Hang says it’s unnecessary to create too much star-crossed love. He believes a bigger problem is a failure to accurately depict spies’ work. Worse yet, bad guys are often portrayed as unbelievably stupid.

Writer of the 2010 spy teleplay The Eternal Wave Yu Fei says honesty to history is crucial, but bad screenwriters fail at this. Since writers have limited access to historical materials, they must sometimes use their imaginations to create scenes that are plausible within the historical context’s realities. Many screenwriters lack this talent, Yu says.

China produces more than 10,000 TV drama episodes annually.

The Chinese Screenwriter Association has around 500 members, half of whom Yu believes “can hardly be called mature.”

A screenwriting project is often assigned to inexperienced writers because they’re cheaper and willing to take on several projects at a time, he says.

Yu argues China needs an industry regulator like the Writer’ s Guild of America.

But he believes All Quiet in Peking is an exception and may not be replicated.

“So, don’t hope there will ever be another teleplay like Peking again,” he says.

By Han Bingbin

(China Daily)