Adventures in Chinese Television: 《奋斗》Wrap Up

Posted in Pop Culture at 2:11 pm by Benjamin Ross

Back in late November, I set the goal of watching an entire Chinese television series 《奋斗》, and blogging about the process.  I made good on half the deal.  I finished the series about a month and a half ago, but thanks to several trips, grad school selection shenanigans, and other prioritizing, my blogging accounts dropped off.  Watching 奋斗 was a tantamount experience, both linguistically and culturally, and I didn’t want to leave everybody completely hanging.  So here are some of my thoughts.  This post does contain a few spoilers, so if you plan to watch the show, proceed with caution.

奋斗 and I have had a rocky relationship.  If it were my facebook girlfriend, our relationship status would be “it’s complicated.”  Several episodes in I wrote the beginnings of a scathing blog post condemning 奋斗 as the worst television series I had ever watched.  The plot lines are predictable; the characters static and subject to compulsive, unsounded, obsessions; the humor relies on formulaic, repetitive devices which could have been written by a class of high school sophomores; and the climax of the series involves an extended English quote from a Lionel Ritchie song.  Yet I watched the series to term, enjoyed it, and was emotionally invested in several of the characters.  In short, it was entertaining.

As a critic, one complaint which I consistently felt (and echoed on many Chinese message boards) is that the main characters’ “struggles” (奋斗 means “struggle”) are aided by a multitude of fortuitous situations and coincidences.  Here are just a few.

The 奋斗 gang, clockwise from the top left, Lu Tao, Xia Lin, Xiang Nan, Huazi, Yang Shao Yun, and Mi Lai

Two of the main characters have parents who are multi-millionaires with endless supplies of money, real estate, and employment opportunities.  When the going gets rough, fu baba always comes to the rescue with a financial bail out, a new job, or a free loft to house the whole gang.

Xia Lin, the girlfriend of the main character Lu Tao, frequently wavers back and forth between whether she will pursue her opportunity to study in France.  Unlike Lu Tao and Mi Lai, Xia Lin’s family is not wealthy.  Yet, in the world of 奋斗 going to France to study abroad apparently doesn’t require much money.  It also doesn’t require a visa either, as Xia Lin (and Mi Lai, Lu Tao’s ex-girlfriend) each make sudden decisions to study abroad.  As one Chinese forum post put it “It’s as if France is next door to Beijing.”

Another character of humble origins, Huazi, pursues life as a small business man.  He begins by opening a barbershop, then a cake shop, then a Thai restaurant, then a pool hall, all of which are wildly successful, and simultaneously managed by only he and his girlfriend.  Speaking from experience here, running a successful barbershop in China takes many years of training, hard work, and building a customer base.  Competition is cut throat, and most new shops go out of business within a year of opening.  The chance of somebody with no tanning opening up four different enterprises in four different industries, and being wildly successful at all is laughable at best.

Another objection I have to the show is its message:  put simply, the goal of life is getting rich.  These values are promulgated by Yang Shao Yun, one of the female leads, and one of the most despicable characters I have ever seen on television.  Yang Shao Yun falls in love with Xiang Nan, one of the main male characters, and against the warnings of their friends, they marry a few weeks later.  As their marriage progresses, Yang Shao Yun continuously scolds and belittles Xiang Nan, whose salary of “a mere 10,000 RMB/month” isn’t nearly as much as Lu Tao’s.  She also despises Xiang Nan’s car, an Autuo, and wishes that like Lu Tao, Xiang Nan would buy an Audi.  On multiple occasions Yang Shao Yun threatens divorce, only to be talked out of it by a teary-eyed Xiang Nan, whom she continues to nag and berate.  Their relationship is a continuous downward spiral of arguments and threatened divorces until finally Xiang Nan shocks everybody by agreeing to a divorce.

Once the divorce settles, Xiang Nan meets a new girl, Yao Yao, who is a successful attorney, and independently wealthy.  Initially, Xiang Nan is intimidated by his new sugarmama, but these fears subside as Yao Yao reaffirms to him that she loves him for who he is, not for his bank account.  In a symbolic gesture, she sells her Toyota sports car because she prefers to ride in his Autuo.  Meanwhile, Yang Shao Yun falls into a bout of loneliness and depression, wishing she had Xiang Nan back.  I took pleasure in watching the bitch crash and burn in the mess she had created.  This also provided hope that 奋斗 was providing an anti-materialistic message after all.  However in the end, just as Xiang Nan and Yao Yao are walking into the marriage bureau to apply for their marriage license, Yang Shao Yun shows up crying.  The two reconcile and get married.  Ouch!  Bam!  Kick in the junk!  I wasn’t expecting that at all, and it left me questioning the motives behind the themes of the show.

奋斗  is geared towards China’s “80’s generation,” those born between 1980 and 1989.  I would imagine though that much of 奋斗’s appeal is to rural Chinese of that age group who have never lived the city life as portrayed in the show.  Remaining in their villages, 奋斗 provides a glimmer of a fantasy city world where opportunities abound and the streets are paved with gold.  Most Chinese urbanites with whom I have discussed 奋斗 have dismissed it unappealing for the same reasons listed above.  It’s too unrealistic and glamorizes the ugly, materialistic side of modern China.

As an American, watching 奋斗 was an invaluable experience.  It improved my spoken Chinese, tweaked my listening, and provided a cultural window into the lives of Chinese 20-somethings, even if they were caricatures of real people.  If I was Chinese, I probably would have never watched the show in its entirety, but using it as tool for cultural and language learning, it served its purpose.

I am now in the process of watching《蜗居》, a popular 2009 Chinese television show, which according to many of my Chinese friends is the most realistic TV program to come out of Mainland China in a long time.  As I progress, I’m going to try to write more about 蜗居as well as the process of learning from television shows, which I am increasingly convinced is THE way for advanced speakers to continue improvement.  I’ll try to make good on my promise to keep up on the blog this time around.

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