As most readers know, this past winter I went through the process of applying to Sociology PhD programs. One requirement for all applications was a writing sample, preferably of an academic paper. Looking back through my files from undergrad years, I realized that most of what I had written back when I was in college (I graduated in 2003) wouldn’t suffice for the type of grad programs I was applying to. Since I wanted to focus my graduate studies on the urbanization of China, and to do so using ethnographic field methods, I decided to write a paper from scratch based on my experiences working in a Chinese barbershop. Now that the process is over, I’ve put the paper online in PDF format. You can access it at the link below. If anybody has any trouble viewing the file, please send me a note in the comments section.
Ok, so if you want to watch 蜗居, and you’d rather not find out the ending, I suggest you stop reading this post. But for readers who don’t plan to watch the show and are instead relying on me to spill the beans, here goes.
So a major turning point happens about 2/3 of the way through the series when Xiao Bei finds out about Song Si Ming and Hai Zao. After much crying, bickering, and screaming, Xiao Bei agrees to take her back, although says he can’t guarantee that he will forget everything. The one condition is that she must never see Song Si Ming again. One slip up and Xiao Bei says he’ll leave. Xiao Bei is clearly shell-shocked by the knowledge that his girlfriend was cheating on him with a guy almost twice his age, but as time progress he slowly reverts back to his old self.
Meanwhile Hai Ping and Su Chun find themselves in a bit of a pickle as Su Chun is arrested for stealing designs from his work unit. (This was done in order to make money off them to appease his materialistic wife). Through a seemingly inexplicable chain of events and guanxi, Su Chun who had been facing several years of jail time is set free. Originally Hai Ping is led to believe that it is Mark (an American whom she has been tutoring in Chinese) is behind the dropped charges. Later she discovers that it was the work of Song Si Ming.
Hai Zao and Xiao Bei’s relationship gradually reverts back to normalcy until one day when Xiao Bei finds a text message on Hai Zao’s phone from Song Si Ming. The message is old, from before Xiao Bei’s discovery, but he is incensed at the fact Hai Zao had not deleted it. Xiao Bei walks out, and other than a brief flashback, this is the last we see of him in the series.
Hai Zao immediately flees to Song Si Ming. Song has an apartment for Hai Zao to move into and more or less takes her in as his concubine. Hai Zao stops showing up to work, and spends most of her days sitting around reading magazines and killing time waiting for Song to return. Song finds himself balancing his life between Hai Zao, his work, and his wife and daughter who become increasingly impatient with his constant absence.
While Song seems to be handling his personal life with ease, his situation at work becomes increasingly stressful as he finds himself involved with some sketchy real estate deals. It’s at this time he also is being investigated on corruption charges (this is the area where of the show where I had some difficulty figuring out the details, so if anyone would like to fill in the cracks, please be my guest).
The crescendo of 蜗居 begins when Hai Zao reveals to Song that she is pregnant. While Hai Zao’s reaction is to get an abortion, Song insists on her keeping the baby and she finally agrees. At the same time, Song’s wife, who is entirely cognizant of her husband’s extracurricular activities, demands a divorce, to which Song will not comply. As the stress at home and at work builds, Song takes a bank passbook with 5 million RMB and gives it to Hai Zao for safekeeping. He tells her that if anybody tries to take it from her, do not give it up.
When Song’s wife (we never learn her real name) finds out about the money, she pays a visit to Hai Zao. She demands the passbook, and when Hai Zao refuses to give it up, a skirmish breaks out. The altercation leaves Hai Zao passed out on the floor with her maid rushing inside believing that she is dead.
Later we find out that Hai Zao is ok, however her unborn child has been killed in the fight. Meanwhile, Song is at his corruption hearing when he receives an urgent call about the situation. He rushes to the hospital and en route his car is struck by oncoming traffic, killing him instantly.
We then flash forward three months. Hai Zao is in bed being spoon fed by her mother and refusing to talk. (Apparently she has not said a word since the day she lost her baby and Song Si Ming.) Hai Ping takes her for a walk and in a soliloquy lasting about 8 minutes, summarizes everything she has learned from the preceding events. Ultimately it had been Hai Ping’s greed which had caused the events leading to Hai Zao’s unfortunate circumstance, and the speech touches on these ideas as well as several positive notes on chasing dreams. (If anybody has a transcription, it would be worth posting, since this essentially sums up the message of the series.)
After her speech, Hai Ping receives a call from Mark who asks to see her immediately. Mark reveals to Hai Ping that before Song had died he had wanted to give a new life to Hai Zao and their baby, and had arranged for them to go to the United States. Mark also tells Hai Ping that he wants to invest money in her to open a Chinese school for foreigners in Jiangzhou. This had been Hai Ping’s dream she had alluded to in previous episodes, but for brevity’s sake I had not mentioned in past posts. In the last two scenes we see Hai Zao at the airport being sent off to the US and then a frame of Hai Ping in front of her new school.
蜗居 is a deep series, and I would be lying if I denied having any emotional investment in the show. You knew it had to end with a bang, but I really did not expect such tragedy. I also did not expect much hope to come from the unfortunate chain of events. Everything is still sinking in, and I’m going to try to post a few more analytical thoughts in the days to come. As Chinese is not my native language, and as I have yet to go through the online plot summaries, there may be several inaccuracies in my description of the show. Please feel free to make corrections where necessary.
I just finished 蜗居. And rather than spending multiple days to write a be-all-end-all overly-protracted blog post, which often hampers the progress and content of this blog, I’m going to try to keep my thoughts short and sweet as I blog my reactions to the show.
Watching 蜗居 was one of the most rewarding China related experiences I have had in a while. For anyone willing to allocate a significant chunk of time to improve their language ability and understanding of modern-day China, I highly recommend 蜗居. Counting pauses, re-watches, and time for looking up words, I’d estimate it is around a 50-75 hour time commitment to get through the whole thing.
After finishing the show, my internal reactions felt as if I had just finished reading a long novel, rather than watching a television show. To be sure, much of this is due to the theme and character development of 蜗居, but it is also due to a particular characteristic of Chinese television show production.
TV series in China are generally not broken into seasons. Instead the entire show is filmed as one block, often thirty of forty episodes long. The disadvantage in this is that bad shows get a full run, rather than being canceled after a season or two. The advantage though is that it enables producers to plan out the entirety of the show all at once, rather than season by season. 蜗居 takes particular advantage of this fact. There are very few plotlines which are self-contained in a single episode, and the climax of the show occurs at the very end. Since there are no season breaks, it is unnecessary to build in extra climaxes at points where broadcasting would drop off for several months.
Thus, 蜗居’s 35 episodes, each lasting exactly 42.5 minutes are essentially a single long play movie, clocking in at just over 24 hours in length. The end of one episode often cuts off mid-scene leading directly into the next. Thus, watching 蜗居 is like reading a novel, in that one can pick up and leave off at arbitrary points, rather than taking each episode as a single unit.
Owing to this characteristic of the Chinese television industry, the producers of 蜗居 were not subject to the constraints of creating superfluous plotlines and climaxes. Instead, it allowed them to develop the story in a more natural fashion, along the lines of how a writer pens a novel. This presents a contrast to American TV shows, which even if they continue episode to episode (i.e. Lost, Sopranos), they still must be broken down into seasons with some resolve at the end.