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.


  1. maxiewawa Australia said,

    March 13, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    I tried 奋斗 but couldn’t stand it! Northern accents, so many 成语, bad quality on YouTube… I haven’t read your post in its entirety in case I ever decide to watch it though. :)

    I don’t watch any TV dramas in English, not my thing, so I don’t know why I thought I’d enjoy one just because it was good for my Chinese skills.

    I’ve been trawling YouTube/Tudou for interesting Chinese language shows, I get a lot out of the news, but news items are so short that it’s hard to get into… not much dialogue/back’n’forth in news stories either.

    You mentioned interpreting on Twitter recently, good to know that you’ve kept it up. Haven’t found many instances of native English speakers doing much interpreting, there aren’t many of you are there!

    Keep up the blogging!

  2. Feihong United States said,

    March 15, 2010 at 11:26 am

    Hey Ben,

    I have really enjoyed this series of posts about your watching of 《奋斗》. It does make me reevaluate my resolve to never watch Chinese TV again. However, I don’t agree with your assertion that learning from TV is THE way for advanced speakers to continue improvement. Certainly you’ve made a good case for it, but lately I’ve been trying to learn through a different medium: video games. There are a lot of Chinese sites that let you download ROMs of popular games translated into Chinese (usually unofficial translations done by fans). Although video games won’t improve your speaking or hearing skills much, the big advantage of the format is that the gameplay itself is a test of your comprehension skills. If you are playing a relatively text heavy game like Ace Attorney, it’s difficult to advance without a passing understanding of what’s going on in the game’s plot. Actually, even playing Legend of Zelda is rather difficult, since visual cues alone are not enough to figure out the game’s many puzzles. Besides the feedback loop, another advantage is that plot summaries and game guides can be downloaded from the internet, so you can check your understanding and move forward in the game even if you have problems with certain sections. Of course, none of these arguments apply if you’re simply playing the Chinese version of Super Mario Bros.

  3. scoff United States said,

    March 15, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    It’s nice to see someone else with similar feelings about 奋斗. Yang Xiaoyun was just too selfish, Xiang Nan seemed to be a bit of a bitch, it was as if the writers just learned about deus ex machina, and yet I still found myself enjoying the show and wrapped up in the characters’ lives. 《我的青春谁做主》 was billed as 奋斗2 for a while (until a real sequel started filming) and has a few of the same actors. I liked the ending better, but I’m a sucker for happy unrealistic endings. Maybe that’s why I could never finished watching《蜗居》.

    TV shows are a great way to learn, but I feel like one has to try real hard to find Chinese TV shows truly worth watching (I do at least).

    Anyway, keep us posted…

  4. shan United States said,

    March 15, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    I had the exact same feelings about Xiang Nan and Yao Yao vs. Yang Xiao Yun. The latter really is the most loathsome character ever, and Xiang Nan’s ultimate choice was so incredibly disappointing.

    Thinking people would agree with me, I started reading through the comments on Youku under that episode seeking vindication that nobody else liked the way that ended either. That was the second shocker.

    Most of the Chinese commenters were HAPPY that Xiang Nan chose Yang Xiao Yun in the end. It’s been a while since I watched it, but I remember comments to the effects of the two of them being the true match made in heaven, or how Yao Yao is just not as cute as Xiao Yun.

    The Chinese mentality is just so different.

  5. maxiewawa Australia said,

    March 16, 2010 at 1:37 am

    Have a look at this site if you’re sick of Chinese language TV!


    It webcasts Shanghai radio.

  6. Magnus United States said,

    March 16, 2010 at 10:57 am

    OH man…I got that show 奋斗 a while back on DVD in China. After one episode I gave up. The Beijing Hua was next to impossible to figure out. Perhaps you have revived my interest! Or perhaps I’ll just let you watch it and tell me about it! HA HA HA

  7. Anonymous Netherlands said,

    March 16, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Hi Ben,
    I’m a Chinese. I’ve been working outside China for more than a year. During my stay overseas, I’m always interested in knowing how people from other countries think about China. One day last month when I was searching on Google about living experience in China—by which I would like to hear from people who have actually been to China—I ran into your blog here. I digged into almost all your posts. I find your understanding of the difference between English and Chinese language really comprehensive, arousing much thought about it. And I am much interested in your watching of the 奋斗 series. Now you finished it, or I find you finish it because you actually finished it one and half months ago, I’d like to share some of my feelings about this series with you here.
    Most Chinese urbanites with whom I have discussed 奋斗 have dismissed it unappealing for the same reasons listed above.
    I agree with you on this one.(I’m not sure if 奋斗 can provide a fantasy for people living in rural areas) Although this series enjoys a really high audience rates, it is commonly criticized for the materialism reflected in it.(We do use the word materialism a lot these days.) As you mentioned here, two of the main characters in the show have got wealthy fathers and the fathers are willing to offer them whatever amount of money they need. I do not say that this situation is not true in China, because there are many billionaires in the real estate business and as a tradition, young people will inherit everything from the parents in China. We do not like this because since the name of the show is 奋斗, we are expecting the characters to 奋斗 to get rich through 奋斗, not 奋斗with so much resources. Besides, as you said about Yang Xiaoyun (you write as Yang Shao Yun) who keeping scolding Xaing Nan for he is not as successful as Lu Tao. We want to ask, why do they have to be rich to be successful? Why can’t they 奋斗 to be a famous architecture designer other than a business man to be successful? Why can’t Hua zi 奋斗 to become a good hairdresser instead of opening another more profitable business to be successful? These probably are also some of the reasons why we dismiss this series. Yet I guess we also like to watch it partly because of the same reasons why we dislike it. We may imagine what we can accomplish if we had a father like Lu Tao’s. We know it’s unrealistic for most people, but it doesn’t feel bad if you just indulge your imagination during the watching of the show., especially when the show itself is much unrealistic. I also agree with you about Xia Lin pursuing study in France. For a family like hers, she has to plan that for years, apply for scholarship, and save for it.

    As for Hua Zi’s success in many different enterprises, it can be called real 奋斗. At least he is always working hard, all the way from small business to big ones. You said that the chance of his success is laughable. Well I’d like to say that this is acceptable. I remember you mentioned in one of your post that some of your friends would ask you whether your name Ross is as the Ross in Friends. Here I’d like to say something about friends. Ross is a paleontology professor in the show. Yet we hardly see any scene about him reading or doing research. There are no bookshelves in his room and he is interested in constantly changing dates. I guess the chance of a person living a life like him being a paleontology professor is also not good. I guess the chances in these two examples are not the main point.
    Relationship between Xiang Nan, Yang Xiaoyun and Yao Yao. Yeah, Yang Xiaoyun is a bitch. But this character also draws lots of sympathy,. Yao yao is good, some say she is in a sense too good for Xaing Nan. Xiang Nan as a man, shall be brave and be tolerable with Yang Xiaoyun. And in the end, both of them become more mature, in contrast with the beginning when they rushed to get married. They should work hard at their marriage. They even should give it a chance after their divorce. Maybe that’s why the play writer finished the show like this. Although I personally would like to see Xiang Nan and Yao Yao end up together, I can also accept it. When you say Ouch! Bam! Kick in the junk! I’m pretty much the same when I first see Xiang Nan take Yang Xiaoyun back. However, hope Yang Xiaoyun learnt something after that and they can live happily ever after.

    I remember half way into the show, I didn’t watch everything from it. I strongly dislike the scenes with only Lu Tao and Xia Lin, and I jumped through every time. Yep, I hate Xia Lin, selfish and ignorant. I like the character of Lu Tao’s step father. He is a decent man capable of resisting the temptation in modern society. I like Hua Zi and the way he treats friends. I wonder what will happen between him and his new girlfriend.

    Maybe next time I should say something about English and Chinese learning. Maybe I should write in Chinese.hah

  8. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    March 16, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Good points about learning from video games. I think a key point to language learning is to realize that there comes a point where you need to stop studying and learn by doing. Whether it’s by watching shows, playing video games, or just riding around on the bus and talking to people, the best way to learn a language is to incorporate it into your life in something you already enjoy.

    Thanks for the long comment. I would agree with you that Huazi is the only character whose life actually did include a significant degree of 奋斗. He was also by far and away my favorite character in the series. Every television show has some degree of fantasy, and like you said, this is what engrosses people. But with Fen Dou, the degree of fantasy was borderline Harry Potter. However, presumably this is what some people are looking for in a show, as Fen Dou was indeed quite popular. I’m 10 episodes into 蜗居 right now, and am finding it to be much more realistic than fen dou, not to mention the acting and production are much, much better as well.

    谢谢你的意见。 以后欢迎用中文来评论。在这个博客上两种语言都可以用吧。

  9. Anonymous United States said,

    March 16, 2010 at 11:22 pm


  10. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    March 18, 2010 at 3:28 am


    我也是不喜欢米来的。 有两个大原因。第一是她的个性。 不管她开不开心她的表情一直非常开心的,太开心了,假的开心。 就算她性格可好,她还是很烦人我觉得。
    第二是她一直追逐一个不现实的梦想。 就算陆涛不喜欢她,已经把她扔掉了,米来还要追他。陆涛把他的女朋友换成她的最好的朋友。这样的人应该舍得米来吗?不过米来一直追他了。她做的一切都是为了路涛。 这个女的可傻了吧。 我小的时候梦想当一个橄榄球明星。我长大一点就发现这个梦想不可能了。我就放弃了。 我现在30岁。如果我还梦想当橄榄球员,做的一切都是为了当球员,我的人生肯定搞乱的。


  11. Nemo China said,

    March 31, 2010 at 8:42 am

    I think 《蜗居》is much more realistic.It has strengthened my determination that I shall not buy a house on mortgages.As for 《奋斗》,it’s too far away from our real life!

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