LIFE ON THE LAND

GaoMan­tang sa­vors the op­por­tu­nity to write a TV se­ries about the real-life ex­pe­ri­ences of China’s farm­ers, and the not-so-trendy sub­ject is win­ning an au­di­ence, Xu Fan re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

The ques­tion me­dia most fre­quently pose to Gao Man­tang re­volves around his rank­ing for the sec­ond time as China’s rich­est scriptwriter. How­ever, the high­est-earn­ing au­thor in the coun­try’sTVin­dus­try sayshe­do­esn’t care about the list.

“The so-called No 1 is much less sig­nif­i­cant than the first place my works gain in the au­di­ence rat­ings,” says the 60-year-old, who looks fa­tigued after a four-hour sem­i­nar with a sle­wof top tele­vi­sion pro­gram re­searchers in down­town Beijing on Dec 29.

One month ear­lier, the Liaon­ing prov­ince na­tive made head­lines when it was an­nounced he topped China’s rich­est screen­writ­ers’ list again, with about 22.5 mil­lion yuan ($3.6 mil­lion) in to­tal rev­enue in 2014, a bit lower than his 2013 in­come of 30 mil­lion yuan.

Though un­will­ing to re­spond to ques­tions about his in­come, the au­thor shows strong con­vic­tion in his lat­est work, The Chi­nese Farm­ers (Lao Nong­min), a 60-episode epic drama de­pict­ing Chi­nese farm­ers’ strug­gles to sur­vive over more than half a decade.

“Ifmy script is no good, I will quit my job and leave the movie and TV in­dus­try for­ever,” says Gao, whose con­fi­dence is get­ting a good test right now.

While the con­tro­ver­sial roy­al­tythemed se­rial The Em­press of China, or­The Saga ofWu Ze­tian, was halted for mys­te­ri­ous “tech­ni­cal rea­sons” dur­ing the last week of 2014, Gao’s lat­est small-screen show jumped to the top slot of the na­tion­wide au­di­ence rat­ing in a 50-city survey. The Chi­nese Farm­ers has re­mained in sec­ond place be­hind the em­press se­rial since the lat­ter came back to TV on Jan 1.

Gao’s lat­est se­rial is be­ing screened by four provin­cial chan­nels since it was pre­miered by Beijing Satel­lite TV on Dec 22. The plot de­picts 60 years of strug­gling­a­mong Chi­nese farm­ers dur­ing the coun­try’s tur­bu­lent time of land re­forms in 1948 to 2008, when land-use cer­tifi­cates gave farm­ers more rights to profit from their fields.

Some re­searchers re­gard the se­rial’s premise as a “dark horse”, as nowa­days Chi­nese view­ers are used to surf­ing the chan­nels and most only stop for pretty faces and flam­boy­ant cos­tumes. The farmerthemed se­rial, with its ac­tors in soil­cov­ered faces and ragged clothes, is far from eye candy.

In a coun­try with 800 mil­lion farm­ers out of a to­tal pop­u­la­tion of 1.36 bil­lion, its fast-ex­pand­ing TV pro­gram mar­ket has pro­duced very fewseries on such ru­ral folk. The lat­est fig­ure shows China pro­duced more than 15,000 TV episodes in 2013, mak­ing it the world’s largest pro­ducer.

“Most of the popular se­ries con­cen­trate on the lives of royal con­cu­bines, war­riors and leg­endary fig­ures, but very few tell real-life sto­ries. It’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity of scriptwrit­ers to make a record of the col­lec­tive­mem­ory,” says Gao. “Young view­ers in their 20s have very limited knowl­edge of the (land-re­form) his­tory. They may for­get or even have no idea of this spe­cial his­tory.”

The dili­gent writer sought in­spi­ra­tion by go­ing to the ground.

Dur­ing the five-year prepa­ra­tion for the se­ries, he in­ter­viewed more than 200 farm­ers from six prov­inces, who had wit­nessed the coun­try’s agri­cul­tural cam­paigns and ex­pe­ri­enced the in­flu­ence of chang­ing poli­cies.

The pro­tag­o­nist, a dare­devil vil­lager named Niu Dadan, is an achiever who goes from be­ing a poor farmer to a suc­cess­ful en­tre­pre­neur. The character is based on the per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences of Xu Dadan, a veteran farmer-turned-busi­ness­man, and Zhou Zhenx­ing, for­mer deputy gov­er­nor of Shan­dong prov­ince.

To get the most out of the 94-yearold Xu, Gao stayed with the old man for seven days in a row — and got drunk almost ev­ery night, as the hos­pi­tal­ity of Shan­dong la­bor­ers is shown by drink­ing with their guests.

The hang­overs earned him a lot of dra­matic sce­nar­ios, in­clud­ing an over­crowded train ride Niu takes in the 1980s, which forces him to pee in a plas­tic bag as the car­riage cor­ri­dor is blocked by pas­sen­gers.

Gao also col­lected some in­ter­na­tional sto­ry­lines, such as Shan­dong farm­ers go­ing abroad to rent land in Rus­sia. The over­seas farm­ing pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties for ro­mance, as some lo­cal Chi­nese farm­ers tied the knot with Rus­sian women.

Such real-life ro­mances are adapted into the script: Nina, a Rus­sian woman, falls in love with Niu’s son and then gives up her ur­ban life­style to move to ru­ral Shan­dong to live with the young farmer.

The script at­tracted renowned A-list ac­tor Chen Baoguo, who is fa­mous for on-screen por­tray­als of em­per­ors and mil­lion­aires.

It is the first time Chen has played a farmer. The ac­tor re­veals he went on a diet and shaved his hair and eye­brows to look older for the role. To com­pletely im­merse him­self in the character’s spir­i­tual life, Chen hardly spoke to other crewmem­bers dur­ing the shoot­ing. He in­stead spent most of his time pon­der­ing the role.

“It’s se­ri­ous business, to speak for the Chi­nese farm­ers. It is worth do­ing all that,” he says.

Wu Guilin, deputy sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Chi­nese Tele­vi­sion Arts Com­mit­tee, gives a thumbs-up to the drama, hail­ing it as the best-ever se­ries on farm­ers.

The Shan­dong na­tive says most of the di­a­logues in the drama are very close to the lo­cal di­alect, and it doesn’t avoid sen­si­tive his­tor­i­cal mo­ments, such as the “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76).

Gao de­clares that The Chi­nese Farm­ers will be his last epic drama on the land tillers but re­veals his fu­ture in­ter­est is “do­ing some­thing for farm­ers”.

“I’m work­ing to es­tab­lish a farm­ers’ mu­seum to com­mem­o­rate their his­tory,” he says. Con­tact the writer at xu­fan@chi­nadaily.com.cn

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A scene from the 60-episode epic drama TheChi­ne­seFarm­ers, star­ring Chen Baoguo (cen­ter), de­pict­ing Chi­nese farm­ers’ strug­gles to sur­vive over more than half a cen­tury.

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