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.
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 email@example.com
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.