Thursday, April 29, 2010

Watching the Chinese Soap Opera -《蜗居》"Dwelling Narrowness"

I lamented to my old Chinese teacher, 马老师 (Teacher Ma), that I haven't been keeping up with my Chinese study very well in an email a couple weeks ago. With my relatively new job and, of course, not living in China, I've been afraid that whatever Chinese language skills I have are slipping.

She responded with the following:


你说你对中国文化还很感兴趣,我就想,你可以从电视里学习汉语,你和你老婆一起看,不明白的地方她可以马上告诉你,而且你可以 了解一些深一点的文化,比如,有的句子虽然很简单,但是很“有名”。而且,你陪她一起看中国的电视,我觉得这样可以让她不那么想家。


Basically, she's telling me that my old methods of studying Chinese (flashcards, 1-on-1 classes, chit-chatting with people I meet, etc.) aren't going to work in America. She suggests that I watch Chinese TV both for language practice as well as understanding Chinese culture better. She recommends that I watch the shows with my wife, Qian, since she'll be able to help me any places that I get tripped up with the language.

Teacher Ma specifically suggests watching a show called《蜗居》- "Wo Ju," which has been horribly translated to "Dwelling Narrowness" by the shows producers (Qian tells me that "Wo Ju" literally means something like "a snail's home." From what I've read, it loosely means "humble abode."). Teacher Ma says that "Wo Ju" is having a big impact in China and that everybody is talking about it.

Teacher Ma's recommendation piqued my interest. And then about a day after I read this email, I read the following post on Ben Ross' blog:

After finishing Fen Dou and taking a short break from Chinese television shows, I am now 11 episodes into a new series, Wo Ju (蜗居). Broadcast in 2009, Wo Ju has been the most popular and controversial series to come from Mainland China in some time. Due to its controversial subject matter, Beijing TV pulled the plug on Wu Ju ten episodes in, and Shanghai moved it from prime time to a late night time slot. Many people (myself included) have thus taken to the Chinese Internets to watch the series in its entirety.
That whole part about controversy and having the plug pulled, it got me real excited about watching "Wo Ju." Qian and I started watching episode 1 on Sunday, April 18th. We just finished episode 31 of 35 this evening, Thursday, April 29th. Yeah... we're addicted.

Qian and I are, obviously, really enjoying the show.

I have to have a disclaimer here. My Chinese is not fluent. I'm getting about 1/3 to 1/2 of the dialog in the show. The stuff I don't understand, Qian is summarizing. Is this ideal? No. Am I catching every detail of what is going on? No. Am I using Qian as a crutch? Probably. Am I getting what is going on in the show? I think I am.

Watching soap operas are a tried and true method of learning a foreign language. They're not rocket science. I remember in Spanish III class in high school watching the soap opera, "Destinos." Just looking "Destinos" up on Wikipedia, I hadn't realized that Destinos was actually created just for people learning Spanish. "Wo Ju" was not created for people learning Chinese and there are parts of the dialog that I just don't get. But the basic story line, like all soap operas, is pretty simple. And I'm getting a lot out of the show despite any language problems I'm having.

Ben did a great job of summarizing the plot of Wo Ju in this post. I'll give my own brief synopsis of the plot here:

The story revolves around two sisters from a small city in China who have moved to the made up city of 江州 (Jiangzhou). Jiangzhou is, for all intents and purposes, Shanghai. The older sister (Hai Ping) is married to a decent man. The younger sister (Hai Zao) has a very nice boyfriend.

Both have their share of problems though.

Hai Ping is OBSESSED with buying a nice condo so that she can bring her young daughter, who is currently living with Hai Ping's parents in her hometown, to Jiangzhou. Hai Zao has a nice job (both sisters have white-collar jobs and graduated from good universities) and a caring boyfriend. But she is not very mature and makes several whimsical decisions throughout the show.

That is very short, but will do for now (just go read Ben's link, it'll help you figure out the main characters).

I've been shocked at how racy the show has been. There have been sex scenes (no nudity) that wouldn't make network TV in America, corruption amongst government officials is rampant, and the exploration of the housing bubble and property rights is a big part of the story-line.

I'd like to expound upon some of the major themes of the show that I've noticed:

1. Housing prices are out of control and condo ownership is a fleeting dream for many.

As I mentioned above, the two sisters in the show are well-educated and have decent jobs and the men in their lives are the same. They are not poor. But at the same time, buying a satisfactory condo in Jiangzhou is impossible.

One of my favorite scenes in the show is in episode six when Hai Ping and her husband go look to buy a condo. They begin by looking at a very modest, second-hand places. They can't believe the prices people are bidding though. Hai Ping is so disgusted that she is convinced that the other people touring the condos with her are friends with the seller and are only there to drive up the price.

Frustrated, they go to a much nicer block of new apartments that haven't been built yet, but that are for sale. They go to a real estate office with a large diorama of future high-rise condos and try to bid on one of those in-the-future-to-be-built condos. They have no chance though. The condos are going for prices that Hai Ping and her husband cannot afford. In fact, they are not even close to being able to afford anything "suitable."

Hai Ping is so frustrated at this time. She is living in a very shabby and dank one room apartment with her husband. It is not big enough for their daughter to live with them. Because they cannot buy a condo, they cannot live with their daughter. Hai Ping is heart-broken.

I've written about housing prices in China a lot on this blog. Just a couple months ago, new Shanghai condos were up 68% in over the previous year! That is insanity. And such craziness is affecting normal people a great deal.

2. Related to point 1 on the housing bubble, the residents of apartments that are being torn down to make way for new condo complexes are not properly compensated.

This point is shown in the show by the neighbors of Hai Ping in their dingy one bedroom apartment. The apartment block where Hai Ping lives is in a prime location for juicy new condos to go up. Although Hai Ping wants to move out of the apartment, not everyone there does.

The resistance to moving is most outwardly personified in a lovely, little old grandma. She has NO interest in moving out of the apartment where she lives. She is smart enough to know that the compensation she'll receive from the government/developers for her apartment being torn down will go nowhere in the heated up real estate market of Jiangzhou. On top of that, she simply doesn't want to move.

This section of the show goes hand in hand with a book I just read. Wild Grass by Ian Johnson (a book I highly recommend) tells three stories of people taking on the system in contemporary China. One of the stories he describes is centered around the destruction of hutongs in old Beijing.

"Wo Ju" portrays the government and the developers in urban China in the same way that Johnson did in his book. The government officials and developers building up these complexes are only in it for the money and they're all making a killing off of it. While the people in their wake are simply out of luck.

3. Moving from the countryside or small cities of China to big cities such as Shanghai can split families apart.

Hai Ping does not live with her toddler daughter. In fact, she's never lived with her. Since her daughter was born, she has lived with her grandma and grandpa (Hai Ping's parents).

There is a very sad scene where Hai Ping and her husband are back in her home city visiting her parents during the Spring Festival. Hai Ping has been looking forward to seeing her daughter for months. Her daughter doesn't even recognize her mother. She cries as soon as Hai Ping holds her and demands to see her grandma.

Hai Ping has chosen making it in the big city over being a mother to her daughter.

4. Although living in the big Chinese city provides new opportunities, life there is no cake walk.

This theme doesn't only apply to China, of course. I wrote a screed on this topic several months ago. Getting rich and having nice things ≠ happiness. More and more, "making it" sucks everything out of the people trying to live a more prosperous life.

There is one particular piece of dialog in "Wo Ju" on this topic I liked a lot. In an early episode, Hai Ping (the older sister) persuades Hai Zao to stay in Jiangzhou. Hai Zao was getting disillusioned and was thinking about going home to the small city where her parents lived.

Hai Ping asks Hai Zao a series of questions like, "Does our hometown have a history museum? Does it have concerts? Does it have cafes? No! Jiangzhou has all of these things. You need to stay and make your life here!"

The funny thing is that Hai Ping had become so obsessed with saving money for her fantasy condo at this point in the show that she never saw any of these things that make Jiangzhou so great. She and her husband had resorted to eating 方便面 (instant noodles) every day in an effort to save money! This great culture that Hai Ping spoke of is completely out of their grasp.

5. The life of an 二奶 (mistress) can seem to be a realistic means of setting up a stable life for a young woman.

I may be completely off base here, but I feel as though married men, especially successful married men, having mistresses and girlfriends is more accepted in China than it is in the West. Maybe I'm just reading too much into a stupid soap opera and a few people I knew in China. This very well may be the case. This statement is an anecdotal observation of mine and I'm willing to concede that infidelity, particularly in the instance of a sugar daddy supporting a young woman, happens just as often in the West as it does in China. Either way, a lot of guys in China have girlfriends outside of their marriage.

I'm not going to get into too much detail, but the life of a sugar daddy's mistress is glamorized in the show. The woman in the show who becomes a married man's girlfriend is given a wonderful condo to live in, a BMW to drive, and a credit card with unlimited resources to go shopping with.

Some downsides to this kind of life are shown. The mistress is often lonely and wants to see the man more than she does. But overall, the show, shows a lot of the positives of being an 二奶.

6. The absence of a solid rule of law makes life in China largely based upon one's 关系 (connections).

There are several instances throughout the show where the well-connected do as they please and break laws and help those in trouble who they care about.

I could keep going. But this post is already WAY too long and I'm going to stop.

If you want to watch the show yourself, go to either or or any other Chinese video site for the Chinese version. Qian and I have had better luck with the versions since they download faster here in America.

Also, there does appear to be a version on Youtube with English subtitles. It doesn't look like all of the episodes are there, but there is at least the first one.

For more plot summaries, media, and information on the show, you can read this great resource from on Wo Ju.

Obviously, I've enjoyed this show a lot. I still have a couple episodes left and am looking forward to finishing it up. I recommend it to anyone interested in China and especially to anyone who's made it this far into my post.


Ramesh said...

Very nice review. Alas, I have to study Chinese for the next 10 years to even match your understanding of half the dialogue :(

But can relate very much to the themes you have mentioned. The property situation is truly crazy and you see this in much of Asia; not just China. But the one thing that has really struck me (again, like you only anecdotally), is how acceptable it seems to be to have mistresses outside of marriage.

Anonymous said...

My wife watches chinese soap operas constantly and I showed her the photo on your blog before I got a chance to read your entry. I then got a 10 minute summary of the show and her opinions and then I read your entry and was struck by something.

She had the same observations you did and the plot points that stuck in her memory were the same ones that you summarized. She made the point that this was practically a reality show and that the truth is sometimes too painful in the "harmonious" society and thats why it was banned. In fact, she stated that your observations are in fact accurate and not just anecdotal.

I still have to get through the basic vocabulary, but after reading Ben's recommendation, watching Chinese shows as a way to learn Chinese is on my to do list. The main benefit to me is learning how conversations flow casually, even if it is soap opera talk.

Mark said...

@Ramesh - Which cities in India have the most heated real estate markets?

@Hopfrog - That's interesting that your wife and I came to the same conclusions. Makes me feel very Chinese!

I suppose Qian helped me form my views. She's certainly coming about it from the same perspective as your wife. And she was integral for my viewing of the show.

Qian said that the show only showed 1/100th of what really goes on on the darker side of things (particularly with the stuff on the municipal government), but that that is more than most shows do.

Before this show, I've never really watched Chinese TV. I should've been. Ben is right. It is a good way to practice/study.

The other day I talked with Qian's mom on Skype for a couple minutes. We talked about a range of different stuff. She said that my Chinese sounded a lot better than the last time I talked with her a few weeks earlier.

Just hearing the people talk gets my more in the mode of speaking Chinese (let alone helping my pronunciation). Qian and I have been talking way more Chinese recently after the show started.

I still didn't understand a lot of the show. That sucks. But my vocab and overall language skills just aren't there.

Oh well, I still had a blast watching Wo Ju. It did a lot for me in language practice, cultural understanding (to some degree), and entertainment.

Anonymous said...

LOL, thats funny, my wife basically said the same thing as yours. That as disturbing as the show can be, it only scratches the surface.

At least you could watch it, I would have picked up about 1/10th. Arghhh, I need to spend more time working on my Chinese. I find I am always looking for excuses to blow it off. I think thats another great reason to try and learn through an interesting show, your more likely to actually practice and look up words.

Ramesh said...

Mumbai and Delhi are worse then Shanghai and Beijing. For a tiny apartment in an awful building in the midst of the smoke belching traffic in Mumbai, you'd pay something that would be comparable to Manhattan. Prices are crazy in Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok let along Hong Kong or Tokyo were they have basically become insane.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised India is not getting the same attention that China is with regards to its changes and economic growth. The two countries seem to be on pretty parallel paths, albeit with major and minor differences.

Here is the opening paragraph from the CIA Factbook's economic section on India: "India is developing into an open-market economy, yet traces of its past autarkic policies remain. Economic liberalization, including reduced controls on foreign trade and investment, began in the early 1990s and has served to accelerate the country's growth, which has averaged more than 7% since 1997"

Warren Buffet this week spoke about the dynamic economies of both India and China that were, he predicts, have a major impact. But all the headlines in the papers that I read went along the lines of "Buffet predicts China's economic dominance".

I suppose after Discovery and History channel run out of things to talk about with China, we might be hearing all about "India Rises".

Mark said...

@Ramesh - Thanks for that info. As much as Manhattan... good God. What about Bangalore? I remember Thomas Friedman going on and on about it in "World is Flat." I have to imagine it is up there.

@Hopfrog - There is something about China and the media. Maybe it has something to do with them being "evil commies." I don't know.

Am I right that China's leadership "gets" economic development better than India (or something like that)?

Also, isn't India still much poorer than China? I've heard from travelers in China that the poverty you see in India dwarfs anything in China. Again, I haven't been to India and haven't experienced that, but was the word on the streets in hostels in China.

Yoli said...

Mark, I have started, since the summer, to learn Mandarin. It is a slow process and a friend saw from another site that it would take 10 years to be fully fluent. Of course, ten years are going to pass anyway so why not? I am enjoying your blog very much. Thank you for sharing. I watch soaps in Mandarin and it does help.