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Insights into New China's media biz,
This review is from: China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture (Paperback)
Written more than 12 years ago, Ms Zha, at 34, wrote one of the first books on the effects of popular media in the New New China. Written by a native who later emigrated to the US in her mid-20s for graduate school in Lit, the reader should look at is what is said and just as important what is not said. She emigrated right after Tiananmen incident, which had a great impact on her while attending Beijing U. Her arguments with her father, a researcher at one of the China Academies in BJ, caused a great dichotomy in the family. She believes that "...culture will save China, I (father) believe the economy will (p14)."
As most American readers, we have to filter the official mouthpieces of China Daily, Xinhua, and People's Daily, which are approved newsources of the China Gov't. And there are different editions, for Chinese and English consumption. We have to evaluate their points of view for any hidden agenda. And so it goes in the US too, such as the Epoch Times newspaper published in Chinese in NYC publishes a slant critical of the China Gov't, pro Falun Gong.
Now 46, with a 2003 Guggenheim fellowship under her belt, she has returned to BJ to write more fiction, perhaps break into the movie / TV biz and write a sequel to this book. Her husband, Benjamin Lee, a PhD who has been recently been appointed Graduate Dean of Social Research at The New University, NYC, a 1st gen Chinese anthropologist is also joining her as a mentor and confidant in BJ. His topic of social research is in the field of speculative finance.
Her book, which reads like a novel and easy-to-read multi-layered one like a Tom Clancy novel. Enticingly it gives pomp and circumstance, before delivering a B-school reader in disguise. This book is less about modern Chinese culture as it is about the business of culture. It belies the fact that this serious book is used as required readings at her alma maters, USC, Rice, Chicago, Columbia Chinese culture courses. Unfortunately, it doesn't have an index to locate people, books, films, and SOEs and there is no bibliography or pixs.
The great thing is that her perspective is part BJ native and part BJ expat that is proper for writing books and giving a more dispassionate view on the evolution of the national media. Shunning the myopic view that changes at first glance at warp speed, she gives an insiders view as case studies, to the three major mass-media venues, TV soaps (Chap 2), movies (Chap 4), pulp fiction (Chap 6), and lastly the media impact from Hong Kong (Chap 7) before its 97 repatriation. Lots of research into the insider interviews by the movers and shakers themselves.
In Chap 2, she profiles the creation of a new TV media, soap operas, and how the National TV propaganda machine changed its tune after seeing the popularity of foreign movies on TV. They needed to popularize the social realities of the New China and give a feminist's twist to make sure it appeals to the older generation of retired women too. As in all new and risky endeavors, Zha writes about the key five people involve in bringing out a weekly evening soap, Yearning. The sweatshop mentality, impossible deadlines, dedication at low pay, and eventual burnout. And the series viewership exceeded their wildest dreams. Definitely a close-up of a saga that portends the future of Central Chinese TV.
In Chap 3, she profiles the changes in Beijing's skyline from an architectural viewpoint. She writes about four architects and their futile efforts in instilling cultural preservation and retaining a dignified city. In over 24 pages, she discusses how walls and courtyards previously defined the Chinese family culture and neighborhoods, came down during the Soviet-inspired model city era and the wanton reconstruction of the 80s. And that modern Chinese architecture is now defined in the new Olympic village in northern outskirts of BJ, with the few remaining relics of history left abandoned by modern BJers.
In Chap 4, she profiles two movie-making directors by contrasting their styles and techniques, Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern). Over 25 pages, she mainly talks about the insider's stories on ego involvement where together they are greater than in competition with each other. She also shows that these expensive cultural epics also drained the State Film industry coffers, such that the succeeding 6th generation of filmmakers had little if any State support for their craft. Fairly shallow discussion on the emerging domestic film industry.
In Chap 6, Ms Zha writes about the insatiable demand for Jia Pingwa's "The Abandoned Capital," pulp-fiction for the masses. In 35 pgs, she shows that after Mao there was such a dirth of sex education, that this type of literature was needed in the city by the politburo, scholars, as well as factory workers. She interviews the author, sex pathology MDs, and Chinese feminists.
In Chap 7, she profiles the CIM (Zhicai) Corp Div of Ming Bao, a HK media mogul, which plans and executes a strategy in expansion into mainland China. In over 30 pages, this is a classical B-school analysis of the triumphs, pitfalls, and personnel intrigue of an OEChinese penetrating into the entrenched Chinese apparatchik. Any new American media mogul contemplating the Chinese market should read this chapter carefully.
Throughout this book, Ms Zha emphasizes that the people who can get things done have to do it with Chinese characteristics, one has to know lots of influential people, be crafty and wily as a fox, and know where the trapdoors and loopholes within the system. Outsiders and individualists are clueless.