Television Travel and the Strange Beauty of Chinese TV

A former expat on what cartoons and propaganda films tell us about modern China—and how channel 32 always transports her back

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Every few months, my wanderlust comes inching back. Lately, the specific form has been a recurrent yearning for China. This is inconvenient, as China is more than 7,000 miles from our home in Washington, D.C. Seeking a substitute, I scrolled through our cable TV channels and found the Metro Chinese Network, an all-Chinese station, with mostly imports straight from the mainland. What a find; it's the real thing. I was immediately transported back to our China life.

I spent lots of downtime watching TV in China, to soak up the language, the culture, and the propaganda. TV also gave me common ground for casual conversations.

I chatted with my neighborhood laundry owner about the war dramas he liked to watch while he ironed shirts, or the gaudy Las Vegas-like extravaganzas that are wildly popular during big Chinese holiday seasons. I mingled with the shopgirls in Shanghai as they crouched on three-legged stools, eating their lunchtime noodles and staring at a small TV propped on a shelf. They were absorbed in their trendy variety shows, hungry for the content: fashion tips, make-up lessons, advice to the lovelorn about romance gone bad.

Once, I spent an entire week glued to the TV. These were the seven days that began with the Sichuan earthquake in the spring of 2008. The filming was riveting, particularly early in the week, when real-life drama unfolded so fast that the always tightly programmed announcers had no choice but to ad lib their interviews and comments. The result was more human, transparent voice and emotion than I've ever seen before or since on Chinese TV. A tender side of the Chinese came out—one normally kept quite well under wraps in this society where you have to scramble to watch out for yourself—brought on by the raw, horrific events.

Like every kid in China, I also watched a lot of cartoons. They make for perfect Mandarin lessons, with simple, colloquial language, clear voices, and repetitive dialogues. The cartoons are a window to the heavy moral lessons that China seeks to teach its young: Over the course of an hour, a little boy catches a wild bird, brings him home to a cage, finds the bird's spirit waning, listens to his parents describe how the bird needs to be free, and finally releases the bird to fly away. Or the little boy from the countryside, who walks over hill and dale to school and back each day, comes across an unpopular classmate who has hurt her foot, wrestles with his conscience about stopping to help, and ends up carrying the girl on his back all the way home.

I love the Chineseness I recognize in these cartoons. The images of the birds in cages—how many times did I watch old men in their (fairly early-age) dotage out walking their beloved birds in fancy cane cages around the parks of Shanghai, sometimes hanging the birds to air on low tree branches, while catching up on gossip or playing games? Or the image of carrying something piggy-back, a sight ubiquitous in China, where there is even a particular verb, bei, which means "to carry on one's back."

Presented by

Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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