Television Travel and the Strange Beauty of Chinese TV

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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."

In China, most of our channels were controlled by the state-run CCTV, so propaganda was obvious. One, for example, showed villainous anti-Japanese World War II docudramas every single night, or so it seemed. And of course the news broadcasts were filled with stately images of President Hu and kindly images of "Grandfather" Wen. Sometimes, news just disappeared; foreign broadcasts would go abruptly off air, blocking what China considered sensitive segments about, say, Tiananmen or Tibet.

Some of the programs had a lighter touch, like the life-lessons programs. A surprising number of shows seemed designed to bring people up to snuff on commonsense basics of nutrition (what kids could eat for snacks), health and well being (call-in shows about babies' behavior), exercise (how-tos), and good life habits. They were simple and clear, and managed to avoid sounding (at least to me) lecturing, hectoring, or patronizing.

I watched one show recently, here in D.C., that kept me mesmerized about arthritic knees, and I don't even have arthritis. The story was of one Mrs. Liu, a middle-aged woman whose knees bothered her so much she couldn't enjoy walking or traveling with her friends. The program hostess, convincing and reassuring wearing a traditional red qipao, described the medical problem with plain graphics. The vocabulary was pretty difficult for me (knee cap, arthritis, ligament; I must have missed that lesson), but, as nearly always on Chinese TV, the audio was subtitled in characters, smoothing the language issues among the Chinese that arise from multiple dialects and heavy regional accents. In the U.S., this program was subtitled in English, too—a dream for the language student.

The program quickly turned into a cooking lesson, as we learned how to boil up a traditional Chinese medicine supplement. Soak black beans, chop pig's feet, slice ox feet root (which I think was a plant, not real ox feet). Boil together into a soup. But beware: high in cholesterol.

Then enter one Dr. Wang, who performed acupuncture on Mrs. Liu. He drew out a long, thick needle and drove it gently into Mrs. Liu's chubby knee. Honest to God, 30 minutes later, Mrs. Liu was on her feet, and soon we saw her walking arm in arm with her friends through the neighborhood. The underlying lessons, interspersed along the story, were about healthy habits of exercise and alternatives for healing when problems arise.

With China being so far away, it's nice to know I can turn on channel 32 anytime I want to get a little bit closer, especially for the language lessons and a bit of propaganda.

Image: Claro Cortes/Reuters

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

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