The film, A Faraway
Home in Beijing came out in 1993, bringing both fame and financial backing
for Chen's work. His next project, The
Dragon's Back, about rural school dropouts, came out in 1995 to more
critical acclaim. Chen suffered bouts of depression while he was making Dragon. He was clinically depressed for
a year and half, losing his sense of purpose and questioning why he would want
to continue working for CCTV. He seemed to have come out the other side of
depression with a firm grasp of the limitations and imperfections of
contemporary Chinese media, and the implications of those conditions for his
own life as a media professional. Resigned but not jaundiced, he is among the
most thoughtful and clear-eyed people I talked to.
Though Chen hinted in our early correspondence that he'd
rather not discuss his depression, by the time our appointment arrived, I could
hardly fail to address the issue, since it had already become apparent from
background research and in previous interviews that CCTV is full of
serious-minded creators who regularly experience bouts of self-doubt,
philosophical ambivalence, and in some cases, like Chen's and Cui Yongyuan's,
clinical depression. Certain common themes, about ideals distorted or
altogether thwarted by commercial and political pressure, were also emerging. I
broached the subject with Chen with an open-ended question: "Are you happy
where you are?"
"Doesn't matter. Work is work." He shrugged. "I'm the
employee, so my loyalty lies with my employer." With a palpable disenchantment
in his tone, he continued, "Prior to 1999, I thought I was part of the
collective ownership of the network and worked hard to make the network
CCTV's accelerated commercialization since 1999 troubled
Chen. "National TV should represent the nation, not the moneyed interests. Now
it all depends on who can sell more products and cater to more viewers. You're
rewarded based on the amount you sell and bring."
Are there many others who share these feelings about the
state of Chinese television?
"Certainly," Chen said. "Mine are hardly radical. Many have
written articles and spoken to journalists about this. I don't usually do that."
Perhaps the then incoming new president would protect
quality programs from the ratings war?
"It all depends on whose criteria we are talking about,
quality-wise," Chen said. "Quality according to the state machine, the general
public, or the social ideals of intellectual circles?" he asked. "They are not
Chen regards his documentary program as a kind of gateway
toward high-culture television in China, the most nimble vehicle for ideas and
information that would otherwise scrape against too many political and
commercial barriers to make it to the air. In every other type of programming,
he complained, the road is already laid out for you, especially the news. "No
need for you to look for news, because news outside the boundaries does not exist.
... You say whatever you are told to say."