AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 126

[ China and Inner Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 126: Dramatized Societies: Class, Gender, and Ethnicity in Contemporary Chinese-Language Television Drama

Organizer: Shuyu Kong, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Television drama is the most recent arrival in the history of drama, and has become a primary storytelling form in modern times. Through television, “drama is built into the rhythms of everyday life” (Raymond Williams). This panel will analyze how social experiences of class, gender and ethnic identities are mediated through four case studies of Chinese-language television dramas. Bai Ruoyun’s paper deals with a recent urban TV drama Narrow Dwelling (2009) which addresses many social issues associated with compressed modernization from a middle class perspective. Ying-fen Huang’s paper compares the Mainland TV drama Narrow Dwelling with the Taiwanese drama Black and White, exploring the highly contested processes of class formation and the politics of spatial polarization within the urban setting. Shuyu Kong’s paper on the representation of laid-off female workers in melodramas of emotional hardship takes on the affective aspect of television drama and the centrality of emotion in representing contemporary Chinese experiences of change. Finally, Gaik Khoo’s paper focuses on Singapore Mandarin-language TV soap opera The Little Nyonya (2009), discussing how TV drama is used to promote Peranakan Chinese cultural identity and heritage among Chinese diaspora. The four papers are bound by the central question of how televised dramatic form and imagination are used to mediate contemporary experience. Methodologically, they also share a common approach of combining textual analysis with ethnographical studies, allowing us to understand this popular cultural form within the context of its reception and use.

Moral Ambivalence and Middle-Class Desires in a Neoliberal Society- A Study of a Chinese TV Drama 'Snail House'
Ruoyun Bai, University of Toronto, Canada

Compressed modernization has resulted in a great deal of anxiety, confusion and ambivalence in Chinese society concerning the boundaries of what is acceptable moral behavior. Capturing the structure of feelings of Chinese urban middle-class, the astoundingly popular Snail House (also known as Narrow Dwelling, 2009) has become a key cultural text of contemporary China. Combining a textual analysis with a close reading of selected commentaries in print and digital media, supplemented by in-depth interviews with Chinese viewers in Canada, I examine how Snail House and viewers’ discussions about it simultaneously foreground and construct a distinct middle-class identity in contemporary China. In this middle-class imagination, social injustice is a focus of critique and indeed, the shocking “realism” of the drama explains its popularity. Yet at the same time, corruption is justified and normalized and the government official becomes an icon of irresistible charm and desirable masculinity. Both questioning and celebrating modernization and the power of the Capital, Snail House demonstrates an inability, and an inability of the middle-class, to provide a moral vision for society. Nevertheless, in its attempt to stabilize the value system, it only re-asserts boundaries of the moral in a highly gendered way.

Spatial Divide and Class Formation in Chinese Urban Dramas
Ying-Fen Huang, Simon Fraser University, Canada

On the stage of globalization, cities have become sites of accumulation. However, this process of rapid urbanization goes hand in hand with afflicted discontents. The promotional aim of neoliberal developments generates spatial divides while at the same time polarizes social classes. The fan based Black and White (2009) reflects the spectacular nature of the neo-liberal urban growth while the equally popular Narrow Dwelling (2009) addresses the urban contradictions on human geography and class formation. Shot in Kaohsiung, the Taiwanese police drama Black and White is a product of a promotional city. Black and White deliberately features numerous urban spectacles in Kaohsiung and constructs a sensibility of upper class oriented urban lifestyle. Across the strait, Shanghai based drama Narrow Dwelling reveals the contradictions of urban development within which urban displacement, systematic corruption and social polarization are the predominant themes. Most significantly, the show further implicates the relational and formational processes of class stratification. Class relations in the globalizing city are now mediated by the politics of geographical polarization. This paper will place these two dramas in wider contexts of political economy of neo-liberalization in China and Taiwan, and explore the overlapping themes of public-private partnership in urban growth and city promotion, the construction of urban images in relation to the discourses of official ideologies, and the formation and consciousness of different social classes. I intend to demonstrate that TV drama is an active agency that informs, mediates, and negotiates urban processes through the medium of social/class structure.

Melodrama for Change: Women, Plight and Emotion in Chinese TV Drama
Shuyu Kong, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Derived from the Chinese drama tradition and incorporating aspects of East Asian family melodrama, kuqingxi (dramas of emotional hardship) have become extremely popular on Chinese television in recent years. These dramas often concern the everyday struggles of subaltern subjects and highlight the emotional plight of women and the urban poor in a fast changing and stratified society. Crying Your Heart Out (You lei jinqing liu, 2004) is influenced by the kuqingxi narrative tradition and focuses on one of the most serious negative consequences of China’s economic reforms: “gendered lay-offs.” The main protagonist is a laid-off female worker overcoming the difficulties of finding work in a ruthless employment market and the personal catastrophe of losing her husband. After many tears and numerous trials, she finally transforms herself into the successful owner of a fast food chain and achieves a sense of self-growth and independence. My paper combines textual and discourse analysis with audience studies. I argue that the sense-making function of such Chinese TV dramas operates on two levels: on the pedagogical level, they disseminate the official discourse of reform and development, and help to promote the state’s “re-employment project” in a concrete way; yet on the affective level, the emotionality and emotional realism of these melodramas speak to the shattering experiences of a rapidly changing society and allow audiences to identify with the characters and see themselves as part of a wider moral community.

The Little Nyonya and Peranakan Chinese identity
Gaik Cheng Khoo, Australian National University, Australia

The highly successful Singapore Mandarin-language soap opera The Little Nyonya (2009) led to a resurgent interest about Peranakan Chinese cultural identity and heritage. The series was also sold to Malaysia, China, Thailand and Vietnam. This paper focuses on the significance of the television series to Peranakan Chinese identity, long considered a dying culture in Singapore and Malaysia. ‘Peranakan’ Chinese meaning ‘local-born Chinese’ refers specifically to the Chinese whose ancestry dates back to the 1700s who married local women, and adapted to Malay language, cuisine and fashion yet maintained Taoist-Buddhist rituals and ancestor worship. Employing open-ended interviews with Malaysians, Singaporeans and others and internet searches of blogs and e-discussion groups, I argue that making a Mandarin-language series enabled the story about Peranakans to travel further than it would have had the dialogue been in authentic Baba patois. The representation of Peranakan culture and identity also conformed to the generic format of ‘Chinese television drama’ which while compromising somewhat on ‘authenticity’ might have made the series more familiar with global audiences. I argue that The Little Nyonya appropriates and repackages particular commodifiable aspects of Peranakan culture to represent a unique “Singaporean” national identity—still Chinese albeit with very marketable differences generated through fashion, culture and cuisine. This uniquely indigenized Chinese identity is meant to distinguish Singapore from its transnational Chinese viewers by presenting an assuring sameness, a paradoxical multiculturalism without multicultural subjects, where indigenous Malay difference is absorbed and written into ethnic Chinese bodies.