Illustration: Sun Ying
I've seldom talked about Chinese TV dramas with my friends even though I write for TV. Every time we touch the topic, their zeal for South Korean and Thailand dramas but blunt criticism of Chinese mainland dramas embarrasses me.
Admittedly, these years Chinese TV is hardly filled with original shows. Audiences' choice is restricted to various versions of Journey to the West or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, historical stories everyone has seen a million times, and repetitive family dramas. TV writers are usually blamed for this.
There are many criticisms and questions on Chinese TV writers' creativity. Writers are blamed for having failed to provide audiences with stories as excellent and attractive as foreign dramas. As a TV writer, I often reflect on whether writers are the main reason and whether it's really difficult to produce good scripts in China.
In Chinese TV drama, few writers can freely work on the topics that they prefer. Instead, the producers pick the topics. That's why we sometimes describe ourselves as "dancing in chains."
Even worse, when the actors, TV drama makers, art directors and others involved in the TV drama all rush to pour out their opinions on the drama, the authority of writers will be greatly challenged and the plot will develop beyond the writers' wishes.
I was once asked by one of the investors to add another element in the story, since he wanted the leading character to be based on himself. Sometimes, actors will demand the story be changed, and some even bring their own personal writers into the team. They blindly change the script to enrich their own characters, overlooking the whole structure of the drama.
As a result, writers have little power. One of my friends, also a writer, once visited the set of one of his own dramas, only to find himself entirely lost. His story had been completely gutted and replaced.
Another problem is that Chinese screenwriters aren't financially secure. When they're not being paid on time, it's hard to concentrate on their work. They need a sense of security, rather than having to spend their time in a battle of wits and courage with TV producers to get the money they're owed, which distracts their attention from creative work.
TV dramas are playing an important role nowadays. The "Korean wave" of the last decade has made many countries realize that TV dramas can be an important way to promote cultural values.
South Korean dramas have promoted Korean culture, cuisine, and tourism. A 2009 survey conducted by research agency Nielsen Korea asked 600 travelers from China, Japan and Thailand visiting Seoul why they had come. The top response was "because of South Korean TV shows and Seoul advertisements."
China isn't competent at this. Last year, 469 TV dramas with a total of 14,942 episodes were produced and permitted to air in China. This certainly delivers in quantity, but can their qualities promote the country's values overseas?
So far the market for Chinese TV shows in other countries, outside Chinese-language television channels, has been tiny. While Korean, Japanese, and US shows dominate Chinese video-sharing sites, and even tiny Denmark is turning out successful crime TV for export worldwide, a country of 1.3 billion people should be able to do better.
Enhancing the creativity of writers is just one aspect. But without breaking the hidden rules that damage the authority and rights of writers, it's impossible for Chinese TV drama to satisfy even the domestic audience, let alone become popular elsewhere.
A dancer cannot freely swirl and jump in heavy chains. Writers shouldn't be blamed as the only reason for the low quality of Chinese TV drama. What's more urgent is breaking those chains on writers, and on the industry.
The author is a TV drama writer based in Beijing. firstname.lastname@example.org