Fish out of water

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2014-10-15 18:38:01

Series makes rural life interesting with intricate plot

A scene from Civic Yuppie in the Countryside starring Wu Xiubo and Gao Xiaofei. Photo: CFP

I could hardly believe it when I found out my South-Korean-and-American-soap opera-loving-friends had fallen in love with a local TV series that takes place in the rural countryside. It's a very rare thing for a domestic rural TV series, which normally attracts the eyeballs of the middle-aged and elderly demographic, to attract a younger audience, especially during a time when such series are losing their appeal. However, this one in particular stands out for a reason.   

A drama focusing on the trials and tribulations of an urban civil servant who is transferred to a rural village as its chief official, A Civic Yuppie in the Countryside has been leading the ratings with its intricate plot, realistic touch and vivid characters since it began last month.

Intriguing plots

To be frank, the TV series doesn't have a very attractive name. The literal translation of its Chinese name is "Ma Xiangyang goes to the countryside," which is plain, monotonous and not poetic at all. For this reason I wasn't interested in the show hardly at all, except for some curiosity about Wu Xiubo, the actor playing Ma, as he usually plays handsome and fashionable men in movies and shows such as like Finding Mr. Right and Divorce Lawyers.

"I wonder what he'll look like in a rural show?" I - and probably many other people who tuned in for Wu - thought to myself.

However, once I started, I found it hard to stop watching. My curiosity about the plot quickly outgrew the curiosity I had about Wu's performance. Though an ordinary rural comedy, the show becomes as intriguing as a suspense show as the plot unwinds.

Ma Xiangyang, an employee with the commercial bureau of a city in Shandong Province who has no experience living or working in rural areas, is suddenly transferred to a poor village as part of a year-long poverty alleviation program. During his time there, he has to deal with all kinds of problems with the village, meanwhile learning how to get along with the villagers, a group of people who think totally different than he does.

From a civil servant enjoying a cozy life to a village official who has to deal with the hardships that come from living in a poor rural community, this is a huge change for Ma, who feels out of touch with everything at first. This contrast in lifestyle and how Ma gradually adapts to village life is one of the more interesting elements in the show and often gets a laugh. 

As different as rural lifestyles are from life in the big city, the difference in the way people in the village think and solve problems is even more profound. While Ma is accustomed to modern cities where the rule of law presides and contracts are binding, the villagers put more faith in personal relations and personal authority.

The conflict that arises from these contrasting backgrounds is one of the key parts of the story that really rope the audience in. As Ma makes policy changes he invariably ends up affecting the interests of the villagers, either individually or collectively, and you can't help but want to see who will win this battle of wills. For instance, when Li Yunfang, a typical shrewish village woman, stands in the way of the construction of a new road, or when some villagers want to sell a centuries-old locust tree for profit, I found myself tied to the TV screen wanting to see how things played out.

The show realistically shows the challenges that officials face at the grassroots level where the implementation of each decision can encounter unforeseen changes and resistance.

But that's not all. The most interesting part of the show concerns the endless "struggles" going on among the villagers themselves. While not official, Liu Shirong is the actual leader of this traditional Chinese village where most people share the same family name and the same ancestral roots. Meanwhile, Li Yunfang, the owner of a grocery store and the wife of the village chief, is always coming into conflict with the Liu clan due to her unwillingness to back down from a fight. 

This power struggle between the two families runs throughout the show, causing many netizens to compare it to the political machinations that are seen in imperial concubine dramas, which constantly challenge the intelligence of the audience with their complicated plots.

A drama for everyone

Although Civic Yuppie's basic premise is about an urban official's experiences in rural China, it involves enough variety that pretty much anyone can find something they love. It is a combination of three themes that would be able to do well all on their own in any other show - a yuppie's adventure in a remote village, the growth of a young grassroots official and a restless village featuring an endless battle of wits.

In addition to complicated plots, Civic Yuppie has made another big breakthroughs when compared with TV shows of the same type.

Unlike other shows that either attempt to be funny yet have barely any plot, such as Country Love, or go to the other extreme only focusing on the hardships of rural life that slowly tear down the audience with never-ending scenes of tragedy.

Civic Yuppie stands out, in this regard, as it is a comedy in which the humor is very natural and is entwined within plots set against a realistic background. It shows the poverty of villagers that depend on land for income, but objectively, without exaggeration.

The show does an exceptional job with its characters as well, giving a realistic portrayal of rural villagers, a group that are usually either demonized or glorified in many works on TV. The show reveals their complicated human nature that is a mixture of selfish desire and self-esteem, simplicity and cunningness.

Of course, the show isn't perfect. For instance, the love stories involving several couples all end up having happy endings, and some people on the Internet have pointed out that there is no way so many things could have happened to Ma in the space of one year because most villages in real life are idle and uneventful.

However, as I see it the show isn't setting itself up as a documentary. It's much better to watch so many things happening in one year than to tune in to watch a plot that never progresses, like we see on several other similar shows on TV.

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