Rural love story

By Sun Shuangjie Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/26 18:28:39

China’s longest running TV series, set in a village, remains a hit with urban viewers

With no traditionally handsome or beautiful stars leading its cast and without sumptuous costumes or lavish set designs, Rural Love Story, which follows the trifling matters of everyday life inside a small village in Northeast China, has stunned the entertainment world by becoming the longest running Chinese television series since its debut in 2006.

When the first half of the ninth season of Rural Love Story (RLS) became available on on February 1 with 30 episodes, it defeated any other TV series being broadcast simultaneously on Chinese websites, with more than 200 million views within 22 hours. What's more, only paid VIP members of have access to the show.

RLS is produced by Benshan Media, which was set up in 2003 by Zhao Benshan, one of China's most popular comedians known as the "Oriental Chaplin." Prior to RLS, Zhao was already a household name through a handful of critically acclaimed comedy programs shown in the nation's annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala, which is aired on all domestic satellite channels every Chinese New Year's Eve.

In 2006, RLS had 30 episodes of its first season broadcast on China's national TV channel CCTV-1, winning the highest award credited by the publicity department of the CPC Central Committee in promoting spiritual civilization in 2007.

The second and third seasons, respectively released in 2008 and 2010, also debuted on CCTV-1, with the second becoming so popular that its ratings surpassed Xinwen Lianbo, a news program that aired live nightly across the Chinese mainland.

Before 2011, China's village population still outnumbered its cities and towns, yet few popular TV programs or films were set in the countryside. RLS single-handedly changed that, which was quickly imitated by a number of new shows and movies also taking place in the countryside.

But unlike those, which primarily featured good-looking, shapely young actors and actresses, RLS studded its cast with ordinary-looking middle-aged actors, including Liu Xiaoguang, Wang Xiaoli and Tang Jianjun.

Liu plays Zhao Si, a man with mouth spasms who dances with twitching movements whenever he gets excited. Wang's Liu Neng, a stammering, snobbish, stingy man whose daughter marries Zhao's son, is another "unattractive" character. And Tang delivers as Xie Guangkun, a father who ambitiously covets a position as village head.

A scene featuring famed Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan (above right) from China's longest running TV series Rural Love Story Photo: IC

The northeastern Chinese F4

The show's everyday cast of characters have touched so many viewers that, in real life, the actors are often called their characters' names by fans. Liu earlier told media that once an elderly man and his young grandchild he met both called him "Brother Si," which alerted the actor to the cross-generational phenomenon of his series.

Along with Zhao, who plays a minor role as an entrepreneur, the four have been credited by Chinese viewers as "the northeastern Chinese version of F4," referring to four rich and handsome male characters created in Japanese comic series Boys over Flowers.

The third season of RLS was supposed to conclude the series, according to Zhang Ji, an RLS screenwriter. However, after reaching the highest ratings on CCTV-1, Benshan Media decided to continue the story. But, starting in the fourth season, the show's primary platform switched from CCTV-1 to provincial satellite channels.

Additional road bumps ensued. In 2015, the eighth season of RLS had to cancel its debut broadcast on Heilongjiang Satellite TV due to "undisclosed reasons." With the rapid growth of Benshan Media, Zhao's reputation also started facing backlash.

In January of 2015, Benshan Media released a statement on Weibo addressing rampant online rumors, such as that Zhao had 20 tons of gold secreted away in his home and that the government was planning to ban him from television.

Since its eighth season, has become the exclusive channel to broadcast RLS, receiving over 100 million viewers within the first three days of its premiere.

According to statistics released by QQ, 84 percent of RLS season 8's audience are under the age of 30 and most of them live in first-tier cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

(From top) Posters and scenes from TV series Rural Love Story Photos: IC and CFP

Depicting countryside life

RLS' screenwriter Zhang believes that the village-set story appeals to urban dwellers who are unfamiliar with rural China. Zhang was born in the Chinese countryside in 1967, spending his first 29 years in a village before moving to the big city to pursue his dreams.

"To depict countryside life requires personal experiences there," Zhang once said. "Almost all conflicts in the countryside are mild clashes. There are few implacable hatreds, drastic changes or sharp divisions between right and wrong. It's through those trivial occurrences that villagers' kindness, struggles and hopes are shown."

Some RLS fans call the series "the Chinese Gossip Girl mixed with House of Cards," as it generally revolves around the intertwined relationships of several couples and their undulating social status.

On, China's equivalent of Quora, under the topic "How do you review Rural Love Story," a user named Valentina Wabeile wrote that "I've watched Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Downton Abbey and a dozen other American TV series, but I still find RLS as arresting as always."

However, the series' exaggeratedly comic approach has also triggered debate among Chinese critics. Zeng Qingrui, a professor at the Communication University of China, lashed out at RLS for its "fake realism" of rural life. Zhong Chengxiang, the former deputy chairman of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, also criticized RLS for its "superficial depiction" of Chinese villages.

Confronted with such comments, Liu Liu, vice president of Benshan Media, told that he just "doesn't care" what others say about the show, he only cares about its ratings.

Viewers have responded in kind, preferring the rural-based series over other shows set in cities. Likewise, many experts have lauded RLS for its "strategic rendering" of Chinese villages. Audiences and critics also enjoy its lighthearted tone.

Zhu Dongli, a scholar from Chinese National Academy of Arts, told the Legal Weekly that "it would be very difficult for RLS (to survive) if it only portrayed the problems of farmers and villages. So it's smart to use comedy as its narrative style."


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