China Quirks: Spring Festival Tele-Extravaganza

In China, Chun Wan, the four-hour variety show that CCTV broadcasts on lunar new year eve, is as essential a part of spring festival celebrations as home-made dumplings. Nearly every household tunes in to see which famous performers will show their chops in the biggest televised extravaganza of the year. People who don’t own TV sets, or those unlucky ones who didn’t make it home for the occasion, crowd around any public place where a tube is flickering. This show is the Super Bowl and Academy Awards rolled into one.

But it’s more than just entertainment. It’s a once yearly chance for the leadership to amuse, cajole, and subtly – or not so subtly – set the tone for us common folks in the coming year.

Keeping the programming under wraps is an obsessive task for Chun Wan producers, performers, and propagandists. Furthermore, keeping viewers happy is a mission impossible. For as long as I can remember, people have lambasted the un-funniness of the skits, the un-cheerfulness of song and dance numbers, and the not-so-special guest appearances. Every year people complained that the show is getting less entertaining, yet every year they faithfully tune in.

Whenever I lived in a place where I could catch the Chun Wan broadcast I’ve watched it, and I rarely complained. I thought the programming was good and complaining was just part of our culture. This year, I had the rare chance to actually be in China for the lunar new year so I got to watch the program live and savor a few reruns. And my verdict is decidedly – the show must not go on.

Back in the day, mass TV audiences were easy to please, despite their negative opining. Producers would throw in some folk arts, like “xiang sheng” (traditional two-person stand-up comedy) and “jing ju” (Peking opera); a few traditional dances; everybody’s favorite revolutionary songs; and low-brow humor delivered through “xiao pin” (small skits). Voilà, the show was complete.

Nowadays, tastes have diverged with the luxury of choice available to the average Chinese. In an effort to please all, Chun Wan has become a mishmash of acts that aren’t hitting any of the chords. The folk arts have been diluted to appear more modern. Gone from this year’s show were the stand-up comedians’ display of traditional oratory skills – the 100 words a minute verbal dexterity. Instead, famous comic duos stood around touting random facts about famous people and ripping slapstick jokes.

The once humorous skits, usually dedicated to topics concerning the nation’s core population of farm-dwellers, are now infused with trendy topics, like plastic surgery and web surfing. In an attempt to upgrade tried and true village themes, this year’s skits lost their wholesome appeal, leaving viewers pondering the lack of an ending to the night’s grand finale by Zhao Benshan (China’s biggest folk star who made his name on a “country bumpkin” persona).

This year’s Chun Wan also saw an injection of new talent. Decidedly younger performers, in or under their 30’s (compared to the older stars that traditionally get invited to perform), took the stage to display dubious talent. I didn’t know any of them (granted, I’m out of date on Chinese pop culture) but the only reason they seem to have been asked to join the show at all was that they could shout loudly and weren’t embarrassed about thrusting their bodies around awkwardly.

The constant in this year’s show, like in any year, was the underlying political messages. As the entertainment content in Chun Wan came down this year, the political component took up the space. Some of the themes were mild and to be expected – a barely disguised skit meant to educate people on counterfeit currency; some nudge nudge wink wink jokes about speculative real estate investments; and a lavish showcasing of China’s first batch of female fighter pilots (sixteen identically-sized and similar-aged girls picked out of 250,000 applicants).

There were also other, stronger messages. To emphasize ethnic harmony, many show slots were given to showing minorities dancing and singing with glee. The expat friends I invited home to watch the show exclaimed their surprise as a large group of Uighurs cheered to a jolly beat on stage, shouting “Yakshi! Yakshi!” (“Great! Great!”). Anyone who watched the news in 2009 knows that it wasn’t such a “Yakshi” year.

A closer look at the subtitles revealed that the elderly gentleman singer – also an ethnic Uighur – was hardly singing lyrics. He was reciting a roster of political accomplishments in 2009: “the government gave us housing subsidies”, “our children never went to school but now elementary and middle schools are free”, “we have medical care”, and so on.

I used to think that only old fogies joined in on Chun Wan bashing. Either this year’s show was truly sub-par, or it’s time I retired from my spot in front of the TV set on new year’s eve.

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