Haizao, now Song Siming’s mistress and addicted to his sexual skills, enjoys sexual pleasure … and praises his vigor.

A salaried Xiaobei celebrates five hundred days of dating with Haizao by treating her to a visit to the aquarium. However, he loses Haizao to the much richer and more sexually-skilled Song Siming, who offers Haizao delicacies, an apartment, and a car, among many other commodities.

A split screen showing how Song Siming and Haizao’s affair simultaneously betrays both Song’s wife (the top left) and Xiaobei (on the right).

Xiaobei wails and admits he still loves Haizao.

Haizao cries shamefully upon hearing Xiaobei’s decision to stay with her.

Haizao, pregnant, requests intimacy with Song and suggests a “nine soft one hard” penetration technique, which she believes will do no harm to the fetus.

Haizao informs Haiping of her pregnancy. Haiping recommends aborting the illegitimate embryo while Haizao argues naively that present-day society is more liberal and tolerant of all kinds of relationships.


Narrow Dwelling as anti-corruption
television drama and social critique

The actual dynamics between censorship policy and television production can be observed in the example of programming that takes as its theme anti-corruption, in this case, the television drama Narrow Dwelling. As Marwyn Samuels suggests, the boundaries and permissibility of censorship are far from fixed and unbending, and definitions of “sensitive” issues remain vague (2012, 168-9). Censorship policy is historically specific and changes over time. Therefore an issue once labeled as “sensitive” may not stay “sensitive” indefinitely. Because censorship policy is flexible and vague, there’s room for negotiation. The television drama Narrow Dwelling not only provides an interesting case to illustrate negotiations between television drama producers and an official censorship policy against crime-related genre (she an ju) in general and especially anti-corruption drama. It also exemplifies the CCP’s taming strategies in tackling critical cultural products.

Narrow Dwelling was created in a context in which SARFT reduced, rejected, and discouraged the production and broadcast of crime-related television programs. From 2003 to the present, SARFT has attempted to strictly control the airing time and the number of crime-related television programs. In 2003, SARFT strongly enforced the rule that crime-related television programs were not allowed to occupy more than ten percent of the total approved television programming. This move was likely aimed at preventing anti-corruption/crime-related dramas that depict corruption in the Party and officialdom, which might ruin the Party’s image and call the current social system into question (SARFT 2004a). The policy in fact stood in line with a shift in the focus of China’s anti-corruption campaign between 2005 and 2006 from fighting bribery and corruption in the public sector to fighting it in the private sector (Cheng 2006). Therefore, SARFT’s discouragement of crime-related television dramas including those dealing with corruption probably belongs to a larger state project of maintaining the Party’s upright image.

In 2004, under the premises of cultivating a healthy environment for youth, SARFT promulgated the Notice Regarding Reinforcement of Censorship and Broadcast Management of Crime-genre Television Dramas, which stated that all television channels must arrange for any crime-related programs to be broadcast after 11 p.m. (after prime-time), regardless of whether or not the program was already in the process of airing or had a scheduled airdate. In addition, all administrative and censorship departments had to strictly reduce the number of visual products concerning crime broadcast on television and control the amount of crime depicted (SARFT 2004b). After seeing an increasing number of applications to shoot crime-related television dramas, SARFT reiterated its discouraging stance in 2008 and again in 2011, emphasizing that the 2004 regulation was still in force (SARFT 2008a; Baotou Municipal Bureau of Radio, Film, and Television 2011).

Therefore, because Narrow Dwelling’s producers proposed a melodramatic narrative focusing on women rather than an investigation into Party corruption, they came up with a safe, strategic move to pass censorship. Had Narrow Dwelling’s production team identified its subject matter as crime-related on the “Report Filing Form For Television Drama Shooting and Production” (Dianshiju paishe zhizuo bei’an gongshi biao), an application form required to apply for a shooting permit for any television drama in the PRC, the show’s chance of passing the initial screening stage would have been slim. Instead, Narrow Dwelling defined its subject matter as a “contemporary-city theme” and successfully acquired a shooting permit (SARFT 2008c). It also went through the second censoring stage smoothly and obtained a distribution permit (faxing xuke zheng), a license allowing a television drama to be released on television or in other formats.

In discussing interactions between the state’s censorship policy and the dexterous narratives incorporated by television dramas, I find especially pertinent Foucault’s concept of reproductive power. SARFT’s policy of controlling the number of crime-related television dramas, particularly those related to corruption, originates from the state’s suspicion that crime-related television dramas that vividly depict corruption in the Party might chip away at the Party’s integral image. In this light, state censorship, conceived as a Foucauldian form of power, is not repressive but productive (1979, 194). Television dramas, like other forms of cultural productions, are not purely commercial products, nor are they produced by individuals whom the state entirely manipulates. The censorship policy on crime-related television dramas produces negotiated portrayals of corruption, such as that in Narrow Dwelling; in this case, the show uses prominent women characters to also interweave and expose a network of corrupted members of Party officials, property developers, and bankers.

Narrow Dwelling, first broadcast in 2009, created huge echoes in the PRC. Its high rate of viewership in Mainland China encouraged Taiwan and Hong Kong broadcasting companies to air it on their local channels. In addition, Woju’s narrative inspired Television Broadcasts Limited (a.k.a TVB) in Hong Kong to produce L’Escargot (Quezhai nannü, 2012), a thirty-episode television drama featuring a young woman involved in an extra-marital affair for the sake of gaining  financial assistance in buying an apartment.[6] [open endnotes in new window] Back in Mainland China, Narrow Dwelling’s popularity on the small screen further pushed its adaptation into another genre—a stage play; its Chinese title, Woju, literally “snail dwelling,” became one of the most popular terms in 2009 mainstream media (National Language Resource Monitoring and Research Center, 2009).[7] Now, woju, as a verb, means to inhabit in a narrow dwelling; as a noun, it is the name for the narrow dwelling itself.

Viewers’ furious discussions about this problem provoked public responses from two Chinese Communist Party officials. At the 2009 Annual Meeting of Television Production Committee of the China Radio Television Association, the department head of Television Program Management (dianshiju guanlisi) at SARFT, Li Jingsheng, publicly criticized the hit television drama, accusing it of having negative social effects. (Nanfang dushi bao 2009; Zhu 2009). However, about two months later, Premier Wen Jiabao appropriated Narrow Dwelling’s Chinese title into his political performance to enhance his political capital, not criticizing it, but rather using it as a tool to express his concern for the pitiful occupants of narrow urban dwellings (Xinhuanet 2010). I will first analyze the heterogeneous narrative of Narrow Dwelling as a sign of how it negotiated with anti-corruption policy and return to these two officials’ responses afterwards.

Narrow Dwelling was adapted from a popular novel with the same Chinese title, written by Liuliu (2007), a Singapore-based writer in her late thirties who left China in 1999. The narrative revolves around two sisters, Haiping and Haizao, who leave their parents in their rural hometown to study and work in the city. Their efforts to secure an apartment establish how the skyrocketing price of real estate burdens urban dwellers, who frequently voice complaints about real estate companies. Narrow Dwelling situates its characters in a fictional, contemporary, neo-liberal Chinese city that is experiencing furious property development. Though the fictional city is called Jiangzhou, Narrow Dwelling actually hints that the setting is Shanghai by inserting night scenes of the Huangpu River and including the detail that its protagonists are graduates of Fudan University. Implying that the on-screen socio-economic landscape is Shanghai speaks to off-screen audiences’ painful urban experience in real-life Chinese cities, where rising property prices benefit the rich alone and burden ordinary urban white-collar workers, not to mention the lower class. In the drama, rent in the city is so unaffordable that Haizao stays with her sister and brother-in-law in a cramped attic room where they have to share a kitchen and bathroom with their neighbors. The older sister has to send her baby girl to stay with her grandmother in their rural hometown because of their inadequate living space.

In the drama, men occupy a dominant power position in gender relations, regardless of whether the woman is the victim or the perpetrator of adultery:
Xiaobei, Haizao’s boyfriend, rapes her as he realizes her sexual affair with Song Siming ...
... while Song Siming rapes his wife when she condemns his adultery.

The television drama goes on to reveal corruption among Party officials and business tycoons. Haizao later forfeits her relationship with her fiancé to become the mistress of a married Party official, Song Siming, in order to try to help her older sister buy an apartment. In addition to the primary focus on the sisters, there is a subplot involving Li nainai (Grandma Li) and her family, Haiping’s old neighbors, who squat on their tiny property and refuse to relocate without proper compensation. Grandma Li dies accidentally due to a developer’s scheme to expel the Li family from their house. Ironically her tragic death results in the fulfillment of the Li family’s request for a three-bedroom apartment. They eventually obtain a dream residence at the cost of Grandma Li’s life, and become Haiping’s neighbors once more. The drama concludes with Haiping’s happy reunion with her daughter in the metropolis, Haizao’s departure for the United States after a hysterectomy due to a miscarriage in a fight with Song Siming’s wife, and Song Siming’s untimely end.

These pronounced female characters—Haiping, Haizao, and Grandma Li—are significant, for they signal that Narrow Dwelling’s vision not only bestows sympathy on women, but also, through the focal point of women, critiques an economy-centered and humanity-deprived contemporary China, and more importantly, reveals a hidden corruption network. Through showcasing the women characters as they navigate a rapidly developing economy and negotiate it in public and private spaces, Narrow Dwelling’s melodramatic narrative mirrors off-screen social problems in a surging property market which, according to the narrative, originates from officials’ corruption.

So what are these women’s predicaments, and how do their experiences tease out the socio-economic and political situations of Jiangzhou (or in reality Shanghai) and more broadly other major Chinese cities? The three female protagonists want a chance to become modern, global citizens and improve their lives; however, they turn into victims of modern development. The two young sisters represent contemporary versions of educated, elite women, simultaneously agents of and victims in the building of a global China. China’s current modernization project strives to build global cities and help China become a world superpower. Such a modernization project repeatedly offers both opportunities and snares for women. For example, it gives the older sister, Haiping, a discursive space in which to aspire to be a “global citizen,” yet her choice to become an urban dweller also forces her to forsake what she sees as an essential female role in order to participate in the modernization project. Similarly, the new discourse of pursuing individual desire renders Haizao, the younger sister, an active agent of her own sexual desires, but it also casts her in a negative light when she becomes a mistress and is punished for violating long-established codes of conduct, virtue, and morality. Grandma Li intends to grasp an opportunity offered by urban redevelopment to exchange her shabby property for a modern apartment but she loses her life in the process of negotiation with real estate developers.

I maintain that Narrow Dwelling illustrates gender-specific sacrifices as women participate in the current nation-building project and uses women’s suffering—a common literary trope—as a strategy to accomplish three things at once:

  • first, it manifests the production team and Liuliu’s consistent concern for women’s issues;
  • second, it adheres to commercial considerations, as women’s agony is a common theme in the Chinese people’s literary imagination, making the narrative more powerful in inviting viewers’ identification;
  • third, it is a tactful orchestration avoiding overt political critique and thus political censure.

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