The good-looking actor, Zhang Jiayi, who was cast as Song Siming, garnered warm support from audience members, and particularly females, despite his role as a corrupt Party official.
Haizao claims to be happy as a professional mistress and underground laborer but ...
... is confronted by Song’s wife at the end of the TV drama.
Song’s wife pushes a pregnant Haizao against the edge of a couch, hurting Haizao’s stomach. The pain knocks Haizao unconscious, and the collision causes a miscarriage.
Haizao in the hospital after a hysterectomy.
Song Siming rushes to the hospital after hearing Haizao’s bad news but crashes into a truck and dies.
The image of a masculine career woman, Xie Xiangmei (on the left), in the TV drama, Close to You, Make Me Warm, stirred up debates about women’s proper gender and social role in reform-era China.
The other woman, Ding Aiyu, in Close to You, Make Me Warm, is a tender woman who can easily attract men with her beauty and grace.
If Song Siming were played by Li Yongjian, who is culturally considered as unattractive, Song’s sexual advances and passionate acts on behalf of Haizao may have seemed repugnant rather than romantic.
This series’ heterogeneous narrative provokes equally heterogeneous audience responses from both Party officials and common people. My analysis of the ways the attitudes of Party officials change from repressive to tolerant and appropriating is followed by a discussion of the reactions of common people towards Narrow Dwelling’s censored, moralized ending.
Let us study the criticism towards Narrow Dwelling by the Department Head of the Television Program Management (dianshiju guanlisi) of SARFT. On December 9, 2009, announcing television drama could occupy only forty percent of the total broadcast time on provincial satellite channels, [open endnotes in new page] Li Jingsheng commented,
He also proclaimed that SARFT would strictly ensure the syncretism of entertainment, pedagogy, and ideological content in the next year. His accusatory undertone implied that the use of sex and corruption as subject matter in Narrow Dwelling contaminated the entertainment/ market logic of television drama production in general. Sexual connotations and bed scenes undoubtedly exist, but to ascribe the success of Narrow Dwelling only to vulgarity completely ignores the appeal of the everyday life experience depicted in the television drama. It is even more problematic to subordinated corruption under the umbrella term of vulgarity, and to claim that vulgarity reduces television program quality. First, the discourse of vulgarity attempts to cloak Narrow Dwelling’s socio-political critique under the flamboyant camouflage of sexual controversy. Second, positing such a discursive cause-and-effect relation seemingly legitimizes SARFT’s stricter control over television programs. If the current form of Narrow Dwelling is a successfully disguised crime-related drama, to accuse its revelation of corruption of being vulgar is the state’s gesture to silence critical discussions on Haiping’s resentment against unreasonable housing prices and potential reasons for such a surging price index, including government corruption. Therefore, such a discourse of vulgarity establishes Narrow Dwelling and television drama in general as the target of discipline/management, legitimizing “tighter quality control” that, in fact, may be ideological control. This criticism overlooks Narrow Dwelling’s critique of the skyrocketing housing prices and resultant social problems, and tries to obstruct Narrow Dwelling’s palpable capacity for offering viewers a way to project, express, and discuss their pain and discontent regarding housing prices in social reality.
Indeed, news critics in Chongqing chenbao(Chongqing daily, 2009), Beijing qingnian bao(Yang 2009), and Shanghai shibao (Ma and Xu 2009), to name a few, associated Narrow Dwelling’s popularity with its strong ability to invite viewers’ sentimental projections, as its narrative is close to real life. In other words, people find the television drama appealing not simply because of its sexual connotations, but because its narrative captures and mimics viewers’ anger, pain, and sorrow concerning the difficulty of purchasing an apartment at a time of uncontrolled rise in property prices. Viewers are able to decode Narrow Dwelling’s critique of housing prices and corruption, proving that the alleged vulgar elements—sex and obscenity—indeed serve as a disguise. In actuality, Li’s attempt failed to suppress viewers’ passion for discussing Narrow Dwelling. Instead, it stirred up hostility towards him on the Internet, which resulted in a “thorough background check” (renrou sousuo) wrongly accusing him of owning two luxurious residences (Xinmin wanbao 2009). However, Li’s condemning remarks did succeed in signaling to television channels and other media to downplay the promotion and discussion of Narrow Dwelling, which indirectly checked the media’s discussion of the housing crisis and prevented further provocation of viewers’ discontent.
In response to viewers’ growing yearnings for solutions to the over-heated property market, Wen Jiabao adopted another strategy to absorb people’s resentment. His sympathetic statement ,“I also understand the feelings of [living in a so-called] ‘woju,’” took the meaning of woju as metaphor for the pain of his fellow citizens and imputed the problem of a tiny-sized residence to China’s limited land supply and the rapid increase of property prices (Xinhuanet 2010). When asked about solutions to rising property prices, he explained away the reason for high prices, citing inadequate supply of land and residences. He promised to build more lower-priced apartments and check speculative activities, completely ignoring Narrow Dwelling’s call for governmental probity. Even Li Jingsheng was able to observe the presence of corruption in Narrow Dwelling’s narrative, raising the question of how Wen Jiabao missed it when he appropriated the Chinese title of the television drama to address people’s grievances over skyrocketing property prices. It is probably the case that the oversight is actually a political strategem to tame citizens’ resentments and divert people’s attention to a politically neutral reason for their pain. The changing official attitudes towards Narrow Dwelling demonstrate the state’s incorporation of critical noises into political capital.
Viewers’ reactions to Narrow Dwelling’s approved, orthodox ending reveal another layer of negotiation with censorship, and in this case, self-censorship. The main course of Narrow Dwelling portrays the process in which Haizao becomes a happy “professional mistress,” enjoying access to material wealth. However, its ending punishes the unfaithful subjects, Haizao and Song Siming, thus conforming to a monogamist value system. Such a moralizing ending simultaneously serves as a sign of self-censorship and a smart way to pass through a censorship system that targets radical representations of sexuality and illegitimate relationships and emphasizes sanitization of the screen. I inspect the narrative closure during Episodes Thirty to Thirty-Five, which ends with a moral lesson for the contemporary mistress. Haizao and Song’s affair violates monogamist morality and legal codes on marriage; hence, the adulterers are punished.
Narrow Dwelling ends with Haizao’s miscarriage and the removal of her uterus and Song’s death in a car accident on the way to the hospital. Such a conclusion starkly contrasts with the characters’ previous happy sexual journey. The annihilation of the embryo seems necessary for the maintenance of orthodox morality, as it signifies failure of both the adulterers’ bonding and the fruit of Song’s excessive sexual desire. Taking away Haizao’s reproductive ability is a harsh and significant punishment because it indicates a possibility that Haizao has a lesser chance of finding a husband in the future—as the concept of having a (male) child to continue the family line remains important in Mainland China. To render the moral lesson more explicit and eliminate the possibility that Haizao could continue on as a shameless woman who sees no wrong in her actions, the ending also portrays Haizao showing regret for the adultery. In the last episode, Haizao arrives at enlightenment and recognizes her unfaithful adventure as an enchantment of commodity, which resulted in her losing Xiao Bei, a man who once truly loved her. Such “enlightenment” admits that the previous pursuit of sexual freedom and commodities was futile and destructive. Therefore, though excessive desire and exchanging sex for materials may appear to be legitimate or appealing during the course of the narrative, the closing scenes reprimand characters, particularly women, for their illegitimate sex and decadence. Haizao’s conformist ending suggests that women must not be encouraged to pursue sexual consumption or expression, for it upsets traditional women’s virtues and will cause regret in the near future.
However, such narrative closure does not guarantee effective containment of the heated debates about love, sexuality, and infidelity in contemporary China stirred up by Song Siming and Haizao’s affair; instead, they become central discussion topics in news reports and discussion forums. Negotiated or oppositional readings from Narrow Dwelling’s viewers provide a compelling illustration of Stuart Hall’s theorization of audience studies, which positions signs as polysemic and the existence of different reading positions in interpreting signs. In analyzing televisual sign, Hall suggests that a viewer may decode signs through dominant/preferred readings, a negotiated reading position, or an oppositional reading position (1973, 16-8). By zooming in on various common people’s responses, I illustrate how a (self-)censored cultural text fails to control audience responses.
Among innumerable online Internet discussions, the entry of Xiaoxiaowenbo (2012), an alleged seventeen-year-old female student from Heilongjiang, summarizes the dilemma women are facing when choosing a lover/sexual partner in a social context in which the attitude of looking-toward money (xiang qian kan) has become a dominant value. Expressing her appreciation for the actor Zhang Jiayi’s skills in playing Song Siming, she highlights her confusion about love in this way,
Xiaoxiaowenbo’s confession explains why Song Siming is widely popular although he betrays his wife and family: he is gentle, and more importantly, rich. Despite the fact that Xiaoxiaowenbo points to Song Siming’s gentleness as the reason for his status as every woman’s dream man, it is far from the ultimate reason, as an economically-humble man can also possess these qualities. The more significant reason lies later in the paragraph when she raised the question of whether or not love can be sustained in poverty. Therefore, the motivation for choosing a man like Song Siming lies in a woman’s financial concern, and wealth is the key characteristic that Song possesses.
Xiaoxiaowenbo’s personal reflection on an ideal sexual partner drew support and recognition. Another netizen, Xiaoju Jessica, self-identified as a thirty-one-year-old woman from Guangdong, expressed that she would also pick Song Siming if she were to choose between him and Xiao Bei (2012). Xiaoju Jessica explained,
Putting love in a clichéd dichotomous analogy, Xiaoju Jessica referred to Xiao Bei as water (passion/ideals) and Song Siming as bread (means for survival), implying that the ability to offer material access makes a man preferable to others, and women have to bear this “enlightenment” in mind. Xiaoxiaowenbo replied to Xiaoju Jessica by affirming that the majority of women would make the same choice in a materialistic world.
Narrow Dwelling’s moral ending not only captured the attention of Xiaoxiaobowen; it also incited viewers who enjoyed watching Song Siming and Haizao’s affair to rewrite the tragic ending. Dissatisfied with the television ending, which conforms to normative moral standards by separating an illicit couple through death, a fan created another ending that saves Song from death after the car accident and allows him to reunite with Haizao(Tongzizhuo 2010). This Internet entry received over one hundred and fifty replies, and almost all of them preferred and appreciated this ending. These netizens regarded Haizao and Song’s relationship as legitimate love, and praised Song’s deep feelings for Haizao. Though admitting that Haizao is “the other woman,” one of the replies went so far to recognize the extra-marital love as sublime (Netizen “60.2.14” 2010). These replies indicate that these viewers are aware of Song Siming’s marital status, but they find a transgressive relationship or an extra-marital affair acceptable as long as it involves true love.
However, one of the replies attacked the revised ending and its respondents from a moral standpoint. Netizen 110.6.253 reprimanded the new ending and its advocates as insane and opined that their attitude, in fact, supports those who impose pain on others and destroy their families (2010). Written in opposition to online discussions listing ten reasons to love Song Siming(Feiwen shaonü 2009), this “moral” response belongs to one of the voices urging women to choose the “right” path For example, a netizen with the pseudonym Xiaomonuyiran reminded young women of the pain and consequences of becoming the other woman: being an underground lover (dixia qingren), not being able to form a family, having to please the married master. Xiaomonüyiran, therefore, suggests that we should endorse freedom in the private life but condemn an irresponsible private life (2010). Zhang Jiayi, the actor who played Song Siming, also encouraged real women to select a sexual partner who is reliable, more like Su Chun in the television drama, instead of choosing one akin to Song Siming. He also advised women to earn their own benefits rather than taking a short cut to a cozy life, like the one Haizao had taken (Chen 2009).
These intense debates hint at a continuous reconfiguration and conflicting ideologies of love and marriage. A few years before Narrow Dwelling’s broadcast, we saw debates about women’s proper gender and social role in reform-era China alongside the airing of the television drama Kaojin ni, wennuan wo (Close to you, make me warm, 2006) which features both a masculine career woman and a tender “other woman” (Hackenbracht 2009). The discussion, which revolved around whether an ideal woman should be balanced, seemed to reach a fever pitch when online articles proposed that women should act like a baigujing (white bone demon) at work and a hulijing (fox fairy) at home (Xiaofeng chanyue 2006). The term baigujing, made famous in the Ming masterwork Journey to the West, here means “white collar”(bailing) , “backboned” (gugan), and “elite” (jingying), while the term hulijing, which originally refers to an evil fox spirit, means a tender woman who can easily attract men with her beauty and grace. Narrow Dwelling’s role as a big hit turned the focus of debates about women to the legitimacy of becoming a mistress of rich men for the sake of financial security. The terms xiaosan or ernai (both mean mistress) have received more discussion since then, and these two words connote significations that are far more morally transgressive than the contemporary hulijing and baigujing suggest, as the former indicates crossing the legal boundary of marriage.
Although I have shown off-screen opinions that support sexual/marital transgression, I reserve the possibility that the stardom of Zhang Jiayi and Li Nian, the actress who played Haizao, helps to beautify an extra-marital affair on the screen, causing its viewing advocates to see little or no wrong in the illicit relationship. Zhang Jiayi’s appearance is attractive and Li Nian looks innocent. If Song Siming were played by an actor who is culturally considered ugly, such as the small-eyed, buck-toothed Lin Yongjian who played Da Zhuang in Jin Hun (Golden marriage, 2007), Song’s sexual advances and passionate acts on behalf of Haizao may have seemed repugnant rather than romantic. In the same vein, Li Nian looks pure and innocent, rendering Haizao’s character simple-minded instead of sophisticated, the kind of person who rarely aims to become a mistress.
The audience’s response is a sign of a fissure in censorship’s effectiveness, if not an indication of its failure. After reviewing these audience responses, we can observe that although Narrow Dwelling’s moral ending may be a sign of self-censorship or a tactic to pass a censorship system that targets radical representations of sex and love, the spectator’s response is uncontrollable.
The three noticeable female protagonists, obscuring direct critique of government corruption, are employed as part of a tactic to pass censorship. Yet, hot debates on housing prices prove that viewers were able to decode critical stances and project and release their resentment in reality. The official responses to Narrow Dwelling illustrate the state’s flexible reproductive power, which absorbs noise from citizens and sustains the regime. Although Narrow Dwelling vents common people’s discontent, it ultimately confirms to orthodox sexual morality, thus illustrating a degree of self-censorship. However, viewers’ conflicting perceptions of Haizao and her role as a mistress, their disapproval of the moralistic ending, as well as their re-writing of Narrow Dwelling’s conclusion prove to us that reader response is lively and creative enough to evade official prediction, censorship, and containment. Perhaps reader response is the core component that can effectively resist or at least negotiate with hegemonic ideology in popular culture.