copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

Negotiating censorship:
Narrow Dwelling
as social critique

by Wing Shan Ho

Narrow Dwelling as a national concern

Chinese television is an emergent but still understudied field. Current research has examined Chinese television in the contexts of globalization, transnational flow, and regionalization, and has discussed the issues of democratization, commercialization, audience reception, form and content, and even the social space that television occupies.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Particular concern has centered on the amount of “freedom” that television programs enjoy and the level of public participation in these programs. These issues remain of interest because television production is historically and still currently conceived as situated somewhere between propaganda and commercialization, even though the Chinese government continues to deepen its economic reform (Di 2011; Yin 2002; Berry 2009).

To further understand the ideological contestation taking place through television programs and television’s role in the everyday lives of Chinese citizens, this paper examines negotiations between television dramas and censorship. Censorship policy is one of the Chinese state’s regulating forces in controlling what the state desires or tolerates for its people to see. In the last quarter century, the demand for and popularity of television drama has increased thirty-fold. Production has increased from fewer than 500 television drama episodes in 1983 (Guo 1991, 149) to nearly 15,000 in 2007 (Guojia guangbo dianshi zongju 2007, 285) and drama has become a core component of television consumption for “the world’s biggest audience” (Curtin 2007).

In order to demonstrate thenuanced interactions between the state’s power structure at work behind television production and the (im)possibility of exercising control over cultural products, this paper investigates the narrative complexity of the television drama Narrow Dwelling (2009), a thirty-five episode television serial broadcast Mondays through Fridays. Each episode of Narrow Dwelling is betwen forty to forty five minutes with three commercial breaks, with a daily air time of an hour.[2]

To critique government corruption implicitly and thus obtain a shooting permit, Narrow Dwelling has deployed an artful narrative structure in which women characters serve as active agents seeking to acquire an apartment—a structure that will be detailed below. The drama also faithfully adapts the concerns voiced about women’s issues that were in the original work upon which Narrow Dwelling is based. This paper also discusses a variety of official and citizens’ responses to the show in order to develop an understanding of the ways the state interacts with critical television dramas and the ways common people interact with a (self-) censored product such as Narrow Dwelling. In doing so, it demonstrates the state’s flexible and reproductive power structure, as well as viewers’ negotiated reading positions and active participation in television consumption.

Specifically, far from producing vulgar entertainment that aims purely at commercial profit, Narrow Dwelling skillfully critiques the housing crisis and exposes the corruption through the story of three notable female protagonists and a complex network of Party officials, property developers, white-collar workers, intellectuals, and working class people. The three female protagonists, two young sisters and a grandmother, actively confront surging real estate prices and the cannibalistic practices of real estate developers, so that the narrative demonstrates power dynamics among real estate providers, property seekers, and property owners under the backdrop of China’s neo-liberal property market and urban development. The result of this emphasis on women characters means that the storylines include a broken sentimental bond between a mother and her daughter, a controversial choice regarding sexual morality, and the traumatic death of the grandmother. This melodramatic script captures common painful experiences, and by focusing on women of different ages, classes, and origins, it dramatizes the yearning for homeownership and the current threat of urban demolition.

As two young sisters from a small town try to settle in a globalizing city, the script focuses on the desires and difficulties of the younger generation, whose members have no housing welfare guarantees and little ability to purchase an apartment. While the old grandmother receives the least on-screen time, her ending is the most tragic and powerful, inciting sympathy and indicting social injustice. The image of the grandmother epitomizes homeowners who resist forced relocation and demolition. Her story also exposes the conspiracy between officials and businessmen, as well as the ruthless means used by property developers to expel tenants. These female protagonists implicitly engage with the incompetence of ordinary and elite men alike, and highlight powerful men’s easy access to wealth and women in a new economic order. Positioning women as prominent figures of the narrative downplays detailing any corruption scheme in which Party officials might be behind the circulation of apartments, thus enabling Narrow Dwelling to successfully pass the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television's [SARFT’s] censorship screening and make it to air. Downplaying the investigation of government corruption seems necessary because, since the early 2000s, SARFT has publicly rejected production applications for shows belonging to the crime-related genre (she an ju) for the explicit purpose of eliminating improper sex and violence and the implicit purpose of protecting the Party’s image.

Television as a commercial industry and subject of censorship

A brief overview of the commercialization and censorship of Chinese television production will set the foundation for a nuanced understanding of Narrow Dwelling’s production context. The Chinese television industry has been changing from state-oriented, i.e. propaganda, to more market-oriented (cultural commodity), gradually bringing programmatic variety to television production (Liu 2007; Xu 2003). Nonetheless, television remains subject to state intervention through the execution of censorship. The state has emphasizerd television’s pedagogical/propagandist function since the establishment of the first Chinese television station in 1958.[3] The then Deputy Premier, Lu Dingyi, emphasized the differences between the socialist and capitalist uses of television, stating that “television is a tool for mass education. Every program has to be educational,” and that “television in capitalist countries is for entertainment, but our television is for education…” (Guo 1991, 58). Accordingly, the state saw television as a tool for political propaganda and rejected any kind of economic activities revolving around television production until the end of the Cultural Revolution.

In November 1979, the state loosened the control over commercial activities on television, and the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China legitimated commercial advertisements in mass media by delivering the “Notice Regarding Newspaper, Radio, Television Station Broadcasting Commercials of Foreign Commodities” (“Guanyu Baokan, Guangbo, Dianshitai Kanbo Waiguo Shangpin Guangao de Tongzhi”) (Zhao 2004, 458-60). Television commercials brought huge profits to the television industry since then. In 2007, the income of nation-wide television commercials scored over RMB 51 billions (Guojia guangbo dianshi zongju 2007, 281). The 11th National Broadcast and Television Conference (Quanguo Guangbo Dianshi Gongzi Gongzuo Huiyi) in 1983 consented to further commercialize television production by broadening sources of income to compensate for the lack of financial support from the state. This decision was approved by the Party in the “Report Summary Regarding Broadcast and Television” in October 1983 (Xu 2003, 513; Zhao 2004, 460). The state finally specified television production as a third industry in June 1992 in the document “Decisions Regarding Increasing the Development Speed of the Third Industry” and gradually transformed the television industry from a financially state-sponsored burden into a self-run enterprise. This commercialization of the television industry began as a utilitarian way to save financially unsustainable television production during the late 1970s. The market would not have been able to infiltrate television production had the state not been in danger of going bankrupt.

Although the state began loosening up its domination over television production and accepted commercial activities to support television production after the Economic Reforms, it has remained in control of what kinds of programs can be produced or broadcast. For example, all television production units must submit an application for a production permit from SARFT prior to the start of any program production and must also apply for a broadcast permit prior to any airing.[4] SARFT or its local offices have the authority to request eliminating ideas or plots that the state finds unfit for the people. Among the allowed productions, the state maintains a hierarchical structure in which productions based on propagandistic pedagogy take preference over programs that aim to entertain. The state preserves its legal right to intervene in the name of preventing “over-commercialization” or “over-marketization” of the industry. This censorship policy suggests the state’s preference for programs that serve the state’s interests.[5]

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] 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.

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:

In the following section, I will first analyze the ways Haiping, Haizao, and Grandma Li become agents and victims of the current modernization project, and then discuss the social problems revealed by their trials. I will also demonstrate how and why the use of prominent female characters as a skillful plot device teases out a corrupt network between the government and the market.

The state’s goal of “joining the international orbit” and economic disparities between urban and rural areas have turned the city into a symbol of cosmopolitanism and development, a fantasy land where its dwellers become rich and proud of their global citizenship. Such a discourse creates a psychological place for Haiping, where she imagines herself to be a member of the global citizenry in China. She then becomes Americanized and consumes international luxuries such as Hag Heuer watches and Nike sports shoes. Hence, she acts as an agent who persuades her husband and younger sister to stay in the city after their graduation from college. Her move represents the endorsement of modern development. Such a decision, unfortunately, opens a Pandora’s box for her family. Her choices turn her into a negative shrew who yells at her husband for his economic incapability and breaks the bond between herself and her young daughter. Although the sisters and their sexual partners are all college graduates, these educated elite still experience the pressure of making a livelihood in the city due to the unreasonable, surging real estate prices. Haiping’s choice to live in a packed attic room leads to two long years of separation and alienation from her daughter. Feeling this separation, a heart-broken Haiping snivels that all she desires after her painful pregnancy and sacrifice for the sake of promotion at work is an intimate mother-child relationship, but her own flesh and blood is not close to her.

Narrow Dwelling highlights Haiping’s motherly pain as emblematic of the many social injustices and economic disparities resulting from the development of China via globalization and the corruption that accompanies it. Such images of suffering women are a common trope in ideological literature that aims to critique a corrupted system. For instance, during the May Fourth era in the 1920s, Lu Xun’s “The New Year Sacrifice” (1924) uses Xianglin Sao, a twice-widowed, uneducated peasant woman, to serve as an image of the injustices of the traditional Chinese patriarchal social order (Huters 1993). Narrow Dwelling, through Haiping’s commentary, repeatedly blames the real estate market for the separation of mother and daughter, and with dramatized pain, emphasizes the reality of the property market in Shanghai and other Chinese cities.

The other protagonist, Haizao, illustrates another aspect of women’s lives as they live as victims and agents of the current modernization: sexuality. Haizao believes that she is allowed to pursue an all-compassing, individualistic desire, and that society under the current state ideology of consumption will accommodate her pursuit of sexual desire even though it is, in fact, adultery. She also perceives herself as an active sexual subject in control of the affair through her active participation in sex acts. She asks Song Siming, her married lover, to pretend to rape her so that she can enjoy the pleasure obtained from acting like a victim. Even when she becomes pregnant, she refuses to constrain her sexual desire and convinces Song to have sex with her, suggesting a “nine soft one hard” penetration technique, which she believes will do no harm to the fetus. Involved in an extra-marital affair, Haizao regards being a mistress as an underground occupation and herself as an underground laborer.

The surging real estate market is part of the larger, neo-liberal logic of consumption, which leads Haizao to mistakenly believe that sexual consumption is an expression of gender-neutral desire that undoes the existing traditional codes of conduct, virtue, and morality projected on women. Yet, due to socially inculcated gender differences between men and women, Haizao experiences a distinct consequence as a result of her sexual relationship, in spite of the fact that she and her partner participated equally in the act of adultery. Haizao’s naïve belief in the value of neo-liberal desire renders her subject to her fiancé’s violent reaction to her infidelity. When her boyfriend learns of her affair, Haizao seeks his pardon, only to be raped. In contrast, Song receives support from his wife even after his indiscretions are exposed and he loses power. Song also rapes his wife when she condemns his adultery. The rapes of Haizao and Song’s wife suggest that men occupy a dominant power position in gender relations, regardless of whether a woman is the victim or the perpetrator of adultery. This contradicts with young urban Chinese women’s fantasy of being free, desirous, and consuming subjects, the shared fantasy that inspires anthropologist Lisa Rofel’s proposal that desire is at the heart of consumption, and thus, a new cosmopolitan self in post-socialist China (118). While urban Chinese women, according to Rofel, now have freedom to consume and cultivate a self that desires instead of one that sacrifices (119), the rape of Haizao and Song’s wife suggests a persisent gender difference in the consequences of sexual desire. Ultimately, cosmopolitan desire allows the woman to yearn for consumption, but sexual consumption remains the man’s privilege.

The most tragic female character is not one of the young sisters, but rather a grandmother who occupies a relatively minor role in Narrow Dwelling—Grandma Li. Grandma Li, in her old age, is the head of her four-member household composed of her son, Li Wuji, her daughter-in-law, Xu Li, and her college student grandson, Ah Gu. With the exception of the grandson, who lives on campus, the family members reside in an old, shabby house that is around one hundred square feet. The aged Grandma Li has no ability to earn money, and the son and daughter-in-law typify individuals of the social underclass who, in Grandma Li’s words, have no money, no professional skills, no qualifications, and no social status. Li Wuji is a security guard at an arcade where he is subjected to customers’ violence and Xu Li is a domestic helper who has no stable job and a low income. Therefore, it is impossible for the family to afford nice living conditions.

Grandma Li convinces her son and daughter-in-law that the demolition is an excellent opportunity to acquire an apartment for their family of three generations, given that their dilapidated asset is located at the center of an urban redevelopment project. They reject relocation firmly unless the real estate developer exchanges their small property for a three-bedroom apartment. The Li family is determined to squat until the last minute and willing to bear with the hardship of having no electricity and water due to the razing of neighboring houses. Unfortunately, Grandma Li falls down in the dark and breaks her legs. Grandma Li is overly optimistic that the family’s refusal to move will force the real estate developer to compromise, and she underestimates the risk of resisting a profit-driven real estate company. As the real estate company’s patience wears thin, the company boss orders construction workers to tear down part of the Li’s apartment roof illegally in order to create an uninhabitable environment for them and take over their house. Grandma Li, in an effort to protect their home, crawls to stop the villainous construction workers and is tragically crushed by the falling ceiling. She is buried in debris and dies at the crime scene.

Through its three women victims, Narrow Dwelling reveals four different kinds of social injustice and irony, as well as economic disparities, while indirectly pointing towards corruption as the ultimate cause for these problems. First, the two sisters endure a housing crisis in contemporary China, in which the unbearable housing prices burden common people and turn them into mortgage slaves. Given the long-established desire in the Chinese context to possess one’s own assets, the younger generation, regardless of having formed a family or not, is driven to fight for property ownership. Establishing the sisters’ origins in a rural hometown explains and magnifies their need to buy an apartment, as they have no family members or relatives in the city with whom to share. They represent the younger generation who works for the private sector and enjoys no state welfare.

The two couples, Su Chun and Haiping, and Xiao Bei and Haizao are all college graduates and belong to the white-collar class; however, none of them is able to afford a reasonably sized apartment. The younger sister, Haizao, particularly exposes young women’s moral ambiguity, as well as the quandaries of economically-modest men. Haizao’s affair with a married Song Siming bespeaks the fact that younger women are willing to sell their natural capital—the body—to bail themselves out of their financial difficulties in the new economic order. A salaried Xiao Bei is unwittingly betrayed and becomes a passive victim of Haizao’s infidelity, while a rich Song Siming, who collects bribes and takes advantage of his official position, gains privileged access to women. Song’s economic power, for an idler like Haizao or other women who desire a comfortable life, qualifies him to be a preferred lover over a proletarian such as Xiao Bei, regardless of his marital status. This plot point suggests that men who are not opportunists in a money-oriented society will have their masculinity stripped from them and will become the ultimate losers in the new economic order. Economically disenfranchised men lose in the competition for women; wealthy men or opportunists win out in the scramble for both material possessions and women.

Grandma Li’s heart-wrenching case reveals the threat and social injustice that urban development imposes on existing homeowners. Grandma Li is the mastermind behind her family’s battle to acquire a bigger apartment. Selecting an impoverished, elderly individual as the representative of general home owners exaggerates the vulnerability and exploitation of ordinary people in a neo-liberal real estate market. Grandma Li is persuaded by a group of resident committee members of her neighborhood (an embodiment of the state ideology of development) to move out for demolition. The lobbyists claim that the situation represents a rare chance occurring only once in a thousand years (qianzai nanfeng de jihui) to improve the Li family’s living conditions and that they will be able to reside in a modern-style apartment where they will have a private bathroom and kitchen and a convenient flush toilet. They also hustle Grandma Li to keep up with the new environment (genshang xingshi) and the new thoughts (xin sixiang) and maintain a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Such rhetoric glosses over the menaces and misery that the downtrodden have to suffer under the state’s practices, promising a bright future and better life by accentuating superficial abstractions like globalization, metropolitanism, and economic progress.

Yet Grandma Li’s cold sarcasm exposes what indeed happens to commoners as Chinese cities evolve into global metropolises. Ordinary people occupy a lower and lower social status (yue huo yue jian) and are eventually expelled from their own homes and communities in the downtown area in order to make room for foreigners and the rich. Once new luxurious apartments are built, former residents are never able to afford a new home on the same land with their small amount of compensation money. Grandma Li’s remarks unmask the social injustice that development benefits the rich alone while leaving behind the powerless petites urbanites. In launching urban redevelopment projects, the government creates advantages for its ordinary citizens and current home owners, but only to generate profit-seeking opportunities for cannibalistic enterprises or corrupted officials. Modern, high-quality residences are built for wealthy external buyers rather than the humble people who are indigenous to the area.

The Li Family’s resistance to relocation also displays the social issue of squatters (dingzihu). Grandma, Xu Li, and Li Wuji hang a large piece of cloth which reads “Government, please save the people” outside their half-destroyed house, earning them a newsworthy reputation for being “the toughest squatters” (zui niu dingzihu). The phrase “the toughest squatters” was not coined by Narrow Dwelling’s scriptwriter but borrowed from a real contemporary context. In August 2006, a blog entry entitled “The Toughest Shanghainese Squatters” circulated on the Internet; in February and March, 2007, another piece of news went viral in the cyber world, this time, “The Toughest Chongqing Squatters.” The former emphasized the temerarious measures the owners used to defy the government and real estate developers who attempted to make them vacate a house, while the latter reported on the sensationalized spectacle of a squatter house in Chongqing standing out strikingly on a site where its neighboring buildings had all been torn down. (Li 2010). The death of Grandma Li also indicts ruthless real estate developers who ignore people’s rights and lives for gains, scheming to pay the least compensation and making the most profit by pressuring people to move.

Assigning women as the active agents of buying and bargaining for an apartment accents social ironies of contemporary male intellectuals’ impotence, loss of moral vision, and indifference to social unjustness. Instead of reflecting on the source of such shocking real estate prices and driving social change, Su Chun and Xiao Bei devote their labor to salaried work and money management, hoping to save enough money for a down payment. Su Chun even accuses Haiping of being overly picky in their initial stage of apartment hunting, causing them to miss a golden chance to purchase a property at a lower rate. Incapable of affording an apartment in the city, he chooses to withstand Haiping’s wailing about his economic impotence by repeating,

“Yes, yes, yes, it’s all my fault. Had I been more capable, my wife would not have to suffer so much.”

While Haiping and Haizao abandon loyalty and honesty by hiding Haizao’s infidelity from Xiao Bei, the financially disempowered and henpecked Su Chun stays mute and fails to maintain moral order. These plots are indicative of a situation in which male intellectuals, although present, are morally ambivalent. Unlike their predecessors, who protested against inflation, political systems, and social injustice in Tian’anmen Square in 1989, intellectuals after the 1989 Protest were first disillusioned regarding political engagement, then overwhelmed and occupied by the quest for money and the economic freedom created by the retreat of various kinds of social welfare and the deepening of the Economic Reforms after 1992. In a marketized China, they are too preoccupied to fight for their own benefits and have to accommodate immoralities for the sake of economic concerns. Therefore, they are not able to act as moral leaders, critically engage in current affairs, or combat social iniquities.[8]

The most odious (if obscure) young male intellectual is Grandma Li’s grandson, Ah Gu. Ah Gu’s grandmother mentions him several times, but he only physically appears two times on the screen, first when his family is fighting against urban renewal, and then when his parents are assigned to a new apartment. In the scene where he first appears in his shanty home for Chinese New Year, not only does he fail to show pity for his broken-legged old grandmother, but he also appears blind to the injustice that puts his family into literal darkness, as the real estate company has cut off their electricity and water supply. As the Li family appears in the brand new apartment they receive as compensation for Grandma Li’s death, Ah Gu excitedly navigates the layout and chooses his room without a single sign of sadness for the human cost of the apartment. Ah Gu’s dramatized, detestable, cold attitude toward his family’s hardship is indicative of the attitudes of young intellectuals, who are indifferent to social injustice and the extent to which the unjust system burdens them personally. Perhaps it is now more apt to call these filmic college graduates “educated elites” rather than “intellectuals,” as their actions do not reflect superior knowledge or morality. The secularization of intellectuals is well-illustrated in the scene in which Haizao teases her sister for being a philistine (tai xianshi) and for giving up her literary pursuit for the sake of earning a living. Haiping compares economic needs to a fish and literature to a cilantro garnish, meaning that one has to first meet one’s needs before pursuing idealism.

Rather than merely portraying social disarray revolving around women, Narrow Dwelling indeed pierces into deeper societal structures and attributes social iniquity to corruption by embedding it in a sensationalized plot set in motion by women characters. For example, chapter eight interlaces Haiping’s desperate desire for fixing her broken mother-daughter bond with the collusion between the government and the market. We first see Haiping touring a decent, newly-built apartment and making a decision to purchase it in preparation for the reunification with her daughter. We then see a meeting between Song Siming and Property Developer Zhang (who previously appeared in episode six, during which he pressured potential property buyers into paying a higher price for assets). Song and Zhang plot to create convenience for the developer and profit from an urban renewal plan. Here, the corrupted official undermines the people’s interest and transfers wealth to the real estate developer; Song, in return, takes bribes from these developers. As a result of this businessmen-officials conspiracy, ordinary people are caught in a net woven by the corrupted government and unscrupulous enterprises and become mortgage slaves. Episode eight illustrates this entrapment by shifting its narrative back to Haiping’s shopping for her ideal home, in which we see Haiping and her husband signing a twenty-year mortgage contract, agreeing to pay the bank two thirds of their monthly household income as installments. Such a narrative structure clearly attributes the irrational and unaffordable real estate prices to governmental corruption.

Why do we encounter Haiping’s sentimental yearning for a reunification with her beloved daughter and her insistence on buying an apartment that is priced out of her household’s financial capacity? If Narrow Dwelling’s ultimate focus is two young women’s struggle to stay in the city, why do we see the tragedy of Grandma Li? If Grandma Li is significant, why is it that her story occupies a relatively insignificant portion of the television drama? If the three women are purely innocent characters, why are they shown as morally ambivalent: supporting infidelities, willingly working as a “professional mistress,” or greedily requesting an exchange of a small property for a bigger apartment? I argue that these women’s dislocated desire represents a narrative thread that leads us to the core of the social problem. Jeffery Kinkley, a historian researching Chinese anti-corruption novels, argues that women have served as subordinates in anti-corruption television dramas in this way:

“...women are chiefly means by which males are corrupted, or at least tempted...In realms of power, other females are likely to be mistresses” (2007, 40).

His reading is valid in pointing out women’s likelihood to be mistresses in television dramas on anti-corruption. However, in contrast, Narrow Dwelling is noteworthy for the fact that it positions women as notable, active agents in the housing crisis, and more importantly, as threads to develop and reveal corrupted characters. 

Female protagonists set the whole narrative in motion by directing us to a complex network of various victims and villains. Haiping drives her sister into developing a sexual affair with a corrupted Party official, Song Siming, for monetary benefits. Song is yet another thread to fabricate a further subsidiary plot concerning a bigger corruption scam. Although a leading protagonist who attracts viewers’ attention, he is not the true culprit of an about-to-succeed scheme; rather, his senior, an even higher Party official—Mayor Zhang—the mayor of a metropolitan Jiangzhou, is the primary perpetrator. Finally, we learn that it is the inappropriate economic desires of Party officials that cause the misfortune of the on-screen women and, by logical extension, the pain of off-screen ordinary people. It is also Haiping’s everyday network that brings out the story of Grandma Li’s apartment squatting, as the Lis are her neighbors.

In this way, by developing connections between the storylines, the narrative sets up a detective mode of reading that dovetails with an on-screen investigation into Song’s corruption scheme. In Episodes Sixteen and Thirty-one, the anti-corruption investigation team reports that the inspection of Haiping, Haizao, and the death of Grandma Li leads them to Chen Sifu, Haizao’s boss, the real estate developer who indirectly causes Grandma Li’s death, and a vital piece in Song Siming’s corruption boardgame. The examination of Chen Sifu then directs the investigation team further to Bank President Xie’s indecent role in assisting Chen Sifu’s small company to become a publicly traded enterprise on Hong Kong’s stock market, aiming to snowball even more capital. At a later point we are told that Bank President Xie himself embezzles two billion RMB for stock speculation in the United States. In other words, these women characters are clues to holes in the officials’ corruption plans and provide fissures through which to pierce social injustice. Haizao and Grandma Li especially represent a breach (tubokou, in the words of the investigation team leader) of the power network that the above corrupted Party officials have woven.

This explanation urges us to raise further questions about the narrative design. If corruption is a fundamental concern of the narrative, why does it embed the corruption in Haiping’s hysterical pursuit of an apartment? If Song Siming, a corrupted official, signifies bad elements of the Party, why is he played by a good-looking actor, Zhang Jiayi, who receives warm support from viewers, and particularly female viewers? If Narrow Dwelling aims to expose the government’s corruption, why does the narrative draw our attention to the two young women who interweave all other characters and superficially present the three women’s greed, ignorance, and stubbornness as the crux of social disorder? To answer these questions, it will be helpful to consider Narrow Dwelling’s form. It’s an easily accessible television drama. Due to the state’s firm belief in the propagandistic role of media and literature, it is subject to censorship before, during, and even after production. Although television program production is becoming increasingly marketized, the state remains an influential factor in determining if a television program is able to reach the Chinese home screen. The availability and production of particular kinds of genres is monitored by SARFT, in the name of generating a healthy society and protecting the youth. The discouragement of anti-corruption television program explains why Narrow Dwelling does not specifically focus on an anti-corruption theme, although the narrative points to corruption as the ultimate source of social evils. In other words, the rationality of producing a melodramatic and sensationalized narrative instead of exploring a crime genre (she an ju) plot (in this case corruption) is arguably associated with the show’s production context in China.

What became of Narrow Dwelling’s vision? What kind of socio-economic context gave rise to and enabled such a controversial narrative? Social resentments towards the property market in the script are based on solid economic facts. The turn of the twenty-first century saw the “full marketization” of housing provisions (Li and Zheng 2007; Lee and Zhu 2006), which turned one of every citizen’s necessities—a shelter—into an unaffordable commodity. The real estate market price became an index for China’s economic growth. Big cities such as Shanghai rely on demolition, urban redevelopment, and creation of luxury housing in order to develop into global cosmopolitan centers. Development projects have driven up the land prices for real estate in the city center, such that homes are now an unaffordable, high-priced commodity under the logic of the market economy. The increase in the real estate price in Shanghai has been truly shocking; the average price for a square meter of commodity housing increased 270% from 2001 to 2007 (Hua 2009, 134). Ordinary citizens, especially those from the younger generation who did not enjoy seniority in state-owned enterprises that would allow for the purchase of work-unit housing, had to purchase their homes at skyrocketing market prices. The real estate market price has become an index for China’s economic growth but does not demonstrate Chinese people’s pain as they are caught in sweeping changes provoked by the housing reforms and the state ideology of developmentalism. Critical television dramas such as Narrow Dwelling, through exposing the predicaments of two types of city dwellers situated in a booming real estate market, resonate to the real estate prices in reality and subtly point to business-government collusion as the real source of social injustice.

Reacting to Narrow Dwelling

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,[9] Li Jingsheng commented,

“the television program brought negative effects to society and attracted viewers through sex, obscene jokes, corruption, and scandals...These vulgar subject matters will reduce television drama’s quality”(Nanfang dushi bao/Southern metropolis daily 2009).

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,[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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,

…[I] am angry about Haizao’s infidelity, find Xiao Bei’s tolerance hopeless, am attracted to Song Siming’s gentleness. Definitely, every woman’s mind contains a Song Siming: he is gentle, reliable, and cultivated. How can a woman ever resist a man like him? But I have to say, no matter how open-minded the society has become, a mistress will still be despised and destroyed by scandals. The betrayal and infidelity of such an attractive man, after all, violates ethics and morality, and should be criticized. In this vein, my feelings go indeterminately between Song Siming and Xiao Bei…After watching Narrow Dwelling, I’m even thinking whether I want Xiao Bei or Song Siming. In the past, I desired a lover like Xiao Bei. We don’t have to be rich as long as we’re together. We don’t need extravagance as long as we’re in love. But nowadays love has become impractical. Passionate feelings will be eroded when we try to make ends meet. Perhaps the saying “everything goes wrong for the poor couple” is right (pinjian fuqi bai shi ai). Maybe I want a man like Song Siming. [Narrow Dwelling’s] ending made me sad. Although I hated Haizao very much when I was in the middle of the narrative, I sincerely pitied her at the end. After serious consideration, I found that such an ending is necessary to uphold morality…However, extra-marital affairs and the other woman (di san zhe), sadly, indeed exist…

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,

“love becomes hopeless when caught in reality (xianshi). You cannot sustain love with water alone, you also need bread.”

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.


1. For instance, see Zhu, Keane, and Bai (2008); Zhu, and Berry (2009); Curtin (2007); Zhu (2008); Neves (2011). [return to text]

2. Narrow Dwelling has three different versions, according to news articles (Ma and Xu 2009; Gou 2009). Its premier on Shanghai television Drama Channel on July 29, 2009 consisted of thirty four episodes; later it became thirty-three when it arrived on Beijing television channels in November of the same year. We can find the latest censored thirty-three episode version on LeTV or Youku (Chinese mainland websites). LeTV and YouTube, along with Narrow Dwelling’s DVD release, advertised an uncut thirty-five episode version. The major differences between the thirty-three and thirty-five versions lie in the sanitization of Song Siming and Haizao’s affair. For example, the sanitized version cuts the love scene between Song Siming and Haizao in Episode Thirty, where Song advices Haizao to undergo a physical examination, foreshadowing Haizao’s illegitimate pregnancy. In this article, I analyze the version that contains thirty-five episodes. Narrow Dwelling is available on the following websites:

Unfortunately, only the first three episodes were subtitled in English by a netizen and posted on YouTube:

3. Right before the first broadcast trial on May 1, 1958 (Guo 1991,3; Zhao 2004, 248), the Bureau of Central Broadcast Affairs (the former body of SARFT) announced on April 29, 1958 that the station had to “follow the guidelines and policies of the Party by reflecting current significant national and political events, report the achievements of socialism, publicize scientific and technological knowledge, introduce excellent art-house films, and prepare a number of programs for youngsters and children” (Zhongguo guangbo dianshi chubanshe 1988, 701).

4. As a part of the application procedure for a shooting permit, a production team has to fill out the form and submit it with a synopsis of at least 1500 words to a corresponding administration department. For the whole procedure of applying for a production permit and broadcast permit, see the ordinances announced by SARFT (2008b).

5. In addition to monitoring political ideology of television programs, another possible motivation of SARFT’s regulatory forces is economical. Meng Bingchun, scholar of media and communication studies, maintains that SARFT creates favorable policies to protect the monopoly position of China Central Television (CCTV) for the purpose of defending its economic interests. Meng reasons that as CCTV turns thirteen percent of its annual income to SARFT, television programs that potentially jeopardize the interests of CCTV and thus that of SARFT may be subject to criticism and/or being banned with similar reasons of moral decline (262-3). For example, when the talent contest show Super Girl, produced by an inland provincial television station, Hunan Satellite Television, gripped the whole nation and charged a higher price (RMB 112,500/$ 13, 587) for an ad on the contest’s final than the highest CCTV station was able to charge, an official statement from CCTV described the show as “vulgar and manipulative,” proposing to cancel the show for its “secularized” values (Meng 261). In fact, SARFT banned Super Girl after the final in 2006 and did not approve its revival until 2009. In protecting political ideology or economic interests, moral decline is a shared justification for prohibition of television programs. The controversies appearing in Narrow Dwelling are extra-marital affairs and the real estate crisis; therefore, I will focus on its negotiation with censorship and its audience response in terms of those two controversies.

6. Similarly, each episode of L’Escargot was one hour long including three sections of commercials, aired every day during weekdays, while its ending was on a Sunday night broadcasting consecutively the twenty-nineth and thirtieth episode.

7. In this paper, I use “Narrow Dwelling” as the title of the television drama.

8. See Zha (1995, 7-10) for examples of protesting intellectuals turning into businessmen in post-1989 China.

9. Provincial satellite channels were solely run by state-owned provincial television stations until 2001. Hong Kong-based STAR television, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation obtained approval from SARFT to enter the television network in Guangdong Province, a southern coastal region bordering Hong Kong and Macau. The channel was launched in April 2002. At the same time, China Entertainment Television (CETV), currently jointly owned by the Hong Kong based-TOM Group and the United States’ TBS Networks, launched its first broadcast in February, 2002. By 2006, around thirty foreign satellite channels had permission to broadcast in China (Lantham 56) while the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television Chinese Channel had become popular with cable viewers by the late 1990s. SARFT restricts satellite broadcasts; for example, CETV broadcast is legally limited to mainly Guangdong Province. But in fact, there are more than 400 television channel signals received in China (Li, 2007), and residents who illegally install a satellite receiver at home may be able to watch foreign channels.

10. Numerous netizens (wangmin) condemned Li Jingsheng’s critisms on the popular Chinese discussion forum bbs1.people.com.cn. For example, netizen [124.131.209 ] opined that Li was even more corrupted than the character Song Siming. See bbs1.people.com.cn.

11. There was a claim that Narrow Dwelling would be banned from further airing after a suspension of its re-run on the Beijing Youth Chanel in November 2009. However, such a claim proved to be wrong, as the television drama was re-run in 2010 with a much lower profile.

12. Sources for this episode:


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Chen, Xing. 2009. “Zhang Jiayi changtan Woju Song Siming: zhezhong nanren kaobuzhu” [Zhang Jiayi’s free talk on Narrow Dwelling’s Song Siming: This type of men is unreliable]. Renmin Wang, Dec 29, 2009, (accessed Feb 27, 2012).

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