Haiping, in tears, complains to her husband, Su Chun, that her little daughter sees her as a stranger because they sent the daughter to live with her grandmother.
Haizao meets the Party official, Song Siming, at a business dinner and later becomes his mistress for the sake of financial assistance.
Song Siming is attracted to Haizao at the business dinner.
Grandma Li refuses to relocate, explaining to her old neighbors that the social injustice of urban renewal forces local residents to leave their downtown community and move to inconvenient suburbs.
The night scene of the fictional city Jiangzhou is in fact the Huangpu River in Shanghai, hinting at the fact that the globalizing city undergoing an unreasonable real estate boom is Shanghai.
Haizao pays a weekly visit to Haiping and Su Chun in their cramped attic room, which serves as living room, dining room, study room, and bedroom.
Haiping and Su Chun take Haizao on a tour around Jiangzhou city, convincing her to stay in the city for the availability of global luxuries—the Japanese department store Isetan, Tag Heuer watches and Nike sports shoes.
Haiping’s mother suggests that Haiping leave the newborn baby with her in the suburbs, as the attic room is too cramped for an infant.
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. [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 the nuanced 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.
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
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. 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. 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.