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Hit TV Series Takes Page From BBC With Recycled Letters

By Liu Shuangshuang and Han Wei
Actor Zhang Guoli reads a letter by playwright Cao Yu
Actor Zhang Guoli reads a letter by playwright Cao Yu

(Beijing) — “We were young and fought for the future together. As a wife, I got more loneliness from him than happiness, but as his fan, I appreciated his thought-provoking films … Everything from our past shall remain my very own secret and live with me.”

These are excerpts of a letter penned by veteran Taiwanese pop singer Tsai Chin in 2007 after the death of her ex-husband Edward Yang, a film director. Their decade-long marriage unraveled in 1995, fueling gossip in China’s yellow press that it had long been a sexless union. The letter recently went viral on Chinese social media after being read on a primetime TV show that has put the spotlight on private correspondence dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

The show, known as Jian Zi Ru Mian (见字如面) — a Chinese remake of the popular BBC show Letters Live — invites well-known actors to read out letters from a podium. The no-frills show became a surprise hit online — with over 200 million views — and on TV when it was aired in December. Both critics and viewers gave it a rating of 9.3 out of 10 on popular film and book review site Douban.com. The score was a record high for TV reality shows.

Another letter that shocked the audience was from a poet who murdered his wife.

“We met on the train. Will your mother think I am a bad man?” wrote Gu Cheng, a popular modern poet, in a letter shortly after his first encounter with his future bride, Xie Ye, on a train from Shanghai to Beijing in July 1979.

“No one will say you are a bad man,” Xie replied. “Trains are full of people — some good, some bad. But you are like none of them. You are a special one!” Little did she know that later, the same man would ax her to death in their home in New Zealand, where the couple had lived in exile for years.

“Letters bring vivid stories from the past back to life. There is love, friendship, and respect in them … authentic emotions that are so touching in modern times full of noise,” wrote one Weibo user.

Television shows inspired by poetry or other forms of literature have seen a resurgence in China in recent months. Both critics and viewers have said it’s a sign that Chinese audiences were getting weary of mindless entertainment shows they’ve been fed for years. But there is also a long and colorful history behind Chinese letter writing, and the success of the show could partly be attributed to that, others said. The earliest letters found in the country date back to the Qin kingdom in 223 B.C., from two soldiers who hastily wrote farewells to their families on wooden slips. Many of China’s oldest works of calligraphy were also letters, including the masterpiece Pingfu Tie, penned 1,700 years ago by writer Lu Ji to tell his friend about how he was recovering from an illness.

One ancient letter read in the show was from a soldier who died in battle fending off Manchu forces in 1644, the year the Ming Dynasty came to an end. The 16-year-old wrote: “Every man will die. If a man dies for what is right, he will become immortal.”

Director Guan Wenzheng said his team had combed through archives at hundreds of museums and private collections, and even dusted out molding copies stashed away in community libraries in search of letters that not only talked about love, bravery or missing home, but also captured the zeitgeist of the time, and reflected the great social changes in China.

One such letter was from Yang Kaihui, Mao Zedong’s second wife, who was killed by a warlord in 1930. In her missive to her cousin Yang Kaiming, a year before her death, she pleads with him to take care of her three sons: “I may have already seen death. Its face is cruel and thrilling. I am not scared and, in some sense, even looking forward to it. But I feel sorry for my mother and the boys. … I entrust my boys to you. … They need your love to blossom like flowers in a warm spring and not to be destroyed by raving winds and storms.” The letter was never posted — Yang hid it in a crack in a wall, and it wasn’t discovered until a 1982 renovation of her house.

Thousands of viewers have also sent their private letters to be read in the show. “An individual’s experiences are limited and everyone needs to learn from others when facing uncertainties in life,” Guan said. “That is the purpose of reading books and even letters. But since most letters were written for private purposes rather than for publication, they contain more real information and details of the past.”

Although the art of letter writing is slowing dying as younger generations get hooked on smartphones, several viewers have said the language used in letters left them feeling nostalgic. An important part of my childhood was helping my mother write letters, said Zhang Guoli, a veteran actor known for his portrayal of Qing emperors. “Seeing someone’s writing is like meeting the person face-to-face. I feel it deeply,” Zhang said. And this feeling has been the inspiration for the title of the show, Jian Zi Ru Mian, which means “Reading your letter is like meeting you in person” and is a common greeting at the beginning of Chinese letters.

Fan Revolt

Reality TV and variety shows started appearing on Chinese TV screens in 2004, after the runaway success of Super Girl, a singing contest aired on Hunan Television. Many of them were copycat shows inspired by hits from Taiwan and other parts of the world. After authorities loosened their grip on state-backed broadcasters and pushed them to make a profit in 2012, many turned to entertainment shows as a way to attract big advertisers. This also led to fierce competition among Chinese TV channels copyrights to international hits such as The Voice, Running Man and the Amazing Race.

But there was a gaping hole left to be filled by content that reflected the history and day-to-day realities of life in China. The show with literary letters has tried to fill this void, revealing forgotten pieces of history to a young audience, several viewers said.

A few letters that were widely discussed by young netizens came from the correspondence between acclaimed artist Huang Yongyu and Cao Yu, a playwright dubbed China’s Shakespeare, which delved into modern Chinese literature and also provided a fine example of candid talk among friends.

“I don’t like any of your works after 1949, none of them!” wrote Huang. “Your heart is not in these works and you have lost your genius. You were hijacked by your position.”

Cao replied humbly, “You see through people. … When I feel tired or lose confidence, I will see those fierce lines in your letter, which will urge me to hold my pen upright and continue to write.”

No one foresaw the success of the show, with analysts at video streaming sites predicting it would get little over 200,000 hits given its “bland style” that lacked glitzy sets and star power. However, when the first demo of the show was put online in early December, it was viewed 400,000 times within an hour. “There is a constant spiritual demand among people for content that is inspiring and meaningful and it is part of one’s cultural life,” said Guan. And the rise of cultural shows like Letters Alive is just “a return to common sense,” he said.

Contact reporter Han Wei (weihan@caixin.com)

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