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Socialist soap opera?

How Chinese censorship ruined a popular Asian drama

Socialist soap opera?

Dylan Wang and Shen Yue in Meteor Garden (Comic Ritz International Production)

It’s been 25 years since the TV show Friends was first broadcast in America, and one of its lesser-known legacies is the large number of Chinese millennials who have learned English by watching the show. Television shows allow language learners to hear English spoken in a native accent and used in an everyday context. Storylines also help students remain engaged and teach them about American culture (for better or worse).

I decided to take on a similar task—improving my Chinese by watching a recently remade Chinese drama called Meteor Garden, available on Netflix. I turned on the Chinese subtitles (so I could pause and look up words I missed) and embarked on a 49-episode journey of will-they-won’t-they drama, fashionable oversized sweaters, product placements, and lots of actors gazing into the distance as the same four songs play in the background. 

The Meteor Garden storyline isn’t new. It was originally based on a Japanese comic book series called Boys Over Flowers and then adapted into a wildly popular Taiwanese drama renamed Meteor Garden in 2001. It spawned a sequel and remakes in Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia. In its latest iteration, Angie Chai, the producer of Taiwanese version, decided to remake the series for a mainland Chinese audience, and Meteor Garden was broadcast on Hunan TV in 2018. Despite initial excitement, viewers considered the Chinese version of the show a flop.

The story follows Dong Shancai, a girl from a poor family who is accepted into an elite university and bumps up against “F4,” a group of four extremely wealthy, attractive, and popular boys. With Shancai’s spunk and outspokenness, the leader of the F4, Dao Mingsi, falls for her. The rest of the series explores whether she returns his affection and how the couple can bridge their two different social backgrounds.

Having never seen the raved-about original, I found the series cheesy. But gradually I became invested in the characters. Yes, there were times when I fast-forwarded through endless flashbacks, rolled my eyes at the clichéd soap opera situations (kidnappings, fake kidnappings, a surprise wedding, a near-death by snowstorm), or cringed at unconvincing acting. Yes, the series dragged on too long and needed editing. Product placements throughout the series turned into full-on commercials for mobile games, lemon-flavored drinks, shampoo, and makeup.

But the characters held enough charm and chemistry to keep me engaged. I’ll admit that once I even cried. As I watched, I wondered: Who would Shancai choose, hot-tempered Mingsi or the sweet and thoughtful Hua Zelei? How could Shancai win over Mingsi’s conniving mother, who wanted her son to marry a wealthy businessman’s daughter in order to save the family’s hotel conglomerate? 

At the end of the day, who could resist a story of the power of love to transform selfish people?

Compared with U.S. shows, Meteor Garden is extremely chaste—the couples never go further than hugs or emotionless kissing. Not only did the romance seem unrealistically “clean,” so did much of the series. Each scene was spotless and well lit, and even the faces of the F4 boys seemed flawless (doubtless thanks to plastic surgery and makeup). Many of the relationships within the series also had a veneer of harmony: Shancai’s parents are always supportive, her friends always have her back, and Mingsi always loves her. When conflicts occur, everyone’s quick to forgive and make up.

Much of this is due to strict regulations in China that prevent TV shows from containing sexually explicit material, cleavage, smoking, drinking, or other unhealthy behavior. Shows shouldn’t promote “Western lifestyles” (the two Westerners Shancai meets in London steal her purse) but rather extoll Chinese traditions (hence a long-winded speech on the glories of Chinese cooking).

Only after I finished the series did I check out Douban, China’s TV and movie review site, to find out how Chinese viewers had received the show. Meteor Garden received a dismal 3.2 stars out of 10 on Douban (the 2001 Taiwan version had received 8.2 stars). Commenters noted that the new version ruined the original story by neutering the characters: Mingsi should have been a powerful, disrespectful bully, but the new version erased many of his flaws in order to please Chinese censors.

That weakened the story arc: If Mingsi starts out not so bad, it’s less impressive to see the man he becomes after falling in love with the tenacious Shancai. That reminded me of a spiritual truth: When we don’t see ourselves as debase and sinful, we don’t fully understand the power of the cross and the overwhelming grace God extends to us. 

In keeping with socialist core values, Chinese shows can’t flaunt wealth or depict clashes between the rich and the poor, so in this version, Shancai is portrayed as middle class and Mingsi no longer seems as wealthy. 

Commenters on Douban pointed to a scene where Mingsi first realizes he likes Shancai. In the original version, he tells her that if she agrees to be his girlfriend, he’ll give her thousands of dollars per month, a limitless credit card, and buy her the Eiffel Tower. In the 2018 version, Mingsi’s offer is stingier: He offers to help her with homework, take her to nice restaurants, buy her a new cell phone, go on vacation once a year, and send her digital coins on a mobile game. 

The Chinese government banned the original Meteor Garden soon after its release in mainland China in 2002, claiming it “misled young people.” Yet its popularity continued to grow as young people bought pirated DVDs or watched the series at internet cafes. One commenter noted that in remaking the series for a Chinese audience producer Chai sadly “had to submit the story to ideological discipline.”

It seems I picked the wrong version of the show in terms of viewer enjoyment. But as for my Chinese learning, I picked up some new words and idioms—and a whole slew of insults. I also got a sense of the challenges of portraying good storytelling in a world where shows must align with socialist values in order to be greenlighted.

—This story has been updated to correctly identify the actors in the photo.