Understanding China and Mandarin with 7 Chinese film classics

It is said the best art comes from turmoil and hardship. This seems particularly true for Mainland Chinese cinema which for decades had gone practically unnoticed, but reemerged in the relatively liberal eighties and nineties, transforming long years of revolution, war and chaos into internationally acclaimed works of art.

If you’re only into the newest movies from China, you’d best stop reading here. This is a list of mostly older Mainland Chinese movies I’ve come to like and recommend to anyone interested in China.

Although the reality presented in these films may seem very different from the China we see today, these lived experiences continue to shape China. Since this blog is mainly about learning Mandarin I’ve added my estimation of the difficulty level for each film.

Included on my list:

  • Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)
  • To live – 活着 (1994)
  • Coming home – 归来 (2014)
  • Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)
  • The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)
  • Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003
  • Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

Concubines! Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of a young woman (played by Gong Li) who is forced to become one of the concubines of a wealthy man during the Warlord Era. The four concubines “compete” with each other in order to be the master’s favorite taitai and gain the privileges that come with that status.

The movie can be read in many ways. In my eyes it’s mainly an condemnation of traditional patriarchal society and capitalism where women are sold as slaves. But Lantern can also be seen as a symbolic depiction of any power system or government that demands absolute of obedience of its subordinates by rewarding those who comply and punishing those who don’t. That’s how the system maintains itself and the master – whose face remains invisible – gets his way. Power and wealth will be shared only if you comply with its rules. North-Korea and other totalitarians regimes come to mind.

The film was directed by China’s most renowned filmmaker Zhang Yimou and has been banned for a certain period in China after it came out.

Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Hibiscus Town was directed by “third generation” Chinese filmmaker Xie Jin and probably the first film to look back upon the upheavals of the cultural revolution. Actually the story – which is set in a small Hunan village about sixty years ago – is still very relevant today as radical ideologies demanding absolute equality have all but disappeared.

Hibiscus Town tells the story about the kindhearted and pretty Hu Yuyin who successfully sells a local variety of bean curd made from rice. She works hard and together with her husband Guigui manages to save enough money to build an impressive new house. During the Four Cleanups Movement of 1964 however, they suddenly see themselves denounced as “new rich peasants” who have to undergo some kind of punishment for their “reactionary” thinking and behavior.

The film – typically classified as a “scar drama” – was well received in China when it came out, but internationally still is not that well-known.

To Live – 活着 (1994)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

“The little chickens will grow to be ducks, the ducks will become geese, and the geese will become oxen, and tomorrow will be better” – final line of Fugui.

I know of no other movie that gives a more lasting impression of China’s inner turmoil and life-changing revolutions in the past century than To Live. It’s yet another movie by Zhang Yimou. The storyline in one sentence: After Fugui and Jiazhen (played by Gong Li) lose their personal fortunes, they raise a family and survive difficult cultural changes during 1940s to 1970s China.

I was surprised to learn that the film was denied a theatrical release in mainland China by the authorities due to its “critical portrayal” of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government. Beautiful soundtrack by Zhao Jiping.

Coming home – 归来 (2014)

Full movie available here

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English / Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

This is probably the most tragic film about the cultural revolution directed by Zhang Yimou (as if To Live wasn’t heart-wrenching enough). Coming Home is actually a love story, but not a happy one: Lu and Feng (played by Gong Li) are a devoted couple forced to separate when Lu is arrested and sent to a labor camp as a political prisoner during the cultural revolution. He finally returns home only to find that his beloved wife no longer recognizes him! Lu is determined not to give up and desperately tries to reawaken his wife’s memory.

Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (Standard Chinese, songs can be difficult to understand, partly a “silent” movie)

This is a rather sombre and slow movie by Chen Kaige, another member of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. Yellow Earth focuses on the story of a communist soldier who is sent to the countryside to collect folk songs for the Communist Revolution. There he stays with a peasant family and learns that the happy songs he was sent to collect do not exist; the songs he finds are about hardship and suffering. He returns to the army, but promises to come back for the young girl, Cuiqiao, who has been spell-bound by his talk of the freedom women have under communist rule and who wants to join the Communist Army. The story relies on images more than on words.

The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Advanced (partly non-standard Chinese)

Another one by Zhang Yimou starring his favorite actress Gong Li. The film tells the story about a desperate quest for justice. A peasant woman, Qiu Ju, who lives in a rural area of China. When her husband is kicked in the groin by the village head, Qiu Ju, despite her pregnancy, travels to a nearby town, and later a big city to deal with its bureaucrats and find justice. One thing that makes The Story of Qiu Ju stand out is the fact that many of the street scenes were filmed with a hidden camera which gives an authentic picture of daily life during the Deng Xiaoping era – a whole different approach compared to Zhang’s To Live and Raise the Red Lantern.

Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003

Rating: 8 out of 10.

This rather bleak but internationally well received movie was directed by Li Yang who has been “controversial” in China for addressing China’s social problems in his highly realistic films.

Two Chinese coal miners have hit upon the perfect scam: murder one of their fellow mine workers, make the death look like an accident, and extort money from the boss to keep the incident hushed up. For their latest “mark,” they choose a naive teenager from a small village, and as they prepare to carry out their newest plan, things start to get complicated. The story literally takes place in the underworld where people do the most ruthless and evil things for money.

Maybe not very surprisingly since it highlights a dark side of Chinese society, Blind Shaft has not been approved for release in China.

This is merely short list of Mainland Chinese movies I’ve been wanting to share on my blog for some time. If you have any suggestions for Mainland Chinese films you missed in this list please let me know : )

For more Mainland Chinese films from the 80’s visit this page.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life

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Recently I started watching a fairly new documentary series called “人生第一次” or “The Firsts in Life” which is very popular in China. Here’s why I think it’s a good resource for learning Mandarin – even though it has one problem.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life” is a highly rated 12-episode documentary series planned and released by CCTV. It captures 12 “first time ever” moments that are of great significance to Chinese society, running through different stages of life such as birth, school, family, career, and old-age care. At the beginning of each episode, a “storyteller” will lead the narration.

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - Score on Douban
“人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life” was well received on the Chinese movie database Douban.

5 Reasons to use “人生第一次” to improve your Mandarin

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The firsts in life - 5 reasons to watch the documentary series
  • Year: 2020
  • Duration: 12 episodes X 30 min.
  • Subtitles: Mandarin / English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

For our purposes here, let me just give a few points why The Firsts in Life is suitable learning material:

  • Popular series with short yet moving episodes
  • Potential conversation starter
  • Mandarin and English subtitles
  • Universal topics everyone can relate to
  • Study vocabulary by topic (birth, school, army, office etc.)
  • Revealing glimpses of Chinese society and ideals presented by Chinese state television

And here comes the problem: although the main language is Standard Chinese, on several occasions people speak the local dialect. That makes it hard to follow every now and then, especially in the final episodes that focus on the elderly, but the subtitles help a lot.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life – the 12 episodes

  1. 第一集: 出生 – birth
  2. 第二集: 上学 – go to school
  3. 第三集: 长大 – growing up
  4. 第四集: 当兵 – join the army
  5. 第五集: 上班 – go to work
  6. 第六集: 结婚 – to marry
  7. 第七集: 进城 – move to the city
  8. 第八集: 买房 – buy a house
  9. 第九集: 相守 – take care of each other
  10. 第十集: 退休 – to retire
  11. 第十一集: 养老 – enjoy life in retirement
  12. 第十二集: 告别 – farewell

Episode One: “Birth”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 1

The first episode offers a glimpse of what it means to give birth in present-day China or rather – important detail – in the Red House Hospital in Shanghai, which is affiliated to the Fudan University and one of the highest rated hospitals in China. If you’ve never witnessed a birth before, this might prove an “in your face” viewing experience.

Episode 2: “Going to School”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 2

This episode focuses on the first school day ever for group of children in one of China’s first tier cities. Choosing the right school is a major decision for Chinese parents as they don’t want their kids “to lose at the starting line”.

Episode 3: “Growing Up”

人生第一次 -ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 3

In a mountain village somewhere in Yunnan Province kids receive unusual lessons: they are taught to write poetry. Life in the mountains is hard, with parents often working far away from home to support the family. One 12-year-old girl even lives on her own, video-calling her mom late at night when she is done working. These kids suffer many hardships, but they never lack inspiration to write poetry, resulting in a kind of primitive and pure art created by children.

Episode 4: “Being a Soldier”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -The Firsts in Life - episode 4

Have you ever wondered what’s it like to join the Chinese army? These young recruits join a special unit of Chinese paratroopers and receive their first training. In a matter of weeks they will be ready to make their first jump from a real airplane. The viewer witnesses this highly interesting transformation from school boys who just said goodbye to mama to hard-boiled soldiers serving in the Chinese army.

Episode 5: “Go to Work”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 5

I thought this was going to be an episode about people entering the labor market and starting some kind of office or factory job. And actually I wasn’t completely off the mark, except the people in question have an extremely hard time getting any job at all, because they are physically disabled. If it wasn’t for Wang Shaojun who – sitting in a wheelchair himself – started an employment training center for disabled people, they’ll probably still at home suffering, invisible for society. Wang Shaojun’s training enables them to work as customer service agents and earn their own money. But it’s more than a training center: this is a place where people become friends for life.

Episode 6: “Marriage”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -The Firsts in Life - episode 6

Marriage is a huge thing in China and weddings are still amazingly traditional – even in futuristic Shanghai. We witness some young couples marrying in the Pudong marriage registration office in Shanghai. They are all eager to receive their marriage certificate which bears similarity to a passport. How do modern, hardworking Shanghainese see marriage?

Episode 7: “Entering the City”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 7

The migrant worker. China’s economy couldn’t run without millions of migrant workers. To get rid of poverty, the government established a labor service station that recruits workers from poor villages in Yunnan. The tragedy of almost every migrant worker is the same: they leave their family and loved ones behind to make money in the big city.

Episode 8: “Buying a House”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 8

In China renting is for losers. In the long run every family is supposed to buy its own apartment, even when this means becoming a mortgage slave. Finding and financing their own apartment is one of the biggest challenges young Chinese face today. This episode focuses on a real estate agent in Beijing who tries to close a deal between two families, all the while hoping that one day he’ll be able to afford his own house.

Episode 9: “Look after each other”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -  The Firsts in Life - episode 9

Next to Jiangxi Nanchang Cancer Hospital, Aunt Xiong and her husband run a shared kitchen. Aunt Xiong’s small kitchen is the source of many heart-warming stories. Family members of patients come here every day to cook a simple meal, because even in difficult times, says Aunt Xiong, a person has to eat. It takes only 1 yuan to fry a vegetarian dish. These low prices are more than welcome, since cancer treatment is extremely expensive.

Episode 10: “Retirement”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 10

It always struck me that whereas working people in China usually slug their guts out to make a living and hardly have any spare time, retired people have plenty of time to dedicate to all kind of leisure activities like dancing, singing and calligraphy. Many seniors retire early – the standard retirement age in Germany for example is currently 67 – and have a rich social life. This episode focuses on the Sichuan University for the Elderly in Chengdu. Many enrolled students are in their sixties and go to university for the first time. The goal is not so much to leave the university with a degree, but rather to enjoy and cultivate arts with their peers.

Episode 11: “Elderly Care”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 11

Elderly care in China: in this episode an old lady from Shanghai decides to leave her home behind to live in a retirement community. Another older gentleman doesn’t want to make the same move, even if that will lead to someday becoming “a burden” to his family.

Episode 12: “Farewell”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 12

In China, nearly 70 percent of wills are invalid each year. Why does a seemingly simple piece of paper fail to play its due role? How can conflicts and disputes arising from wills be avoided and resolved to the greatest extent? Is it necessary to make a will? Shooting at the Chinese Wills Library in Beijing, CCTV recorded the story of people coming to make a will for the first time. Like Chao Wenzhen, 73 years old, who comes to make a will in name of his wife.

Closing remarks…

“人生第一次” has a touch of social realism to it: sending out the “artists” to capture the life of ordinary people – not raw, but in a stylized way, with a narrator giving his or her interpretation. I don’t mean that in a negative way: most of the stories are genuinely touching. “人生第一次” has been conceived for a Mainland Chinese audience, so it gives an inside perspective on the topics at hand and doesn’t at any occasion call China’s “normality” into question. That makes it extra interesting when you put your anthropology glasses on.

For study purposes or just as Mandarin input I recommend the series, although I have to admit that the regional varieties (mostly Shanghai dialect) are a complication.

Chinese dreams (2019): must-watch China doc

In short: You take a Dutch guy who wants to become a professional photographer. You put him in China with a camera team and he starts making an incredible portrait of present-day China. Since these three documentaries are almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share them here.

How the Dutch filmmaker Ruben Terlou ended up in China

After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to China to make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutchman, but Ruben was convinced that China was the place to be for him.

Settling down in Kunming and learning Chinese, he fell in love with the country and the people. He became fluent in Mandarin. But after two years of trying his luck as a professional photographer, he returned to Holland, allegedly broke and disappointed.

He than began studying medicine instead, putting photography second, but still visiting places like Afghanistan to shoot material. He finished his studies cum laude, yet he never became an actual doctor.

All in all, I have spent around four to five years in China, I guess. I appreciate the honesty of the people the most. Chinese people are very open about their emotions and can reflect well. The country is and remains fascinating because it is constantly and massively in motion.

The filmmaker Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Ruben Terlou: Holland’s unappointed China ambassador

Ruben’s China documentaries became an instant hit in the Netherlands. In every discussion about China people would mention his name.

For most Dutch people China used to be a far away place. Little did they know about the people who live there and their daily lives. Ruben’s China series made a change, focusing on a broad variety of topics and letting Chinese locals tell their own story. He showed that Chinese are not incomprehensible strangers, but fellow human beings. Not an easy task, especially under growing political tensions:

It would be nice if my work touches the audience. Because with all that news about the Chinese trade war, misunderstanding towards the superpower is growing. “What a horrible country, that China,” many people say. I want to remove that distrust, hope to paint a balanced and human image of China.

Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Not the usual biased approach

Many China documentaries made by westerners fail insofar that they are deep-rooted in prejudices (and often ignorance) and choose the moral high ground. Most importantly, they don’t bring any new insights.

Ruben Terlou cannot help but see China through the eyes of a westerner, but at least he makes a serious effort of leaving judgement to the viewers. But there’s more that makes him stand out from journalists and filmmakers that cover China:

  • He holds back his opinion and allows people to tell their stories
  • He’s not looking for cheap sensation
  • People open up to him and tell him very personal things
  • He’s a keen observer and a brilliant listener. He knows what to ask at the right moment.
  • Not only his Mandarin is fluent, he also knows a lot about Chinese history and culture. This is demonstrated in his interviews as well as in his selection of topics and filming areas.
  • He captures unusual places, people and situations like hospitals, circus artists and vanishing minorities.

China is the ideal laboratory for story telling. Had I made the same series in Belgium, or even in India, my conversations would affect the audience less. Those countries are closer to us. Precisely because China is strange to us, I can expose the essence of mankind. Do you understand? China is linguistically and culturally so different from us that it serves as a mirror.

Ruben Terlou in Trouw

Three times China

Three different series of Ruben’s China adventures have been produced. The main language is Mandarin Chinese with Dutch moderation and – most important – English subtitles. Starting with season 1:

Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)

The six episodes

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 1 - 3

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 4 - 6

  • Year: 2016
  • Duration: 6 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Through the heart of China (2018)

The seven episodes

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 1 - 4

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 4 - 7

  • Year: 2018
  • Duration: 7 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese dreams (2019)

Episode 3: Ruben wonders how it is possible that each year nearly five million marriages go on the rocks in China. He travels with a judge across the countryside, attends divorce cases in a court, and joins a so-called “mistress hunter”. In a “love hospital” in the mega city of Shanghai, he witnesses a relationship therapist in action.
  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 4 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: Dutch
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese like any other language ultimately is a tool for communication. Ruben mastered the language and moved on to use his wits and talents to do great things. What’s your dream? What do you think about his China doc? Please feel free to leave a comment.

New show: Granny knows best 奶奶最懂得 (2019, TV series)

jamie bilbow cooking with granny 6

In his new show “Granny Knows Best” Jamie Bilbow takes the audience on a journey to rural China to learn from the true kitchen heroes – Chinese grandmothers. How did the British moderator become so fluent in Mandarin?! Three reasons why you should watch the show.

About 奶奶最懂得 (2019)

  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 8 episodes X 30 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
The series’ rating on Douban (04.12.2019)

Three reasons to watch the show

  • Expand your cooking vocabulary and culinary horizon
  • Be impressed by Jamie’s Chinese skills and how smoothly he communicates with the locals
  • Meet 16 wonderful grannies and discover places in China you have never seen before

The 16 inspiring women I met on my journey were such a pleasure to film with and I can’t wait for you to meet each and every one of them! The show promotes the universal message that grannies are the cornerstones of families, they bring us together and their cooking provides an important reminder of how good simple traditional food can be.

Jamie Bilbow on facebook about his show Granny Knows Best (09.10.2019)

How did Jamie (大米) become so fluent in Chinese?!

Jamie Bilbow speaks Chinese amazingly fluent, knows his cooking vocabulary and has his way of communicating with the locals, making them feel at ease and disclose their culinary secrets. How did he become so fluent?

Jamie (1988) was born in England and moved to Hong Kong at the age of one, but but didn’t learn Mandarin or even Cantonese during the first 18 years of his life. Learning Mandarin became a crucial goal, once he realized that he wanted to become a chef de cuisine in China and learn everything about Chinese food.

His recipe for success: “I say yes to any opportunities that present new challenges, even if they aren’t related to the ‘final goal’. I say yes more often than no and put myself into as many new situations as possible.” (South China Morning Post, 14.06.2017)

These challenging situations include training chefs in North Korea, peddling a hummus cart business, publishing a Western cookbook in Chinese and running a cooking school in Beijing. Before he got famous in China, Jamie also participated in Chinese language competitions with other foreigners.

Jamie Bilbow selling homemade hummus through the old streets of Beijing (Source: Jamie Bilbow on LinkedIn)

Not that his fame and Chinese skills don’t speak for themselves, but Jamie actually holds an undergraduate degree in Chinese from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as well as a Chinese teaching degree from the Institute of Education, UCL, both based in London.

You can find more about his activities on facebook or weibo.

Watch all episodes of Granny Knows Best here.

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Still unbeaten: Journey to the West (1986, TV series)

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Journey to the West is one of the four great novels of Chinese literature. Over the years, countless TV-adaptations have been produced. Everything from decent to mediocre to barely watchable.

One of the oldest, the 1986 version, was so strong and convincing that it achieved classical status. It seems almost all mainland Chinese people grew up watching this CCTV-production of Journey to the West and it still can be seen on Chinese television today. (It’s one of those series Chinese national television just keeps repeating.)

From today’s perspective, the special effects are obsolete and bizarre. And the story evolves much slower and more long-winded than Netflix addicts are used to nowadays. The striking thing though: China and its film industry have developed so much since then, but they never quite managed to top the 1986-series! In terms of story line, costumes, portrayal of characters, it still is considered the most original and authentic rendition of the story. As a matter of fact, some of the newer adaptations are hardly more than imitations that fail to bring convincing interpretations to the plot and characters.

Key to understanding China

Most people who are serious about learning Chinese, watch or read Journey to the West at some point. There is just no way around it. The legendary journey of the Buddhist monk and his apprentices somehow is fundamental to Chinese culture. The adventures of the Monkey King have left their traces in the Chinese language. Journey to the West is a key to understanding China, although it leaves you with many new questions. About Chinese mythology and religions for example.

Still the best: 1986 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 1986
  • Year: 1986
  • Duration: 25 episodes X 45 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese and English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

The complete 1986-adaptation you can find on YouTube with English subtitles.

Reading Journey to the West

I wrote about Pleco’s e-book Journey to the West a while back. The online dictionary offers its own graded reader series for the Chinese Classics, suitable for non-native speakers. Pleco’s Journey to the West is an abridged version for intermediate learners which stays true to the original as far as I can tell. Watching the series and reading the story with its additional notes on places, monsters and demons together can be very helpful. If you have the time, that is! The story is meant for HSK 4 or 5 learners.

Other adaptations

Countless other adaptations have been made. I can’t guarantee this list is complete. It doesn’t include cartoons for example. Unfortunately, most of them lack quality. I found only one exception.

1996 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 1996
Disappointing

1999 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 1999
This is the second season of 86′ version.

2000 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2000
Disappointing

2010 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2010
Disappointing

2016 (Movie)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2016
Watchable. Famous actress Li Gong plays the “white bone demon”. The actor who plays Sun WuKong does a good job as well.

2018 (Movie)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2018
High budget, heavy on special effects, but not convincing.

2019 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2019
This seems to be a remake of the 1986 CCTV-adaptation.

Recommended: 1986 (TV series) on YouTube

This is the CCTV-version from 1986 with English subtitles.

Did I miss one of your favorite adaptations of Journey to the West or am I being too harsh? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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Love defense wars: 爱情保卫战

Aiqing baowei zhan is one of the first Chinese shows that I managed to understand and enjoy. While the series may not be the most intellectual TV-show ever produced, watching Chinese people bitching you still will learn a lot. The more mundane, the better. Here’s why!

Short description

  • Year: Since 2010
  • Duration: 2 x 25 min.
  • Nr. of episodes: 1000+
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Why watch 爱情保卫战?

  • Develop listening skills: the invited guests speak normal everyday Chinese and talk about very, very mundane problems we’re all familiar with: relationships.
  • It provides almost endless listening material, over a thousand episodes have been made of this Tianjin TV show.
  • Enhance cultural understanding: I’m always surprised by the kind of uniform and functional approach Chinese have to love and marriage. It seems most people just adapt themselves to the expectations of others, start dating someone cause that’s the proper thing to do and then when things don’t work out, they are completely at a loss. This is where TV-therapy with a live audience comes in and judgement is passed! Anyway, the viewer does get an impression of what can be expected from both sides in a relationship, what’s a healthy relationship and what’s not. The expert’s panel will point out mistakes and confront the lovers with their wrongdoings.

Same procedure, different episode

The first stage of the show
1: The show starts with a short introduction of the couple. As far as I know, it’s always a young, unmarried couple. Here you get presented the basic ingredients of the lower-middle-class drama. Both sides will outline their part of the story.
The second stage of the show
2: Then the moderator interviews them both live on stage to find out what’s not working between them. Sometimes, if he’s not careful, things can get out of hand and the lovers just start yelling accusations at each other. The audience adores this. However, the moderator usually does a good job at keeping the conversation civilized.
3: In the third and final stage, the panel of experts will grant their advice. Most prominently starring 涂老师 (Tu laoshi) who has been observing the couple with his sharp eyes and now offers his invaluable opinion. At the end of the show, a final countdown will be held during which the couple decides if they stay together or break up.

Tips for listening

  • Understanding: Don’t think less of your self because you don’t understand everything at once. It’s not about “understanding everything”, every sentence, every word.
  • Conversation speed: They’re speaking too fast? Try lowering the speed to 0.75. It does alter the voice quality, but this will give your brain more time to listen, read the subtitles and take in the meaning of what is being communicated.
  • Repetition: Listen a second and even a third time and you’ll notice your understanding will increase every time.
  • Active listening: Give yourself a task like looking up the meaning of 10 words. If you do so, listen first and use your dictionary only in the second round. By then you’ll have a feeling which words really stand out and are important to understand the conversation.
  • Summarize: Try to summarize the main problem(s) of the couple’s relationship and (even harder) the advice they were given by the “expert panel”.
This guy feels he’s wronged, because his girlfriend turns out to be a 女汉子, a masculine woman, who gets furious if she doesn’t get what she wants. She even broke his fishing rod! This gives you a taste of what’s 爱情保卫战 all about.

What’s your opinion about 爱情保卫战? Feel to free to comment.

Women in Shanghai: 上海女子图鉴 (TV series)

  • Year: 2018
  • Duration: 20 episodes X 25 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Luo Haiyan has just graduated from university in Shanghai. Like hundred thousands of other fresh graduates, she’s about to enter the Shanghai job market. This is where her climb to the top of society starts. But what if she – as a result – becomes a “leftover woman”? Isn’t the shame of ending up as “剩女” too big to ignore? Can she really fulfill her dream of rising to Shanghai’s top 10 percent?

Why I recommend Women in Shanghai for Chinese learners.

The Shanghai dream

The ingredients of “上海女子图鉴” taste to you like a bowl of boiled rice flour balls covered in caramel sauce? That’s just a sign you are starting to appreciate the Shanghai dream:

Drinking red wine from huge glasses, ordering mocha or coffee americano (美式) instead of hot water. Having your private driver driving you through Shanghai. Living at top locations in the city center. Using Apple products only. Wearing the right handbag. Always be dressed in the newest fashion.

The Shanghai dream is never questioned. The viewer is simply expected to share the dream. How could you desire anything else?

Luo Haiyan

Luo Haiyan is just an average girl from some Chinese cow town. There is nothing special about her. No traumatic events in her past make her stand out. No character traits that separate her from the masses. She’s an average girl, however, she for some reason wins the favor of her female boss and then success comes rolling in.

Putting off marriage

But the spectrum of options, even for a young and attractive woman of the emerging middle-class, remains limited in Chinese society. The recurring question is – of course – who will she marry?

The handsome neighbor guy, her responsible colleague, the ambitious entrepreneur, the elder billionaire? The more successful she becomes, the pickier she gets. Her mentor Scarlet reminds her that true freedom means never to become depend on any man.

Is this series any good as learning resource?

For our purposes here, let me just give a few points why Women in Shanghai is suitable learning material:

  • Short episodes
  • The rather thin plot is not too difficult to follow, even if you don’t understand every conversation
  • Mostly putonghua with a taste of business Chinese
  • Gives a feeling of modern life in Shanghai (the idealized, glamor version, that is)

Similar series

Should you for whatever reason not be very interested in Shanghai: similar series have been made. Same concept, different city!

The Beijing version seems to have slightly better plot and even contains touches of irony here and there. Like the scene where the main actress pukes into her Gucci hand bag (or whatever brand, I forgot) that she finally could afford to purchase.

Women in Beijing

Women in Tokyo (the original series from Japan in Japanese)

Women in Shanghai: 上海女子图鉴, episode 1
The end credits song of the series is quite a catchy tune about ever hectic working life in Shanghai. She needs to get up, catch the tube, buy her meal of rice balls, but most of all smile and endure. Hoping that one day she will arrive.

Do you have a TV-series that you would recommend for learning Chinese? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Film tip: My Ferry / 我的渡口

我的渡口” or “My Ferry” struck me as a rather slow and silent movie, conversations between country people being of the minimalist kind with many things left unsaid. The main reason to watch – apart from the scenic beauty of the Hubei river landscape – is probably to get a taste of traditional, rural China which is so completely different from modern Chinese society.

  • Year: 2013
  • Duration: 92 minutes
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Story line

The story about a father and son can be outlined in a few sentences. Laotian has been working as a ferryman on a small rowing boat for all his life. His wife has died and recently his health has been declining, but he doesn’t want to give up his trade. His only son, Xiaotian, who has been jobbing downtown, now has returned to spend his holidays with his father. Xiaotian, who has been struggling as a migrant worker to survive in the big city, loves his father, but doesn’t have a high opinion of his trade and his stubborn ways. His father never accepts any money, the villagers leave some cabbages or potatoes instead. Xiaotian’s feelings change however, when he starts rowing the ferry himself in order to support his old man.

The ferryman

Tradition and modernity

Basically, it’s a story about father and son and the conflict between the old and the new. Can a fourth generation take over the small ferry business? How to react to the changing circumstances? How to respect tradition and still survive without becoming a stick in the mud?

Filial piety

From a cultural perspective, “My Ferry” is a striking display of “filial piety”. Xiaotian may disagree with his father’s plain view of the world, but he would never openly disrespect him and make him loose face in front of others. It’s really compelling to watch these traditional Chinese family relations where feelings for each other are usually expressed in an indirect way. In other words, no hugging, no “I love you, dad”, no “goodbye, son, I’ll miss you” and so on.

When no one wants to cross the river, you wait.

The ferryman

When we look deeper, we also find the archetypal figure of the ferryman who appears in many cultures. He typically is a solitary and silent figure, not very well liked by the people and transcendent in the sense that he isn’t really part of this world, but forever in between. Laotian, still very concerned with the practical world and his local community, could be seen as a Chinese manifestation of this archetypal figure. There’s wisdom in his simplicity.

Important vocabulary

  • 爹 – die1 – (father, dad)
  • 娘 – niáng – (mother, mam)
  • 划船 – huáchuán – ( to row a boat)

Follow the link to watch the movie.