Nation takes its seat for a feast of TV tradition
Hundreds of millions of mainlanders will watch the annual Lunar New Year's Eve gala on China Central Television (CCTV) tonight.
Intense media speculation about who will make it to the final line-up of performers has again gripped the public in the lead-up to the extravaganza, known as Chunwan.
It is being held for the 30th time and has become a fixture of celebrations.
Online forums are buzzing about why comedian Zhao Benshan - who has been the most closely watched star in the gala for years - announced on Thursday that he would not perform tonight.
Many are also wondering if the five-hour show will include a recorded singing performance by investment guru Warren Buffett.
But the show has lost much of its allure in recent years, due to its highly stylised format, the encroachment of advertisements and competition from other forms of entertainment.
A sense of resentment is also evident in some quarters, with almost all major television channels broadcasting the gala, leaving mainland audiences with few other television programmes to watch.
Ha Wen, the producer behind several hit CCTV entertainment programmes hosted by her husband Li Yong, has been entrusted with producing the gala for the first time this year.
But while she has promised to drop the controversial practice of placing advertisements in popular comic skits or magic performances, she has ruled out a major overhaul.
'I'm inclined to bring some fresh air into the show instead of a major shake-up because Chunwan has become part of Lunar New Year folk culture,' she told The Beijing News. 'An overhaul of the show will lead to its self-destruction because it won't be the Chunwan [people know].'
The gala started off as a low-key variety show on the state broadcaster in 1983 and quickly carved out a large audience on the mainland.
Cheung Ming-men, the first Hong Kong singer to perform in the gala, became a household name on the mainland after an appearance in 1984, when she sang the patriotic song My Chinese Heart. It went on to become an instant hit.
In 1987, Taiwan-born Chinese-American singer Kris Phillips, better known as Fei Xiang, took the audience by storm with his dancing and his rendition of Hometown Cloud, a song about homesickness.
The gala has been regarded as a barometer of star power for years, with slots in its line-up highly sought after. It has even spawned copycat shows on regional networks, though none is allowed to compete in the same time slot.
But its popularity has plunged, particularly among the younger generation, even as it has tried to accommodate more genres, grass-roots entertainers, new technology, fancy lighting and extravagant costumes. Calls for reform are getting louder, with some critics even suggesting that the show be axed.
Professor Zhu Dake, a culture critic from Shanghai Tongji University, said it had lost its soul and its relevance in a changing society.
Galas in the '80s offered people inspiration with images of freedom, happiness and prosperity, Zhu said.
But in the past decade they had become vehicles for soulless official propaganda and no longer touched on basic social values.
In 2001, Selling Crutches, a comic skit by Zhao Benshan, was criticised for glorifying fraudulent practices.
'As a propaganda tool, Chunwan suffers a split personality because it has turned its back on social reality in order to align itself with ideology,' Zhu said. 'On the other hand, Chunwan has been made even more kitsch and vulgar to make up for losses in popularity.'
The gala is subject to several rounds of reviews by top censors before going to air each year and many performers have to wait until the last minute before learning whether they will be allowed to go ahead with performances they have been rehearsing for months.
Song Aijun, a Beijing-based folk culture expert who has studied the Chunwan phenomenon, said the gala had become a showcase for mainstream arts, which explained in part why there had been so few changes over the years.
'The performances we often see in Chunwan are not well received because of a general lack of artistic creativity. Programmes popular with the younger generation can hardly make it onto the show,' he said.
However, he said the gala would continue to feature heavily in Lunar New Year celebrations.
'Chunwan is like a treat of dumplings during the Lunar New Year - you've got to have some to observe the tradition, no matter whether you like it or not,' Song said.