Go-getting Hunan brings long history of testing the limits into the 21st century

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am

Hunan's most famous products used to be its fiery cuisine and a long list of radical politicians - from the late 'Great Helmsman' Mao Zedong to feisty former premier Zhu Rongji .

In the past decade, the hinterland province has counter-intuitively turned itself into mainland's most formidable entertainment powerhouse.

Today, Hunan Satellite TV is by nearly all measures the most successful television station in China. Its chatty talk shows, dating games and riotous variety programmes have brought it a large audience nationwide. Its Saturday evening prime-time advertising rates are now the highest for any television station in China, surpassing even the main national network, CCTV-1.

'It's bold and always breaking the mould and setting industry standards,' said Beijing-based media critic He Yong . 'Stations across China are scrambling to follow.'

In only a little over 10 years since it began national broadcasts by satellite in 1997, the snappy television station has gone about as far as the media can go in China.

Its formula for success is simple: create offbeat and even risque entertainment in a country still largely dominated by bland and predictable state-run TV shows.

The station's long-running game show Fun Camp, whose sassy hosts banter and joke around, is one of the most popular shows on Chinese television. And another hit, Bravo! March Along, features people performing stunts like jumping from high places or biting the caps off beer bottles with their teeth.

But nothing has succeeded like Super Girl - a talent search show modelled on American Idol. It was such a huge hit in 2005 that more than 400 million viewers had tuned in, making it one of the most watched shows in China's television history.

Critics say the station is just good at copying popular US and British shows. But it called its process 're-inventing' - assimilating trendy international contents into local culture.

Wei Wenbin , chief of Hunan Broadcasting and Television Bureau, once famously said: 'Don't laugh at such practices. Some of us eat bread with chilli sauce. Localising a foreign show takes a lot of skills. Whoever can successfully combine east and west, old tradition and modern needs, will come out a winner.'

This mindset - explorative, impulsive, ambitious, a bit combative and a bit opportunistic - is deeply rooted in Hunan's culture and probably explains why the inland province sits at the forefront of China's cultural evolution, while its economy still lags behind many others.

The province also boasts the country's biggest animation production base and a thriving publication industry that had churned out a string of national best-sellers in the past 10 years. 'I'm always thinking about why it happened in this closed-off, not-very-developed place,' Mr He said. 'I think the cultural tradition of Hunan has always encouraged innovation and testing limits.'

Hunanese are proud of a history of producing radical political thinkers and politicians. Just a few kilometres from Mao's home village of Shaoshan is the birthplace of former president Liu Shaoqi . Not far away is the home village of marshal Peng Dehuai . Many other notable figures were born in Hunan, including Hu Yaobang , whose death triggered the 1989 protests, and the former premier Zhu, who laid off millions of state workers to push through economic reforms in the late '90s.

This great political heritage dates back to 278BC, when Qu Yuan , one of the most beloved poets in ancient China and a patriot of Chu kingdom, waded into a river with a large rock in a suicide protest against an unjust emperor.

Paying tribute to this great tradition, the Olympic torch relay organisers in Yueyang city decided to take the Olympic flame to Miluo, the river Qu threw himself into.

'Yueyang is a small city of 900,000, but it beat fierce competition from other big ones to become one of the three cities in Hunan to host the Olympic torch run,' said Li Tianbao , head of the city's propaganda bureau. 'That's because we have many historic and cultural landmarks.'

The venerable Yueyang Pagoda, a temple complex originally built during the Tang dynasty, perches on the edge of the massive Dongting Lake, having inspired countless poets and painters to splash ink.

The most famous piece - Memorial to Yueyang Pagoda by renowned Song dynasty poet, essayist and politician Fan Zhongyan - is widely considered to have best summed up the highest political ideal in Chinese terms.

'Be concerned before people while content after them,' said Fan, a reform-minded chancellor who ended up living in exile after his plans failed.

'We Hunan people are very grateful of our cultural heritage,' said Liu Yafei , deputy head of Yueyang's culture bureau. 'Engaging in politics, risk-taking and never playing safe ... this is in our blood. We're proud of our hot tempers.'

The apparent lack of restraint has, of course, brought chaos in the past. In 1989, Changsha , the capital, witnessed some of the largest and most extensive student protests outside Beijing. More than 100,000 people took to the streets, blockading the Xiangjiang Bridge for several days. And there were large protests in most cities in the province.

'It's a place where things can easily get set off and sometimes take a different direction,' said Tan Jianwu , curator of Yueyang Museum. 'People here are open-minded enough to absorb new ideas, but they're a bit fickle with how long to stay with them.'

That could mean the people of Hunan are easy to provoke but hard to please. For now, the provincial leaders have adopted a strategy of making them feel proud by building the province into the mainland's cultural tour de force.

Clear-headed about the huge gap between a thriving show business and a thriving cultural scene, provincial party boss Zhang Chunxian said at the National People's Congress in March that the focus of development would be on culture.

More public money would be pumped into building and maintaining museums, preserving cultural heritage and attracting talent from coastal cities and overseas to the landlocked province.

A five-year blueprint for the province's cultural development was announced last year. The goal is very clear and very Hunan: to be China's strongest, most competitive and No1 cultural force. 'We need a big plan and bigger vision. We need to perfect what we're good at: entertain and enrich our people,' Mr Zhang said.