Mainstream Culture Refocused: Television Drama, Society, and the Production of Meaning in Reform-Era China

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Mainstream Culture Refocused: Television Drama, Society, and the Production of Meaning in Reform-era China, by Xueping Zhong. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2010. ? + 219 pp. US$57.00 (hardcover), US$27.00 (paperback).

Since the early 1990s, Chinese television drama has attracted the attention of increasing numbers of scholars in Chinese studies. There has been a relatively constant output of journal papers or book chapters in English in which individual television dramas are used as sources for discussing current social and cultural issues. However, it is only very recently that Chinese TV drama and its development have been raised to the status of research topics in their own right. Despite the rapidly increasing production and cultural importance of TV dramas in China, their huge popularity among Chinese audiences, and their influential role in helping audiences making sense of rapid social change, television drama has remained an understudied field, especially in English-language scholarship. In this context, Zhong Xueping's book fills an important gap in contemporary Chinese studies. Zhong, a humanities scholar, chooses to focus her study on representation and discourse analysis, and through close reading of television drama texts she produces a more coherent account than previous studies, such as the collection edited by Ying Zhu, Michael Keane and Ruoyun Bai, TV Drama in China (Hong Kong University Press, 2008), and Zhu Ying' s monograph Television in Post-reform China (Routledge, 2008).

Zhong uses subgenres (based on different social issues and subject matters) as an analytical category to organize her subject materials by chapter, since "the emergence and development of [these] subgenres is the site at which the relationship between representations and changing state policies, market interests, and cultural and ideological logic in contemporary China that informs 'dramatic creation' can be located and examined" (p. 24). Following Chapter 1, which examines the television motif in three films to underscore the importance of TV drama in mediating contemporary experience, Chapters 2 to 5 select four different subgenres of television drama: emperor dramas, anti-corruption dramas, youth dramas and family-marriage dramas. Within each chapter, Zhong runs through a variety of texts and offers an original yet nuanced analysis of the coexisting but differing discourses that emerge from these subgenres. For example, in Chapter 3, which provides close readings of four television texts, Zhong shows not only the contradictions within the representations of anti-corruption themes in each drama but also the polyphonic interactions between different anti-corruption dramas. Similarly, in Chapter 4, Zhong reveals the ambiguous and often conflicting meaning of youth in the post-revolutionary era through three different types of youth dramas: the fairy-tale quality of dramas scripted by Hai Yan; the ambivalence toward the Mao era's idealism and the post-Mao era's desire economy in postyouth drama (drama focusing on a generation whose youth straddles the Maoist and reform eras); and the heroism in "counter idol" youth drama represented by Soldiers Be Ready (2007).

One thread concept that Zhong adopts to tie these distinctive subgenres together is melodrama as a shared narrative mode. …