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Sunday April 8, 2012

Fantasy history is a novel idea

Time travel to ancient dynasties gives readers a sense of escape.

BY day, Liu Wen is just one of the millions of women office workers in this bustling city, spending eight hours, five days a week, curled up in her stifling cubicle typing and making phone calls.

But when darkness falls, back in front of a metre-long desk and pink-shelled laptop in her cramped bedroom, the 26-year-old recruitment consultant enters a world of fantasy where she becomes a charming princess living in a vast expanse of desert during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

“Too many people have written about travelling back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It’s become a cliche to have a love affair with an a ge (prince in Manchu, the language used by aristocracy in those times),” said Liu who, for the past five months, has been burning the midnight oil writing a novel that is read online by no more than a few hundred devotees.

“I was never a good writer, I kind of hated writing back in school. But the draw of indulging yourself in a remote past where you know your life could be radically different is irresistible,” as she put it, characterising herself as a beautiful, smart, and courageous princess who is courted by a legion of generals and princes in her novel, Bud on the Desert.

Although time travel has been a common plot device employed by all genres in fiction and film across the globe for decades, the success of two time travel TV series in 2011, Palace and Startling By Each Step, both centred on a romance between a Qing Dynasty prince and a modern-day female office worker who is transported back through the ages – often via an accident, an electric shock, or even, in one extreme case, by falling down a well – has sparked a nationwide upsurge of interest in China.

A report jointly compiled by eight Chinese video portal websites discovered that by the end of 2011, the 35 episodes of Startling By Each Step had garnered 2.6 billion “click to watch” hits, topping the year’s online ratings, while Palace was among the 10 most-watched online series.

The majority of the interest, however, developed after the TV productions, prompting any number of writers to produce love stories featuring themselves as the main protagonist, mostly as desperate urban female workers who undertake torrid affairs with devastatingly handsome, powerful and sentimental princes from long-gone ages.

There are no hard statistics on the numbers of these unpaid, volunteer night writers, but Cai Yi, marketing manager at the Jinjiang Literature Site, one of China’s hotbeds of online literature with a daily readership of one million, estimated that the number has surpassed 10,000 during the past year and continues to rise.

“One-quarter of our 650,000 online novels has a time travel theme,” said Cai.

Of the website’s seven million registered users, 93% are female, and of the thousands of time travel romances on the website, nine out of 10 are the work of female writers ranging from 13-year-old schoolgirls to 40-something mothers and university professors.

“Personally, I am greatly surprised by the passion and perseverance of the authors. Writing thousands of words a day is something that even professionals rarely achieve, not to mention those who have toiled for a whole day,” she added.

“While video games may provide an ideal escape for men, women are more than ready to seek refuge in time travel romances, which can also provide relief from overwhelming relationship problems, not least the societal need to marry, suffered by many. These books provide a form of comfort,” said Gu Xiaoming, a sociologist at Shanghai Fudan University.

Exotic charisma

According to a survey conducted by Shanghai University and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences in December, 60% of the more than 2,500 respondents would like to travel back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

Meanwhile, the other favourite eras were the Qing Dynasty and the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

“The results have demonstrated people’s yearning to live in what may be perceived as more peaceful, liberated, and economically free times,” said Ouyang Guangming, a social science professor at Shanghai University and one of the leaders of the survey.

The Tang Dynasty was one of the most prosperous periods in Chinese history, leaving a great many romantic legends and tales. Meanwhile, the Qing princes and princesses also left a legacy of romantic tales.

Cheng Lu, a Beijing-based publisher who has helped dozens of online writers to publish their work, said time travel romances have come into vogue primarily because they take aspects of modern women’s characters, such as independence and perhaps aggression, which are usually taken for granted or even despised in current times, and produce an “exotic charisma”.

However, Xiao Chun – a pen name that translates as “Little Spring” – the author of one of China’s best-selling time travel stories, said the success of the books and TV series can only be attributed to the quality of the writing. The success of her story, which has no official English title but can be loosely translated as “Can I Serve Both God and Venus?”, ensured that it was subsequently published in book form. To date, it has sold 50,000 copies.

“During the past decade, time travel stories have grown, hit a peak and become part of the mainstream. However, time travel per se is no longer a topic, but merely a plot device,” she said.

That opinion is shared by Teng Jing Shu, marketing manager of Tangren Film Studio, which produced the TV adaptation of Startling By Each Step.

“The only thing that guarantees good ratings for a TV work is the story and a little help from the right casting, of course,” she said.

Working as a sales director for a Global Fortune 500 company in the logistics industry, Xiao Chun is unwilling to reveal her real name, but her writing career is not a secret to her boss or colleagues.

She quit her previous job four years ago and began a year-long road trip from Shanghai to Tibet and then on to Nepal, a journey that inspired her to write.

“It’s inevitable that you will bring yourself into the story during the writing process, but making up a story doesn’t mean that we are allowed to distort history at our sweet will,” she said, noting that her novel has been described by readers as “more informative and factual than history books”.

“Many writers are addicted to time travel themes because they already know the fine details about the period in question and believe they can change the facts. It may be okay for self-entertainment, but it could be dangerous if children and the impressionable actually believe that it is possible,” she said.

Tragically, that may already be happening. In March, two 12-year-old girls in Fujian province committed suicide, leaving notes saying they wanted to travel back to the Qing Dynasty.

Similarly, a 19-year-old migrant worker in Liaoning province tried to travel to the Qing or Tang dynasties by paying 1,800 yuan (RM876) for a bottle of “magic wine”, after being told that it would enable her to travel through time.

Myths and weird plots

At the end of 2011, the State Administra­tion of Radio, Film and Television issued a guideline discouraging broadcasts featuring time travel themes because they “casual­ly make up myths, have weird plots and use absurd tactics”.

The guideline was later upgraded to a full ban, prohibiting the shows from being shown or even made.

The ban has prompted heated discussion. Gong Danyun, a media commentator at the Shanghai-based Jiefang Daily newspaper, said the remote control should be left in the hands of the audience and that the authorities should not be involved.

“As long as there is a market, there is a reason for it to exist,” said Fang Zhiyuan, a historian from Jiangxi Normal University. “Our culture should be tolerant enough to embrace different tastes and choices.”

Whatever the perception, some have been making a mint from the craze. Although the studios have been coy about their earnings from the genre, an upcoming sequel of Startling by Each Step, with exactly the same cast and title but a completely different story, suggests that it’s very profitable indeed.

“Essentially, it’s because there are few other forms of entertainment than TV, so people have little imagination,” said Gu, the Fudan sociologist.

In 2011, 17,000 TV series episodes were produced, but it’s estimated that only around 7,000 were actually broadcast. Therefore, to reduce the risk of joining the list of redundant shows, studios prefer to produce programmes that have a high likelihood of being popular, so that television stations will buy and broadcast them.

And, as industry insiders have pointed out, the safest way is to simply replicate earlier successful shows. — China Daily/Asia News Network


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