Chinese New Year performance
Photo Credit: VCG
MODERN HISTORY

How the TV Stole Spring Festival

First airing live in 1983, CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala didn’t just change TV—it changed the way China celebrates the Lunar New Year

Huang Yihe, director in charge of singing and dancing programming at CCTV, stared out of the window of his temporary courtyard office in Beijing and contemplated his predicament.

It was a snowy day in the November of 1982, and Huang’s boss had just instructed him to organize a TV gala for the upcoming Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, a task that would make or break his career. It was just a few years after the start of economic reforms, and the growing popularity of televisions, along with a sharp public hunger for entertainment—which had been left languishing through the last decade—meant that Huang was on the brink of either a monumental breakthrough or a humiliating failure.

Thankfully, Huang wouldn’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. Back in 1956, China’s Central News Documentary Film Studio had forged a rough blueprint with their film Grand Get-Together at Spring Festival (《春节大联欢》), which celebrated the lunar year’s end with a motley group of entertainers, literary figures, military officials, businessmen and scientists, including Qian Xuesen (钱学森), known as “The Father of Chinese Rocketry” for his role in kick-starting China’s missile program.

This provided a template for later shows to follow, but it was not until China emerged from the televisual doldrums of the Cultural Revolution that a similar format saw the light of day. The 1978 broadcast of CCTV’s Gala to Welcome the New Year (《春节联欢晚会》)marked the beginning of the show’s modern evolution. While it pioneered the integration of old and new forms of entertainment—storytelling, crosstalk, Peking opera, singing and dancing—the show only reached a limited audience due to the paucity of television sets in Chinese homes at the time.

Shoppers in Wuhan lining up to buy television sets before the Lunar New Year in 1988 in order to watch the Gala at home

Shoppers in Wuhan lining up to buy television sets before the Lunar New Year in 1988 in order to watch the CCTV Spring Festival Gala at home (Zhou Guoqiang/VCG)

It wasn’t until the following year, when Deng Xiaoping’s reforms led to an explosion in the number of television sets, that the Gala grabbed hold of national consciousness. Most people today recall the 1979 broadcast as their first experience watching the Gala, which would from then on become a yearly tradition.

Videotaped in advance, the event made bold leaps that would become entrenched in subsequent years; there was, for instance, the monumental decision to open the show with a dance routine rather than a series of turgid political slogans. It also defined what would become the nature of the Gala by bringing the audience closer to the stage to create a sense of intimacy, as if they were taking part in a tea party.

But despite these improvements, the first few shows, which were all prerecorded and broadcast nationwide on the lunar New Year’s Eve, largely failed to impress. Too staid, the audience said; too much politicking, they complained.

This was the history that was hanging over Huang’s head as he organized a flurry of meetings with TV executives in an attempt to bring the 1983 show to life. During one such meeting, a coworker proposed inviting the TV audience to participate by phoning in requests for their favorite songs. By degrees, other members of the team built on this innovative notion of audience interaction, leading to the landmark decision to broadcast the whole show live.

This meant a whole new level of excitement—and risk. Anything could happen on a live broadcast, and if it wasn’t to the liking of the audience (or more importantly, the authorities), there would be no do-overs.

“There were political risks one took to host a gala,” Huang later said in an interview with Tencent News. “Each time I made decisions it was like crossing a river by feeling the stones.” One of the controversial decisions he made was to appoint crosstalk comedians as the Gala hosts. Though it may seem an innocuous move now, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, entertainment was still expected to be instructive rather than, well, entertaining. The worry was the comedians would be too vulgar for China’s still fragile sense of decency. But Huang knew a live show would require hosts who could think on their feet and enliven the atmosphere with improvised jokes and asides, a skill that crosstalk actors have in spades.

Comedy was an important innovation of the CCTV Gala that helped it stand out from previous national TV programming. Here, comedic actors Chen Peisi and Zhu Shimao, who first partnered up in the 1984 G

Comedy was an important innovation that helped the CCTV Gala stand out from previous TV programs. Here, comedic actors Chen Peisi and Zhu Shimao, who first partnered up for the Gala in the 1984, rehearse for a sketch in the 1992 Gala. (Wang Wenlan/VCG)

Yet even the best laid plans have a tendency to go awry. As soon as the show opened, the hotlines were inundated with requests for the song “Love for My Hometown” (《乡恋》), which had previously been banned for containing “personal sentiments” that were thought to be too decadent for the society of the time. The studio executives chewed their nails and ignored the requests. But the audience kept calling, eventually forcing the then Minister of Broadcasts, Radio and Television, who was in charge of the evening, to throw out the rulebook and broadcast the banned song.

The chaos in the studio stood in marked contrast to the eerie quiet that had settled on the winter streets outside. “Before the show started, firecrackers could be heard exploding everywhere in the city, but they gradually subsided and did not start up again until the end of the show,” Huang recalled in an interview with Beijing Times. “It felt as if every family was riveted to the TV, watching the Gala.”

Fast forward to the present and the Gala has installed itself as a holiday fixture in Chinese homes, alongside other traditions like reunion dinners and playing with fireworks. “As big a country as China is, it suddenly feels remarkably small when Spring Festival arrives, as if every family is watching the same channel at the same time,” says Afra, a Beijing-based reporter with Singapore’s United Morning Post.

‘The Waterloo Episode’

Over the last nearly 30 years, CCTV claims the Gala has consistently drawn the most viewers of any show broadcast at home or abroad on the Chinese Lunar New Year’s Eve. It is a remarkable feat, and Huang attained near-hero status in China for his initial success.

But in 1985, the ambitious director overreached to catastrophic effect. In attempting to host the Gala in an outdoor stadium, Huang overlooked the limited resources he had at his disposal. It was a disaster. Audience members could barely make out the faces of the performers and the subtitles were out of sync. Even before the show had finished, furious audience members were dialing the CCTV headquarters to criticize the station. The discontent grew to such an extent that the then Vice-Minister of Broadcasts, Radio and TV was greeted the next morning by everyone he met with the rhetorical question, “What the hell kind of Gala did you just hold?”

In the following week, sacks of complaint letters landed on CCTV’s doorstep, and the incident was branded “The Waterloo Episode” in a caustic comparison with Napoleon’s epic defeat by the English army. The brouhaha culminated in CCTV taking the unprecedented step of issuing an official apology on its daily news broadcast, and the authority launching an investigation into the causes of the failure.

A Stage for Overnight Success

The Gala also retains an established reputation for catapulting unknown performers from obscurity to super stardom almost overnight. Before the 1987 edition, Taiwan-born singer Kris Phillips (费翔) was a nobody, his unsold albums lining the back shelves of record stores across the country. Yet his rendition of the song “A Torch of Fire in Winter (《冬天里的一把火》Dōngtiān lǐ de yī bǎ huǒ)” during that year’s Gala instantly transformed him into a household name. The song’s chorus, “You’re just like a torch of fire in winter, whose flames warm my heart,” caught the public’s imagination and drove Phillip’s album to sell 1.6 million copies. The song was so popular that a bemused Philips was even blamed for a wildfire that caught in the forests of Northeast China shortly after that year’s Spring Festival.

The example of Phillips and others like him inspired a train of wannabe stars to journey to Beijing and petition for a place on the show. Zhao Benshan (赵本山), renowned as the “King of Sketch Comedy,” became a Gala fixture, appearing on every show bar one from 1990 to 2011. The Dongbei native and his dark blue Zhongshan suit instantly won over nationwide audiences with skits riffing off rural customs and speech, and punchlines that became public catchphrases overnight.

Crosstalk comedian Zhao Benshan, whose skits usually dealth with Northeastern culture and rural subject matter, was a Gala fixture fo 20 years. The other three actors in the skit are his disciples.

Crosstalk comedian Zhao Benshan (center), whose skits dealt with Northeastern culture and rural topics, was a Gala fixture for 20 years. The other three actors pictured above are his disciples, many of them now famous in their own right. (VCG)

But it took a degree of perseverance for Zhao to get his start on the show. At his first attempt in 1987, Zhao was encouraged by crosstalk actor and 1983 Gala host Jiang Kun to set out for Beijing on a mission to transform his local notoriety back in Shenyang into national fame. His suitcase was loaded with videotapes of his performances, as well as a canny secret weapon—10 bottles of Maotai liquor, with could sweeten the deal for Gala directors to give him his shot at fame.

However, the rustic Zhao didn’t even make it past the front door, let alone get a chance to ply decisionmakers with expensive bottles of liquor. Frustrated, he spent the remainder of his time in the capital cooped up in a hotel, polishing off one bottle of Maotai a day. When the last drop was finished, he returned home, but still managed to get his troupe to reimburse him by claiming he had dished out all the bottles as bribes. How’s that for chutzpah? It was a humbling experience, and a far cry from Zhao’s current position as one of the show’s major draws.

Yang Xue, a 26-year-old from Jilin Province, recalls that her family used to eat dumplings around midnight on New Year’s Eve in keeping with tradition in northern China. But later, they began polishing off the dumplings ahead of time to ensure they’re ready to watch Zhao’s skit, which usually took place just before the bell toll for midnight at the end of the four-hour show.

Yang’s family is by no means unique in having centuries old traditions altered by the advent of the Gala. Mr. Zhu, a Shanghai native in his fifties, recalls that his pre-TV New Year’s Eve ritual involved offering sacrifices to the ancestors and performing a kowtow ceremony, before gathering the whole family for a reunion dinner. After the meal, the younger kids spent most of the night outside lighting firecrackers and playing, while their elder siblings helped parents prepare more food: steaming buns and rice cakes, stir-frying peanuts, sunflower seeds and pine nuts, as well as making meat balls and dumplings.

Yet even Zhu reserves his nostalgia for the days when neighbors would sit together to watch the Gala on a black-and-white TV set. “There were few choices of TV channels and programs in the 1980s,” he tells TWOC. ”Unlike today’s pop stars who frequently hold individual concerts, the Gala was a once-in-a-year opportunity for us to see a whole range of stars all at the same time.”

A Summary of the Year

The Gala strives not only to showcase the talent of the moment, but also to serve up lighthearted references to the key events of the preceding year. In 1998, the blockbuster movie Titanic wowed audiences at Chinese movie theaters, capturing the heart of millions at a stroke and prompting a curious piece of stagecraft from the directors of the 1999 Gala. In the skit “The Experienced Takes the Lead (《老将出马),” Chinese actors re-enacted the classic scene in which Rose stretches out her arms and falls back into Jack’s embrace. However, in a playful attempt to introduce some Chinese characteristics to the scene, the directors replaced the iconic ship’s deck with a large orange tractor.

The parody of “Titanic” is just one instance of the gala playing out sketches that parallel current cultural phenomena. In 2000, the huge popularity of the TV drama My Fair Princess (《还珠格格)—a comedy about an unruly adopted daughter of Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911) the Qianlong Emperor—earned lead actress Zhao Wei a spot as one of the gala hosts, while another actress in the drama also appeared on stage in a sketch.

Diminishing Popularity

While the Gala focuses on light pop culture, a show rarely unfolds without at least a passing nod toward important political and social events. In 2009, the directors were faced with a particularly sticky conundrum, as the previous year had proved a momentous one in good ways and bad, encompassing the tragic Sichuan Earthquake, the Beijing Olympic Games, and the successful launch of the Shenzhou 7 Manned Space Mission, not to mention the onset of the global financial crisis.

This smorgasbord of key events provided rich source material for the writers and choreographers, and the show featured appearances from astronauts, Olympic champions, and “Cola Boy,” a young earthquake victim made famous by asking for a cold bottle of Coke the moment he was rescued after being buried in debris for 80 hours.

Hong Kong girl group Twins and singer Joey Yung share the stage at Guangdong TV's Spring Festival Gala. Provincial TV stations now put on their own editions of the Gala, usually featuring local celebr

Hong Kong girl group Twins and singer Joey Yung share the stage on Guangdong TV’s Spring Festival Gala. Provincial TV stations now put on their own galas, highlighting local celebrities and culture. (VCG)

But the format drew sharp criticism from some corners for leaning too heavily toward a political agenda. The complaints brought into relief an ongoing argument over the true popularity of the Gala, especially with younger generations. A well-known joke illustrates the debate: a Chinese guy registers an account on a matchmaker website in search of a marriage partner. One day, he is surprised to find that all the girls who have shown interest have deleted him from their friend lists. He inspects his profile carefully and finds out that someone has secretly logged into his account and changed his “hobbies” to include “watching the CCTV Spring Festival Gala and walking with caged birds,” a common hobby among old Chinese men.

Xiao Shufeng, a woman in her 30s from the northern Shandong province, hasn’t watched the Gala for three years. “Boring,” is her immediate response when asked for her opinion on the show. “Every year it’s the same old faces. The skits are stale and superficial, always following an inflexible model of trying to be amusing while sprinkling in sentimental elements. I felt like I was watching a CCTV News broadcast instead of an entertainment program,” she said.

However, some of those who agree with Xiao still can’t tear themselves away. “Though the Gala is boring, I’ll still watch it,” writes one blogger, “otherwise I’d be hopelessly ‘out’ the next day when everyone starts criticizing it on the internet.”

Even the show’s creator, Huang Yihe, has conceded that the proliferation of Chinese entertainment shows has chipped away at the Gala’s reputation, with many younger viewers now having more fun criticizing it online than actually watching the performance.

Conversely, overseas Chinese represent an increasingly loyal audience. For Mr. Guan, a Chinese immigrant in Philadelphia, the show’s appeal lies in its evocation of his hometown, family and traditional New Year celebrations. “It doesn’t matter whether the Gala itself is engaging,” Guan tells TWOC. “What matters is that the whole family sits around the dinner table and enjoys the rare occasion of a reunion with the TV on.”

Pretender to the Throne

Many viewers, loyal aficionados or otherwise, will pass the time in the run-up to Gala night by guessing which stars will make an appearance, while the director does their best to keep the content of the show under wraps. However, 2010’s show was groundbreaking in that three of the slots were made public in advance. These were filled by the three finalists of the talent TV show I Want to Perform on the Spring Festival Gala (《我要上春晚》, on which grassroots artists compete for a chance to, well, perform on the Gala.

After just one year on air, the talent show already threatened to eclipse the Gala itself in terms of popularity. The first year’s winners, consisting of a street performance duo, a female singer plucked from the underpasses of Beijing, and a group of street-dancing migrant workers from Shenzhen, were by far the most popular of the debut acts in the 2011 Gala. Ms. He, a Beijing native in her 50s, is unequivocal over which show gets her vote, “I love to watch I Want to Perform on the Spring Festival Gala, but not the real Spring Festival Gala.” Yet despite audiences’ preference for the reality show over its esteemed predecessor, the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship: one which the real Gala’s organizers hope, for the time being, will deflect attention away from the show’s perceived shortcomings.

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Beijing Zhu is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.