It is the most viewed annual television program in the world, more than the Super Bowl, and more than that Eurovision music thingy with the bearded lady. It’s Chun Wan (春晚), that four hour Spring Festival variety show that CCTV barrages the nation with every year. And all it probably is to you is something to be endured with your boy-or-girlfriend’s folks when you go home with them to visit. We’re going to fix that today. Here’s a little background info on what you, and pretty much all of China will be watching on the eve of Spring Festival.
The origin of Spring Festival Gala can be traced back to 1956. Organized by the Ministry of Culture, it was a platform to showcase model workers, war heros, outstanding scientists, authors and famous performing artists, a way to highlight and celebrate the progress of the New China. Back then, of course, televisions were in short supply, so it was a strictly live performance. It wasn’t until the early 80’s that the program was actually aired on national television.
Chun Wan’s roster of music and dance numbers, comedy sketches, magician acts, etc. was widely regard as representing the pinnacle of Chinese arts, culture, and entertainment. Indeed, it was the television event of the year for quite a number of years. In more recent years its extravagance and sometimes hamfisted political messaging have made it the target of derision among China’s younger generation.
Nevertheless, the impact of the show is huge. The production value, the A-list celebs in flashy outfits, the 15-year old girls spinning inexplicably for four hours, the on-stage blunders are all have a potent water cooler effect. People talk about this stuff at work, they make memes about it on the internet, it supplies buzzwords and slang for the year to come. It is truly a touchstone of contemporary Chinese culture.
Last year, China was surprised to learn that famous filmmaker Feng Xiaogang — learn more about him here — was tapped to direct the show. As a result, Chun Wan had a more “artsy” feel to it. This year, television producer Ha Wen is back in the director’s chair. She’s directed Chun Wans past, most notably in 2012 and 2013. Her husband, Li Yong, was a long-time host (from 2002 to 2013. You might recognize who has him for his flowing locks and ridiculous outfits. Ha’s production may not be as extravagant as those of years past. This is a direct result of recent austerity initiatives decreed from the central government.
They usually employ eight hosts. CCTV “unveiled” them earlier this month. A few of these guys have been hosting it for years. Zhu Jun, for instance, has been on the job since 1997. Dong Qing has been doing it since 2006., Bi Fujian, has been there since 2012. This year’s new blood include Li Sisi, Zhu Xun and, hailing all the way from the province of Xinjiang, Nigermaidi Zechman. This year they’ll also unveil the first ever Chun Wan mascot. If you guessed it some form of ruminant, like a goat or a sheep, congratulate yourself for paying attention. The mascot’s name is “Yang Yang” (阳阳), a little sheep from the city of Guangzhou, which was once called Yangcheng (羊城), which means goat city. Yang Yang will be voiced by famous child TV presenter Jin Guizi (金龟子). This is what Yang Yang looks like.
One staple of the program is “xiang sheng” (相声), or crosstalk. This is a distinctively Beijing artform that involves two performers riffing off each other with humorous wordplay and double entendre. Sketch comedy, or xiao pin (小品), also figures prominently. Xiao pin tend to focus on everyday Chinese life — familial relations, marriage, work, friendship, etc.
Incidentally, Shanghai has its own rich tradition along this vein. It’s called “xi hua ji” (滑稽戏). This year would have been the first year such performance would have made it to the program. The actors had to compromise by agreeing to perform the bit in Mandarin, rather than the local Shanghainese dialect. And their sketch even got through the final round of censors. Then, just one day before their final rehearsal, the actors got the axe. No explanation was offered as to why.
Song and dance comprises the other part of the show. Naturally, the content of these performances is wholesome family fare, extolling patriotic virtues and lots of platitudes about the so-called Chinese Dream. It runs a broad gamut, with performances by the latest pop heartthrobs to dance numbers inspired by one of China’s ethnic minority groups. They often pepper performances with international “superstars” (I use that term generously) as well. Soporific songmakers like Yanni and Celine Dion have graced the stage recently. Just last year, Sophie Marceau and K-pop star/actor/fried chicken chain spokesperson Lee Min Ho performed a duet together.
This year, celebrities like HK singer/actors Andy Lau, Karen Mok, Taiwanese pop star David Tao. From the Mainland, it is said that Na Ying will be performing, as well as Tibetan singer Han Hong, and 2005 Super Girl winner Li Yuchun will be performing. We also heard that dreamboats Lu Han and Kris Wu from Korean/Chinese pop group EXO were supposed to appear as well, but unfortunately they didn't make it to the final rehearsal.
Every year, the show ends with “Memorable Tonight” (难忘今宵), sung by various singers and lead by Li Guyi (李谷一). Take a look at the 1984 and 2014 versions of the classic to learn how to sing along.
Then interspersed throughout all of are random acts of variety. There are acrobatic acts, like these "Fire and Ice" guys here.
There are planty of choreographed martial arts performances, and then there are illusionists, like this guy Yif.
If you have zero cultural context, this will most likely be the only stuff that you'll genuinely find entertaining.
So yeah. There you go. A little bit about the most watched television show in the world. You'll probably be bored to death through much of it, but at least you'll have some idea of what's going on.
The CNY Gala airs at 8pm sharp on Tuesday, February 18 on pretty much every CCTV channel. Complete program of the Gala was revealed on February 17, but may change a bit.