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Taming the time travels

SEP . 06 2011

Peking University, Sept. 1, 2011: "China will ban dreaming during sleeping next!" Max, a netizen, angered at the ban on time-travel dramas from Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), wrote in his blog.


Recently, there has been a growing number of time-travel themed dramas in China's film and television industry. Usually the protagonist is from the modern time, who somehow travels all the way back through time to ancient China where s/he constantly experiences the "culture shock" but gradually gets used to it and eventually ends up in a romance in that era.


In fact, such genre has been a vogue for decades especially in Hollywood, such as Somewhere in Time (1980), The Butterfly Effect (2004), all of which are great blockbusters in terms of marketing and artistic expression.


On April 1, Li Jingsheng, head of the Management Bureau of SARFT criticized time-travel dramas during the Television Director Committee Meeting. He told the press that the complete fabrication of characters and their travelling forward and backward through time randomly are questionable, showing disrespect towards historical events. "This attitude should by no means be further encouraged," said Li.


While many people complain there're too many distortions of historical facts in their shocking plots, making them unbearable to watch, time-travel dramas such as The Palace ("Gong"), in fact, had been enjoying the highest TV audience rating for 16 consecutive days, compared with all other programs broadcast during the same time in the whole country earlier this year.


In terms of the success of the time-travel drama, "plotting is the key," said Ding Qi'an, a Peking University student.


Nothing is limited in this television genre. Most of these dramas are based on real historical stories but with many new and usually exaggerated elements added to make them funny and more attractive. While some find them hilarious, others feel that the exaggerated and even ridiculous elements are really annoying, just as Yang Weini, a student from Xiamen University, put it, "the plots of the recent time-travel dramas are extremely wild."


Li Ruoxing, a student majoring in Japanese Literature from Shanghai International Studies University, told the reporter, "it is not the amount of publicity stunts that matters, but the quality. Time-travel is definitely an attractive theme; however, its plotting would easily go rotten if not ingeniously planned."


When asked about her favorite time-travel drama, Li said, "The Palace is barely artistic for sure, but The Time Traveler's Wife revealing one's fate and the solemnity of life is so touching and inspiring. That's real art."


With regard to the accusation of its disrespect for history, a Xinhua correspondent argued, "Just let the time-travel drama be itself. Please do not take it as a history textbook."


Qiu ZhiHua, a junior student from the School of Economics of Peking University, also believed that "we should not be too serious about the drama It is merely entertainment."


Chen Yongtian, a white-collar beauty from Shanghai, said, "When reality is not allowed to be 'amused', we are only left to amuse our history." Though her words were short, she probably pointed out the real suppression commonly held in society. To some extent, her comment explains a reason why time-travel dramas have been capturing so many eyeballs.


"You see, what an excitement it is to be able to get rid of the constraint of time and push on to prove that the power of love can transcend time and space!" Liu Jianheng, a student from Nankai University said. Many interviewees, in fact, shared a similar response to the effect of time-travel themed dramas.


"Reality has been crammed with too many disappointments and burdens, and a surreal drama can help us escape it." A netizen commented on Sina Microblogging.


"Most of the time-travel dramas are quite funny and imaginative, especially when compared with the suppressive historical dramas. We enjoy being carried away with the characters to experience fantasy," said Ding.


"Undoubtedly, only dramas like these can be highly popular. They are a mirror of our secret loneliness," said a pedestrian as he hurried by at Beijing metro rail station.


The comment of Xin Haiguang, a journalist, that "Many people are devoted to time-travel theme mostly because of their lack of happiness and satisfaction in modern life" has confirmed the main reason underlying the widespread popularity of time-travel dramas.


In recent popular time-travel dramas, the protagonists are always labeled with three attributes: success in the enterprise, prestige in social status, and fulfillment in love and affection. Xin thinks that this kind of plot has unfolded the unhealthy and corrupted social values of the agitated Chinese who have been speaking against corruption of senior officials and descendents of the regal in daily life, but merrily imposes their dream on the characters whose identities are just as depicted above.


The implication is obvious: some Chinese people become anti-corruption activists in fantasy only because of their inability to be corrupted themselves in reality.


Though the fever of time-travel drama just occurs recently in China, the empathic effect has already been elaborated by Sean Redmond, an American scholar, in his book "Liquid Metal: the science fiction film reader".


Book edited by Sean Redmond: Liquid Metal: the science fiction film reader

"The time travel motif has an ideological function because it literally provides the necessary distancing effect," wrote Professor Redmond. Like the science fiction, the time-travel drama produces the distancing effect by metaphorically addressing the most pressing issues and themes that concern people in the present.


Yet many would not agree with the saying that they watch time-travel dramas just for the sake of escaping the reality. The beneficial effect of time-travel story, as they believe, is to inspire them to achieve the impossible in reality with its intrinsic fantasy, and provide them with confidence and aspiration. "As a surreal genre, time-travel dramas have presented us purified and sweet experiences and feelings," said Whaduknow, a netizen commenting on the report of time-travel ban in American newspaper.


Realistic TV series and films reflect reality. This kind of genre, replete with depressing and trivial matters of life are told adds up dissatisfaction to reality itself, while fantasy dramas, such as the popular yet notorious time-travel drama The Palace ("Gong"), depicts the success of the pursuit and desire to have a complete and well-founded relationship with people. With such drama, one is able to be freed from the contemporary society to the utopian or a comparatively innocent world.


If the modern world is one where the individuals feel alienated and powerless, then time-travel drama, wrote Professor Redmond, has its significance in conveying the message that "Everyman and Everybody is important to shaping history, to making a real and quantifiable difference to the way the world turns out."



Reported by: Liang Jinying and Zhuang Weihuan

Edited by: Chen Long and Cao Yixing