Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Past and present appeal in House of Cards

By Qin Xiaoying (China Daily) Updated: 2014-05-15 08:10

Even its US producers are probably surprised that the TV series House of Cards has been such a hit with Chinese Internet users. For months, it has secured prominent ratings on various websites in China.

Why are Chinese viewers so addicted to the show? Even the majority of viewers' need for subtitles, which may be more troubling than enjoyable, has not dampened enthusiasm for the program.

However, if we cast aside the cultural and political prejudices that keep us from seeing the simple truth, the phenomenon is easily explained. To Chinese viewers, House of Cards is like a "royal court" series set in a contemporary, foreign context. This different setting makes the familiar unfamiliar, and curiosity about the unfamiliar is a universal trait; we are easily attracted by things we haven't seen or heard before.

The ancient Chinese royal courts were unfathomable and capricious arenas for power struggles. And despite being divorced from the lives of ordinary people, they were always the focus of public curiosity. Curiosity born from exclusion brews a voyeuristic desire to peek over the walls and behind the curtains, especially when those screens are manifestations of wealth and power. Stories, novels and plays pursuing, excavating, and fabricating stories about royal courts of different dynasties constitute a lasting thread in Chinese literary creation; while stories about emperors and queens and concubines, ministers and advisers, conspiracies and sex have always been popular topics for the Chinese public. More than 3,000 TV series set in an ancient royal court have been produced in the past decade. And people are still not tired of them.

However, thanks to various constraints, political infighting in present-day officialdom has seldom found representation in Chinese film and TV productions. House of Cards, which vividly portrays the political struggles in the inner circles of a major world power, timely and fittingly satisfied the Chinese public's desire for information about contradictions and power jockeying in officialdom, filling in a conspicuous blank in current Chinese film and TV productions.

The appeal of House of Cards for Chinese audiences is also because it features, from start to finish, critical realism, which has a long tradition in US films and TV programs. The tradition incorporates critical concerns about the country's own history as well as the dark side of current reality. Both 12 Years A Slave, which won three Academy Awards this year, and The Butler feature honest narratives about the fight against racial discrimination from the end of the American Civil War to Barack Obama's assumption of US presidency.

House of Cards has two spears of criticism: One is the merciless political infighting that goes on at the top, the other is greed and the flaws in the depth of human souls. The ups and downs, despicableness and effrontery of the Frank-Claire couple are tightly entangled with their struggles for power; the madness and helplessness, fame and death of the female reporter Zoe are the inescapable outcome of her own weakness. Enormous similar people and cases exist in contemporary social life in China. Yet present-day Chinese films and TV programs don't touch on such topics. House of Cards is incisive and merciless, and it lets Chinese viewers enjoy the frisson of vicarious criticism, while also prompting them to reflect on and associate with the reality they are living in.

Recent Chinese TV series, especially those focusing on family disputes, which have been derided as "domestic farces", have drawn increasing scorn. The popularity of House of Cards may also be a warning to Chinese film and TV producers that crudely made film and TV productions permeated with materialism do not satisfy the spiritual thirst of present-day Chinese.

The author is a Research Scholar with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies.

Most Viewed Today's Top News
New type of urbanization is in the details