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Four Key Points from CCTV’s Controversial Spring Festival Gala

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It’s the second day of the Year of the Dog, and hundreds of millions of Chinese people have traveled to get back home and unite with their families. This year, the Spring Festival travel numbers are expected to reach 2.98 billion total trips, 390 million of which are by train.

After many families finished their New Year’s Eve feast, it was time for the CCTV Spring Festival Gala to begin. Besides a vibrant LED stage and colorful costumes, here are four highlights from the spectacle — the most-watched annual television program on earth, by some counts:

 

1. Record Ad Prices

It’s not difficult to imagine that as the most-viewed TV show in a country with the largest population, the battle for ad space is fierce. A minute-long spot for feature film Monster Hunt 2 aired just before the Gala, and is estimated to have cost over 100 million RMB (over $15 million USD) — but that was not even the most expensive promotional stunt.

E-commerce platform Taobao pledged to give out 1 billion RMB worth of red envelopes to the Gala audience and viewers at home, and even let some lucky users pick up everything in their virtual shopping carts for free.

Monster Hunt 2 production team in the count-down show

It was notable that among the e-commerce and retail giants (including Taobao, JD and Medea group), two dating sites (Baihe.com and Jiayuan.com) brought up the topic of “leftover women,” but in a relatively positive way — all of the independent women in their commercial stand up to say no to their over-caring relatives, who are obsessed with asking about marriage and personal life. The dating sites step in to offer some “help” at the end.

 

2. “I Want to Be on the Spring Festival Gala” and “National Treasure”

Not surprisingly, we didn’t see Gai or any other rapper on the program. However, the winners of the reality show I Want to Be on the Spring Festival Gala — where Gai was once a hopeful contestant — finally made it onto the national stage. One of the winners, Tia Ray, sang with two other famous singers, and another, Patrick Brasca, sang solo in a secondary venue in Zhuhai on China’s southeastern coast.

Tia Ray and Patrick Brasca

Another variety show, the CCTV-produced National Treasure, had a special section on the Gala, in which Shan Jixiang, curator of Forbidden City Palace Museum, was presented with a map of the Silk Road by Xu Rongmao, a patron who spent 20 million USD on the artifact. The 30-meter-long traditional painting was created between 1524 and 1539, and depicts important cities on the Silk Road, including Samarkand (Uzbekistan), Herat (Afghan), Esfahan (Iran), and Damascus (Syria).

Map of the Silk Road

 

3. Celebrity Sightings: Faye Wong, Jay Chou, Wu Jing and Stephen Marbury

This might have been the most exciting section of the whole Gala: Faye Wong, the diva whose every move has gained attention since she became inactive in the music industry, sang a duet with Na Ying, another one of China’s most successful and famous singers. The reunion called to mind the last time these two appeared on this stage together, at the 1998 CCTV Gala.

Faye Wong and Na Ying in 2018

Faye and Na back in 1998

Faye’s daughter, Leah Dou, is a pop singer as well. She posted a meme on her Weibo after her mom’s performance on the Gala, in which a baby Leah points at Faye’s poster, saying, ”See, this is my mom, awesome yeah?”

The most-liked comment on the post is “My mother-in- law is awesome!” with a picture of rubber-gloved hand giving a thumbs-up. The latex glove in the joke post looks similar to the fashionable gloves that Faye wore at the Gala.

Jay Chou, the king of Chinese R&B from Taiwan, got on the CCTV Gala for the fifth time with his new song and a magical stage effect. Wu Jing, the director and lead actor from 2017 box office hit Wolf Warrior 2, sang a duet with Jackie Chan, the world-famous action movie star. The pair sang a patriotic song entitled, “China.”

Jay Chou

Wu Jing and Jackie Chan

Rounding out the celebrity lineup, freshly-retired American basketball player Stephon Marbury also went on the stage and wished the audience “Gong xi fa cai” (恭喜发财, May you have a prosperous new year), a big surprise for his Chinese fans. It was pleasant to see that someone a with tattoo on his head still could appear on CCTV, despite the rumored “tattoo ban”.

Stephon Marbury

 

4. The Most International Gala Ever

This year’s CCTV Spring Festival Gala saw a marked change compared to previous years, with the largest representation of non-Chinese performers in the Gala’s 35-year history. From Azerbaijani and British acrobatics with ladders and aerial silk, to the Kazakhstan singer Dimash Kudaibergen; from nine American, French, Russian, Italian and Latvian bel canto singers singing the classical Chinese Song “I Love You China”, to a skit set in Africa and featuring performers from Gabon, Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire.

“Celebrate Together”

Train Attendants

The latter skit, named “Celebrate Together,” was the evening’s most controversial. Lou Naiming, a widely renowned actress who has been a skit director for the CCTV Spring Festival Gala since 1994, played a Kenyan woman, appearing in blackface with a fake butt. Over the last 48 hours, she has been roundly criticized by netizens under her latest post on Weibo, which is from August 2017:

“Thank you so much for making the entire world think all Chinese people are racist.”

Many spectators are angry at the Gala over the skit:

“Forgive me for being honest, but this Gala is complete trash.”

“This is really awkward.”

Pictures posted by the popular male actor in the skit, Zheng Kai, show the Kenyan actresses that appeared alongside him having a nice time with all the Chinese stars on the Gala:

Happy Together actors

Zheng Kai and his Kenyan co-stars

The actresses that appeared in the skit are actually attendants on the Mombasa Nairobi Railway in Kenya, which opened in May 2017 as part of Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) infrastructure-building initiative, also sometimes called the “New Silk Road.” China’s growing influence in the world, officially represented by the OBOR initiative, was a running theme throughout the Gala.

Train attendants at work

Towards the end of the program, several world leaders appeared on screen to send their best wishes for the Year of the Dog. This segment included cameos from UN Secretary-General António Guterres, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and French President Emmanuel Macron. (Both Macron and May have made early-2018 state visits to Beijing.)

No matter how people have criticized it — as they do every year — the 2018 CCTV Spring Festival Gala has already been viewed over 1.13 billion times, between its television screening and multiple online and social media streams. It’s never perfect, and it’s getting harder and harder to be the trend-setter it once was due to its audience’s increasingly sophisticated tastes.

Back when I was still so happy to put on all the new, usually red clothes I’d get as a kid on New Year’s Eve around 20 years ago, the Spring Festival Gala was the only entertainment for hundreds of millions of Chinese. China and the world have changed so much since then, but the lack of awareness about what is appropriate in 2018 displayed by this year’s program seemed shocking and unforgivable to many. Nevertheless, this was definitely the Gala’s most international program yet, for better or for worse.

Cover image: Weibo

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van

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