Chinese Creative Revolution is an interview series profiling disruptive creatives working in China today

Yi Zhenxing, better known by his internet name Jiaoshou (叫兽), is a film director who rose to fame in 2013 with Surprise, a top-ranked comedy web-series initially shot on a shoestring budget of 2,000 RMB ($300) and averaging over 50 million views per episode on Youku, China’s dominant video streaming platform. Surprise, the feature film, came out in 2015.

There have been other shows since, but Surprise remains the breakout hit that ushered in a new era of the web-series, a form of grassroots entertainment — low budget, innovative, viral, made for the small screen — that grew with the rise of the Chinese Internet.

Unimedia, the production company that Jiaoshou co-founded, used data to gauge audience reactions and help drive ratings for Surprise. The real success behind the show, however, is the subject matter.

The show’s protagonist is a classic diaosi (loser) who almost never gets the job/money/girl, despite giving it all he’s got. Diaosi is an Internet term that crossed over into the mainstream in 2012, when netizens started using it to describe themselves in a self-deprecating defense against society’s unrealistic expectations for all men to be gaofushuai (tall, rich, handsome) and women to be baifumei (fair-skinned, rich, beautiful). In short, the show features a relatable hero, an everyman and loveable loser audiences can laugh (and cry) with.

Surprise is very funny. It follows in the nonsense, slapstick comedy tradition of American classics like Airplane! and The Naked Gun, and pays major homage to Hong Kong’s “king of comedy” Stephen Chow. In addition, it respects and is in deep conversation with fans. Viewer comments are often incorporated into future episodes. Real ads are presented as fake ads and vice versa, in yet another nod to viewer savvy.

Perhaps most significantly, the series is packed with cultural references that resonate with young Chinese, particularly those from the director’s own post-’80s generation. References range from well-known literary classics and beloved Japanese manga to video game culture and the latest internet slang.

Viewer comments are often incorporated into future episodes. Real ads are presented as fake ads and vice versa, in yet another nod to viewer savvy.

In one brief scene from the first season, a teacher chastises a student for confusing characters from the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature (Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber) with F4, a Taiwanese boy band from the early aughts that formed as a result of the success of a television series (Meteor Garden) adapted from Japanese manga. The teacher then whips out a magazine and points out members of F4, naming each. But upon closer inspection, the four people he points to are not F4, but the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop (Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, and Leon Lai), also known as the most successful pop stars of 1990s Hong Kong, and, by default, Asia and the Chinese-speaking diaspora.

Surprise draws upon a rich collective tradition of both high and low culture, and is rewarding the way Hollywood and, increasingly, Chinese blockbusters, disappoint.

All said, Surprise is about one man’s search for love, and his formidable spirit in tackling the rigged game of life. Cha Cha — the protagonist — may be a major loser, but the beauty about being down for so long is that there is nowhere to go but up.

Jiaoshou busts a freestyle

I meet Jiaoshou in his Beijing studio/office, which I instantly recognize as the set of several episodes from season one of Surprise. Jiaoshou is in his early thirties, and has the shiny head, round face, and wide-set eyes that make him ideal for playing a self-serving Buddhist monk, one of the recurring characters of the series. He is wearing his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, and exhibits a rather solemn air, which helps keep the interview on track.

Jiaoshou is from Yueyang, a small town of about half a million in the south central province of Hunan, and grew up in a standard, only-child household. He volunteers that the men in his family have a good sense of humor, in what I assume to be an explanation for his chosen vocation. I wonder if he really believes this, or if it is simply to ward off any doubt people may harbor due to his engineering background.

Surprise draws upon a rich collective tradition of both high and low culture, and is rewarding the way Hollywood and, increasingly, Chinese blockbusters, disappoint.

As we talk about his family and home life, I decide his success as a comedian may also have more than a little to do with his ambitious, less funny mother, whose high expectations had the impact of being both intimidating and inspirational. After all, we agree most comedy comes from a somewhat dark place.

Upon graduating university, Jiaoshou worked as a civil engineer for a State-owned enterprise. He learned project management, and was exposed to people from all walks of life, two lessons that continue to benefit his work in film today. After five years of overseeing multi-billion RMB construction projects during the day and making short online videos at night, he gave up a promising career and moved to Beijing with 20,000 RMB ($3,000) at the behest of a fellow web-video producer to form what would become Unimedia, a 300-person production house.

In the past ten years, Jiaoshou has cultivated a steady online fanbase. He has gone from small town, amateur video maker to big-time film director. “I want to become the Jay Chou of comedy,” Jiaoshou half jokes, referring to the wildly popular Taiwanese music producer, film director, and actor hailed by Time as the “New King of Asian Pop.” Chou also happened to popularize the term diao (cool)– as in, diaosi, minus the si.

I talked with Jiaoshou about the benefits of training as a civil engineer, the Internet revolution, and the future of Chinese creativity:

Is creativity internal or external?

Jiaoshou: It’s from learning. Regarding creativity, everyone has talent, but aside from talent, you must get inspiration from external sources, such as works by predecessors. Only from their foundations can you come up with better ideas. This is unavoidable. There is no one who can rely purely on talent without learning from others.

Which directors influenced you?

My influences are very eclectic. In terms of directors, of course Stephen Chow is an influence directors of my generation have in common. Also Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder, and Robert Zemeckis. I am a fan of Japanese manga like Heroes, One Piece, and Naruto. I really like The Onion and The Onion Movie. I enjoy American surreal humor culture and films. Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Hotshots are all great.

“Only from their foundations can you come up with better ideas. This is unavoidable. There is no one who can rely purely on talent without learning from others.” — Director Yi Zhenxing, aka Jiaoshou

 

Are you a pessimist or an optimist?

Of course I am a pessimist. There are no optimistic comedians. Optimism cannot create comedy. I never think I am good enough, so I keep trying.

Do you have any daily rituals for inspiration?

No rituals, but I watch lots films every day. I watch at least one to two feature and 10 short films a day. It’s not a ritual, more like training. I watch and read everything. I’m reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind at the moment.

Of course I am a pessimist. There are no optimistic comedians.” — Jiaoshou

 

Does death affect your art?

Wow, this question is really deep! It depends on how you understand death. Sometimes death can represent the loss of something. So no matter literal or figurative, I would say no, since I am already a very pessimistic person so it would be too hard for me. What actually influences my art are the strange and absurd things. For instance, the trend of contestants on singing competitions to talk about a sad family life. It doesn’t make sense. So I want to poke fun at it.

Do you have any idols?

My idol is Jay Chou. I worship Stephen Chow and that generation of Hong Kong comedians. As for who I want to become, I want to become the Jay Chou of comedy. But it will be quite tough.

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

I would continue being a civil engineer. I was quite good at it and would have been promoted to an expert.

How has your civil engineering background influenced your work?

It’s incredibly helpful. First of all, the Chinese engineering industry is incredibly complex. I worked at an SOE [state-owned enterprise], meaning projects that received the most government funding. Any old project might have a six billion RMB budget, with investment coming from four major countries — China, the US, the UK, and Saudi Arabia. You are always in contact with very high-level management and officials. And if you move down the hierarchy, it might be the lowest Chinese social class, migrant workers. So the spectrum of people you encounter is extremely wide. Furthermore, it’s all a very strange relationship, because the people who are able to take on these projects are all SOEs. They are neither private nor government — they are the combination of the two. So in these SOEs, you have the caution and prudence of a bureaucracy, but also the cunning and pragmatism of private businesses. It was very strange. Encountering different people expanded my worldview. I was exposed to a microcosm of everyone in China during those few years. It helped me understand society.

“I was exposed to a microcosm of everyone in China during those few years [working as a civil engineer at a State-owned enterprise]. It helped me understand society.” — Jiaoshou

Secondly, I studied to get a masters degree in project management. Engineering project management as a discipline was established in America for building aircraft carriers. Since filmmaking is a form of engineering, my project management skills have been completely applicable. The theory, as well as emphasis on process is the same.

In China, civil engineering is in step with the rest of the world, so project management training is world-class. The same cannot be said for the film industry, which is very behind compared to Hollywood and other developed film markets, precisely due to lack of project management. Of course, China has its own set of methodologies and issues, but project management is something universally applicable. This is why Zhang Yimou made The Great Wall, so the industry would have the opportunity to work with foreign management talent. As the film industry develops, there will be a need for good project management.

Since filmmaking is a form of engineering, my project management skills have been completely applicable.”

 

Were your parents supportive of you coming to Beijing to pursue your dreams of becoming a filmmaker?

They were not supportive, but they didn’t protest either. They were just worried they wouldn’t be able to help me if I was so far from home. There was also the fact that no one in my family worked in the creative field, so they had no idea what to expect, but I was confident I could make it.

Do you have any unrealized projects?

I want to star in a feature film. This is an important milestone for a comedy director. I’ve lost 18 kilograms in the past few months for the upcoming film. I wasn’t originally going to star in it, but the actor had a scheduling conflict. I need to lose 30 kilograms. I’m playing a 30-year-old but I was too heavy before and looked more like a 40-year-old.

Growing up, what would you talk about during dinner?

We abided by the Confucian principle of no talking while eating. It’s the same with my own family. Of course, if it’s a social gathering, it’s allowed.

Do you have any advice on how to be more creative?

I don’t think it can be cultivated. Even with my own daughter, I think she is very funny, but I do not believe she is particularly creative. When she draws, it’s obvious — when I was her age, I was more imaginative. And no one taught me. I don’t think it’s possible to teach. You can’t force it. When I was her age, I liked reading more than television, but it’s the opposite for her. I think for her, reading is not fun. This is her nature, I won’t force her.

What has had the greatest impact on your life?

The five years between 2006 and 2010 had the greatest impact on my life because of the development of the internet and online video. I could not have done it without internet. I met my business partner through Tudou.

What is the difference between Chinese and Western creativity?

No difference. Chinese education was not as well-rounded and there were less highly educated people. Society was more closed. For instance, in my town, artistic careers are looked down upon. But as times change, more people enter the creative industry. Chinese creativity will definitely reach the top within 20 years.

How would you describe the spirit of Chinese creativity?

I wonder if the West still has creative spirit? I visited many countries last year and the only one that seems to still have creative spirit is Japan. As for America, it gives me the feeling of a strong, middle-aged white person with a town house and picket fence lawn. All that remains is working out at the gym a few times a week. As for Europe, England and France are absolutely geriatric! I think Europe will be done in 20 years. Only Japan is left. America needs a revolution.

“Chinese creativity will definitely reach the top within 20 years… I think Europe will be done in 20 years. Only Japan is left. America needs a revolution.” — Jiaoshou

 

What is the Japanese influence?

An entire generation of Chinese creatives are highly influenced by Japan. Japan has a powerful and unrestrained side. At the same time, it is grounded in a unique, island-nation style. Part of their perseverance comes from being an island and lacking resources. They follow through. Some countries, like China, might have great ideas but lack implementation. Others might be incredibly hardworking and down-to-earth but lack the ideas.

What can Western countries learn from Chinese creativity?

Europe needs to grow their population because creativity is something coming from young people. The younger, the more creative a country. As for America, it’s about fresh blood. If Trump’s policies are good, if he builds the wall, and America becomes more American, then it will be good.

Can you elaborate on that?

America is very divided at the moment. It used to be the symbol of democratic freedom. I think the policies of the past two decades have been bad. Trump’s election is a good chance for America to make a turn around. To be honest, as a Chinese person, I don’t really want to see Trump get elected because that would mean a stronger America. But it’s also good. A strong America is good for the world.

What are some challenges facing Chinese creativity?

I think creativity requires two very important factors. The first is powerful, unrestricted imagination. The second is implementation. China has an issue with the latter. A lot of young people don’t have a strong sense of execution. They just have ideas. It has to do with education. We are all taught to follow the rules and not to express ourselves. American education encourages you to stand up, express yourself. It’s better in China now, my daughter learns to raise her hand and speak up. But for my generation and the post-’90s generation, it was not the same.

What does this have to do with execution?

So if I have an idea, why don’t you do it for me? Oh, me? Well… I’m afraid of failing, so I am scared to mention it, so I won’t.

How do you imagine the Chinese creative landscape in 20 years?

Ok, so the internet was the third industrial revolution. It’s very obvious some countries have not caught up. For instance, when I visited Europe, many countries didn’t even have 3G, my gosh! It was frightening, as if Europe was a village. Even in capitals like London and Rome, the connection was really bad. It’s as if some countries missed the bus and have not arrived in this era. How can creativity be possible then?

“It’s as if some countries missed the bus and have not arrived in this [internet] era.” — Jiaoshou

In the future, creative output will be based on the internet revolution. Some countries have caught on, like China, America, Japan, Korea, and maybe Russia. Next, it’s about which countries have more young people. I think Chinese youth, the educated post-’00 [born after 2000] generation will resemble the generation of Americans who came of age during the height of that country’s development.