Snail House: A Tale of Modern China

Written by Julen Madariaga on December 27th, 2009

W020090318258260613327I have been away for a while because all my holiday time has been absorbed by two fascinating stories of Shanghai, one of them a TV serial, the other a novel.

The serial is WoJu, the Snail’s House, stupidly translated to English as Narrow Dwellingness, or whatever. It has been red hot in China since its first broadcast in November. Alice Liu of Danwei and the Youku buzz blog covered it recently.

As those blogs noted, this has been the most explosive success we remember in Chinese TV serials. In less than a month it sparked heated debate on the internet, attracted millions online and off, and with that came the hideous hand of the censors. One reason for its rapid success is the central theme about the problems to buy a house, which just hit the spot among the young Chinese audiences.

But Woju is much more than a tale of real estate and corruption. It is a gripping drama, with rich subplots evolving around a central love triangle, populated with very real characters. A sharp critique of the modern Chinese society, and by far the best product I have ever seen on the mainland TV. Originally it was a novel published  in 2007 by Liuliu, a Chinese writer that we should be watching more closely in the future.

Here are my impressions of the serial now that I have finished the first 15 chapters.  I will focus on the two main points of interest: the informative contents for anyone looking to understand China, and the quality of the product independently of other considerations. In the end are also some funny things I observed related to censorship and others.

Content

This serial is the paradise of the 中国通, the aspiring China experts.  Anyone trying to understand China should watch it. If the characters are not exactly real (no fiction can ever be) their worries, their problems and their motivations are a hi-fi amplified reflection of those moving the young citizens of China today. It is a concentrate of Chinese reality.

All the elements we have been speaking for the last years are there, not a single one is missing: guanxi building, cadres’ 二奶 (lovers), shanghai men bullied by their wifes, working parents who can’t see their babies, illegal high-interest loans, collusion between developers and local officials, the conflict between shanghaiers and outsiders, the overnight rich of Wenzhou, the ethics of the new China, the 拆迁 or "destroy and move", the "nail people" who resist, the shanzhai mobile phones… you name it.

And all is so precise that you can even see how much the characters are earning in their jobs, what interest the loan sharks ask, or how much it costs a party cadre to get his first little 二奶 (lover).

There are surely better books that depict the Chinese society in the past, but the subject is changing so fast they are all outdated. I do not think there is any other work of fiction today that reflects more precisely the Shanghai society circa 2010.

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"Hello, I’m Secretary Song of the Municipal Party Committee  (and I just shagged your girlfriend)"

If you are learning Chinese, the series is a double must for its great idiomatic mandarin. If you are not, then stand by for the DVDs with English subtitles, hoping the pirates get a human translator with his TOEFL levels this time. There is definitely a market for this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with a movie next year, provided the government doesn’t stop it.

Quality

But more important than all the above is the quality of the product. It is good fiction and good entertainment.

The story is driven by an intense love triangle centered on the young Haizao, played by beautiful actress Li Nian. All the elements listed above, including the winners and the losers of the Real Estate craze, gravitate around this love/hate story that puts in contact two different worlds: the laobaixing and the cadres, the two classes of urban China.

But perhaps the best aspect of the serial, a breathe of fresh air on Chinese TV, is its absolute lack of moral lessons for the public. There are no heroes or villains here. The covetous developer, the unbearably vain wife, the fainthearted Shanghai husband, the enigmatic, outrageous Shanghai girl played by Li Nian. Every single one of them is just human, with weaknesses and ambitions like all of us. Every one of them can be up to the best and to the worst.

Even the corrupt official is all too human. A weak man in a midlife crisis with too much power in his hands and a system that doesn’t check his acts. Corruption, like love, happens as a natural course of events, the result of a sick society and not of an evil personal plan. And Jiangzhou, the Chinese Gotham that stands for Shanghai, is the mighty whirlwind of action where all the characters are hopelessly adrift.

Censorship

Not surprisingly, the serial has been censored by the government. However, it has been censored in ways that strike me as prudish, if not plainly idiotic.

Since I am in Europe now, I have been able to watch the serial on YouTube and compare with the censored one available on the Chinese site YouKu.  There was no censorship on the image above, where a Shanghai Party Official brazenly chats with the boyfriend of the girl he has just raped making free use of his political muscle.

Instead, the images below were censored:

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See the original scene, and below the censored version as shown in China.

This is the first proper sex scene of the serial. In the original version you see the moaning face of Haizao in one quarter of the screen, while the other images correspond to the respective wife and boyfriend, who are shown at home worrying for their loved ones, while they are being made cuckolds of Olympic category.

Is the moaning face of Haizao more obscene than the happy Mr. Song shown above? Draw your own consequences. Also interesting is to note that the producers have participated in the censoring process, and the hot scenes are not merely cut out, but edited and substituted by other originals, as in the larger image of the wife above.

Other Details and Questions

I will come back with more details when I am done with the serial, but for the moment I have 2 questions for the public, and especially for the many Chinese I know who have already watched the whole 35 chapters:

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1- Why does the serial show so prominently the "Coogle" shanzhaied phone of Haizao, is it just to make it more realistic or is it a revenge because Google refused to sponsor?

2- There is one part of the plot I just can’t understand: how can Haizao be a virgin when she first sleeps with Song, if she has been living with her boyfriend for years? Is this a gap in the plot or am I missing some serious (and worrying) element of the Chinese culture?

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Dec
    27
    11:16
    AM
    bill

    I think the blood that leads Song Ziming to think Haizao is a virgin is from Haizao’s period. Song assumes she is a virgin (probably a jab at the obsession w virgins), doesn’t ask, and Haizao doesn’t say anything. If i remember correctly as soon as Haizao gets home she runs to the bathroom and asks xiao bei to get her pads

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Dec
    27
    1:27
    PM
    Alex

    1. Agree with Bill, it should be Haizao’period.
    2. ‘Coogle’ is used to reflect the reality that shanzhai is everywhere, and maybe the phone Linian had is ‘Coogle’

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Dec
    27
    2:19
    PM
    CC

    Hey Uln - So glad you took the time to watch it. I also committed time to watching the entire thing a few weeks ago and found it well worth my time. I translated a commentary on Woju if you’re interested, it definitely brings in a Chinese perspective.

    http://www.chinahush.com/2009/12/02/the-struggle-of-the-sexless-class/

    Agreed on Haizao’s period. It also depicts her dual nature - on one hand she is the beautiful innocent virgin in Song’s imagination, on the other hand, she is of a completely different generation that is emerging from the new realities of modern China.

    My addition to the Coogle phone is that it also shows Haizao is not of the wealthy class, she is poor so she has to buy a fake phone, she gave the expensive phone to back to Song and hence had to buy a cheaper phone to replace it.

    Two other TV series I watched this year in China are 奋斗 and 我的青春谁做主, both passed my test of patience because I don’t watch TV and I think both gave me a great understanding into intricacies of Chinese culture. 奋斗 is also considered a classic, I do not know a soul that has not watched it in China.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Dec
    27
    5:02
    PM
    Carlis

    CC is right.
    In the later part of the novel, Song and Haizao had a conversation around this `virgin-snatching` topic. Song felt responsible for her partially (and most importantly) because of the irreversible fact that he took her `first time`. When Haizai became aware of this all, she decided to…

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Dec
    27
    7:15
    PM
    Uln

    Hmm. Thanks for the comments. Yeah, I guess the period thing is quite obvious. It is all a bit creepy though, Haizao is deliberately acting like a virgin in front of Song.I like CCs idea of the duality of Haizao.

    BTW, CC I completely missed your post on Woju, I havent been online much these days except to watch the serial, will check it out in a minute.

    Regarding Fendou, Ben Ross is watching the whole thing and writing about it in his great blog so I know a bit about it. I don’t think I am going to watch it though, I am not much of a TV person and these serials take ages to watch completely.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Dec
    27
    7:23
    PM
    JEFF GOH

    I am not able to comment about the show, as I am unable to see this show in my country. However I am well aware of the property bubble now brewing in China which form the central theme in this show. I like to share with your readers my comments about the property bubble. The following is my comments which I had written in another blog concerning the current property bubble in china…

    As an overseas born English educated Chinese, I have always been proud of being Chinese and the country of China because of the long rich history and culture. There are a lot to be valued in traditional Chinese Customs and traditions and know how.

    It saddens me to see the property bubble now happening in China. I have seen many property bubbles in many countries. The aftermath of property bubbles is destruction of wealth of its citizens and prolong slavery of the working Class. It is unfortunate too at this juncture, because China today is one of the very few countries in the world that is on the path of Nation building for its people and country. Most countries from USA Europe and Asia are being plundered by politicians and their cronies corporations.

    However, going by the track records of President Hu I am confident that he will contain this explosive problem. The seed of this problem is – Americanisation – a social warfare to plunder and impoverise citizens. Many countries have suffered because of this onslaught, and are still paying the price today.

    If I may add, I hope China will be very cautious in opening up its financial sector to the super crooks. That is the ultimate prize that these crooks are after. I am very sure President Hu is more than well aware of this, and I am sure he know what to do.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Dec
    28
    3:05
    PM
    Xiefeilaga

    Uln,
    Thanks for the write-up. It definitely looks like its worth watching.
    I’ve noticed that quite a few (though not a whole lot) good Chinese TV shows are starting to pop up these days. People seem to be paying a lot more attention not just to things like image quality and lighting, but to good, complex storytelling. I’m a bit surprised, not because I don’t think there’s good talent out there, but because it took so long. From what I understand, the serial producers are still at the mercy of TV stations who preside over a flooded serial market, so what gives? Why is TV getting better if the market is still crap?
    I’ve also heard that SARFT (the main TV censors) used to deny approval of scripts that they deemed too complex. Perhaps there have been some changes there? Wo Ju had to be approved when it was still just a script, even if they changed it a lot when filming.
    Anyway, just some food for thought. Keep up with the great posts.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Dec
    29
    8:10
    PM
    pablo

    Hi,

    Thanks for the article, I’d appreciate to watch the series but I can’t find it on youtube, only videos of SnailHouse playing live :(

    Does anyone has a link to watch from abroad?

    If possible with subtitles? wo de shanghai hua bu hao :p

    Thanks

    pablo

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    ##comment-18550 @pablo:

    Hi Pablo, it is here . Follow the links to access the different chapters, each chapter is divided in 4 parts, as far as I have seen they are all there.

    It is in mandarin , no shanghaihua even in the nongtang (that is the not realistic partof it). I havent found any video with english subtitles, but I didnt search very much either.

    Youku version is here, in Europe it goes a bit slow because it has to pass the Chinese GFW nodes.

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Jan
    1
    1:31
    PM
    spandrell

    Sohu works well enough from abroad. And its 高清

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. Jan
    3
    2:34
    PM
    FOARP

    I knew girls in Nanjing who lived with their boyfriends yet claimed to still be virgins, it’s not an unknown story in China, although I doubt many of the people telling it are telling the truth. Hell, I’m sure most sexually active heterosexual men in China know plenty of girls who continue to claim a form of ersatz virginity years after becoming sexually experienced.

    Here’s a torrent with the whole thing, comes in a whopping 4.86GB but it beats the hell out of watching it in low-res ten minute segments on youtube:

    http://bbs.shuiwu.org/thread-13698-1-1.html

    I guess as an IP professional I should warn you all not to do this at home kids . . .

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Jan
    20
    8:12
    PM
    Key

    All this talk about it, I can’t belave I still haven’t seen the whole thing yet! Going to sacrifice 20 hours for it soon!

    [Reply to this comment]

  12. Jan
    21
    12:16
    AM
    Uln

    Key, I am the same. I was really busy after the holidays, and then this thing with Google has absorbed me, so it’s been more than a week I don’t watch it, still missing ten chapters. The problem with these serials is they take ages ages to finish.

    [Reply to this comment]

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