By Austin Dean
The next time you’re in China, take a few minutes and flip on your television each night. Even if you don’t understand a word of Chinese, it’s not too hard to tell what’s going on. Reality television shows (zhenrenxiu) flood the airwaves and are easily intelligible. A show featuring a live studio audience, a number of singers, and people who appear to be commenting on their performances can only be an American Idol or America’s Got Talent clone. A guy standing in front of 24 women who look like they’re asking him questions is probably a dating show.
Some shows are adapted from the United States, others from South Korea, and some are home-grown; there are singing shows, dating shows, talent shows, travel shows, and programs that feature different, often mystifying, combinations of genres. With the adaptation of so many shows from abroad, one wonders why there is no Chinese version of the classic quiz show Jeopardy! In other words, why is there no Chinese Alex Trebek? After all, it’s a model that seems to work. The American show has been around in various iterations since the 1960s — a lot longer than reality TV, now only in its second decade (taking Survivor as a starting point).
Although there is no Jeopardy! equivalent, there are other types of quiz shows on Chinese television.
The crossword puzzle program I Know (Wo zhidao) recently began its second season on Sichuan provincial television. A co-venture between the station and the newspaper Southern Weekend, it features competitors trying to fill in crosswords. That might sound boring, but keep in mind that the American documentary Wordplay (2006) was essentially the same thing, and that found an audience. The hook to I Know is that three celebrities serve as “coaches” who select their “players.” When contestants run into trouble on a question, they can consult with their “coaches.” This season the “coaches” are Guo Jingming, author and director of the Tiny Times series, who was also on the first season of the show; the actress Liu Yan; and the actor Wang Gang. The competitors then square off for money prizes to put toward their education.
A popular show from last year, Chinese Spelling Hero (Hanzi yingxiong), like a spelling bee in the United States, was seemingly designed to make adults feel bad about themselves. The program featured middle- and elementary-school students writing out a series of progressively more difficult and obscure Chinese characters from memory. The show addressed a real issue: as more people rely on computers and mobile phones to input text, they forget how to actually write characters. The kids on this show didn’t have that problem and could leave adults (and foreign learners of Chinese) more than a little embarrassed. In fact, this concept could probably be expanded to something like a nationwide spelling bee after the American model. That would likely be a popular show, though it would also put more stress on the kids competing in it.
But there is no Chinese version of Jeopardy! Why? We should think about possible explanations for the lack of a Chinese Alex Trebek in terms of supply and demand.
On the supply side, a show like Jeopardy! would be awfully difficult to produce in the Chinese context because there are so many sensitive topics in the country. Entire categories in the arts and humanities — modern Chinese history, Chinese artists, political philosophers — would be subject to intense scrutiny. A 2014 miniseries about the life of Deng Xiaoping, covering 1976 to 1984, was in the works for quite some time, requiring approval from various layers of the Chinese government. Imagine how long it would take the Chinese bureaucracy to sign off on a category of questions based on “The Life of Mao Zedong” or “Culture of the 1980s.” That’s a committee that no one wants to be on.
On the demand side, there are already plenty of outlets for people to satiate their desire for a bit of mental exercise. Beyond the shows listed above, people can choose from a number of mobile apps. Take a trip on a subway in Beijing or Shanghai and you’ll likely spot at least a few people playing endless rounds of 2048. Offline, there are popular “escape the room” challenges, where a group of people are locked in a place and must solve a series of problems in order to get out. Why do you need a show like Jeopardy! when there’s so much else available?
A final factor is the most speculative. What we might term “quiz-bowl” culture does not seem as strong in China as in the United States. A lot of American high schools have quiz-bowl teams, and their competitions are featured on local television stations. Though certain aspects of American culture are seeping into high-school life for some Chinese students — such as prom and debate — it does not seem that “quiz-bowl” culture has made many inroads. And, again, there are plenty of other competitions that draw the attention of students and their parents, particularly the math and science Olympiads.
Earlier this year, Lorne Michaels, long-time producer of Saturday Night Live, and Sohu, a Chinese internet company, agreed to develop a Chinese version of the popular late-night sketch comedy show. Of course, one of the classic SNL skits is a parody of Celebrity Jeopardy! with Will Ferrell playing Alex Trebek. If the Chinese version of Saturday Night Live actually happens, there will be no similar skit to look forward to. But the other reality TV shows on the air in China should provide fertile enough comedic ground. Stay tuned.