Eyes on spies

Eyes on spies
A scene from the popular spy-themed TV serial Lurk in 2009.

The recent success of an espionage-themed Chinese TV show has surprised many. Han Bingbin gathers intelligence on what makes All Quiet in Peking stand above the slew of series from the same genre.

CHINA - The spy show All Quiet in Peking has surprised everyone by infiltrating the top ranks of Chinese TV.

Domestic TV productions have been losing younger viewers because of their inferior quality and fierce competition from US serials. But young, well-educated viewers who comment on creative works on douban.com rated All Quiet in Peking 9.1 out of 10 - a score that surpasses most US productions and perhaps all Chinese TV series.

The 53-episode serial focuses on the social upheaval before New China's founding in 1949.

The Kuomintang government planned to clandestinely move monetary reserves to Taiwan in the face of economic chaos on the mainland. A Communist mole embedded in the Kuomintang worked to halt the project. Other conflicts between the two parties are derived from this main storyline.

Its fidelity to history - the lack thereof is a common critique of similar Chinese TV series - plus balanced depictions of the two adversaries is likely the reason the pilot received positive feedback when screened on four satellite channels on Oct 6.

"The teleplay provides fair portrayals of the opponent's (Kuomintang's) intelligence and political ideals," culture critic Shi Hang says.

Novelist Liu Heping developed the story over five years. Much of that time was spent poring over such historical materials as unpublished diaries on the mainland, in Taiwan and in the United States. Filming and production took another two years.

Liu's reputation for rigorous historical research hails from two equally popular historical dramas - Daming Wangchao 1566 and Yongzheng Dynasty - known for breaking out of stereotypical depictions of monarchs.

Media quoted Liu as saying he believes All Quiet in Peking fairly objectively depicts the Communist and the Kuomintang parties, and even Taiwan viewers would find it convincing.

Spy serials have been popular on Chinese TV since around 2009, when Lurk became a sensation. They've since proliferated to account for about a third of all Chinese teleplays.

This has made writers like Mai Jia - "the father of Chinese spy literature" - a household name.

Several of Mai's novels have been adapted into high-profile films and TV series, such as the 2009 blockbuster The Message, starring A-listers Zhou Xun and Li Bingbing.

President Xi Jinping was quoted by media as telling Mai at a recent symposium of established writers and artists that he, too, is a reader of Mai's novels and praised their patriotic themes. He also voiced criticism of many spy shows that disregard history and can serve as bad influences.

Mai announced on his micro blog in 2011 that he'd stop writing spy novels because he was disheartened by the flood of poor spy teleplays.

Most Chinese TV stations are cautious about risk and jump on the bandwagon once a particular type of show fares well. For instance, one station ran three months of spy shows in 2009 after Lurk became big.

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