Chinese TV viewers have never seen anything like it, and they are lapping it up. High on production value and low on politically correct pomposity, a new documentary series “A Bite of China” has broken all audience records.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the series is about food, a subject dear to most Chinese hearts. It helps, too, that the seven episodes are lovingly filmed in high definition, offering lyrical, often sensuous shots of particularly delicious or beautiful food.
But most importantly, perhaps, in a country where consumers live in fear of poisoned baby formula, cooking oil recovered from restaurant drains, and pesticide-laced fruit, the series highlights good, traditional simple food and the people who harvest and prepare it.
“At a time of food safety crisis in China, these programs are popular because they show respect for tradition, hard work, and nature,” says Cheng Chunli, deputy head of international marketing for China Central Television, the state-run broadcaster that made the shows.
CCTV’s documentaries, which tend to be dull, worthy programs taking a heavily didactic approach to historical or cultural themes, normally draw about 20 million viewers. More than 100 million people have seen all seven episodes of “A Bite of China,” says Ms. Cheng. For the first time, she adds, a documentary has proved more popular than the drama series that normally top the Chinese ratings.
Chen Xiaoqing, who directed the series, says he never expected it to be so popular even though “everybody likes to eat.” He attributes its unexpected success to the fact that CCTV premiered the series last month on its flagship channel and to the novel style in which he made the programs.
“We took a Western approach,” Mr. Chen says, explaining how that differs from the standard Chinese method of making a TV documentary. “It’s very simple,” he says. “It’s telling a story, whereas other [Chinese] documentaries try to educate you.”
Chen seduces the viewer into being educated by the beauty of his HD film. Whether through a voluptuous shot of silky soymilk being poured into an earthenware vat or the appetizing sizzle of a wokful of stir fried beef, Chen draws in the viewer.
The director clearly loves food; indeed he says that he is “still looking for a dish I cannot eat.” And he is entranced by the magic inherent in food, explaining and showing how racks of tofu can grow delicate white hairs until they resemble mattresses, or how sparkling crusts of salt crystallize from salty well water as it evaporates in the sun.
One episode, devoted entirely to the soybean and its multitudinous derivatives, recounts the legend of tofu’s invention in the pursuit of magic: An ancient Chinese emperor-wizard in search of the secret of eternal life added gypsum to soymilk and found it gelled into bean curd.
As the mellifluously voiced narrator declaims portentously, “the invention of tofu forever changed the soybean’s destiny.”
People behind the food
But the stories that the series tells are as much about the peasant farmers, fishermen, and artisans who grow and process the food that fascinates Chen, and about the pride that they take in their work. Chen clearly sympathizes with them, but he does not over-romanticize their labors, nor does he denigrate less handmade food.
“Industrial food production has many virtues, such as higher hygiene standards,” he says. “But it’s more boring to film and it does not convey the same sense of culture.”
That the series has struck a chord in so many millions of Chinese hearts is perhaps because it offers something for everyone.
The People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist Party, praised the manner in which the show presents “popular wisdom and hard work.” Patriots can enjoy the series’ celebration of China’s natural wonders. Young urbanites disappointed by the fakery of much of modern life here can see the films as paeans to authenticity. And food lovers, which means almost everybody in China, can simply enjoy Chen’s exploration of both familiar and exotic dishes.
“CCTV has finally given us a show, which instills a sense of true pride in our culture and our nation,” wrote blogger YJ on the “Rectified Name” blog. “That’s soft power.”
Overseas audience for moldy bean curd?
CCTV hopes that the series will sell well overseas: Cheng has already sold it around Southeast Asia and versions dubbed into English, French, and Portuguese will be ready soon, she says. “This is better quality than most Chinese TV documentaries,” she says, “and I think foreigners will be interested because it’s full of things like moldy bean curd and bamboo shoots that they do not normally see on their tables.”
The series, which has aired three times already on three different CCTV domestic channels and been downloaded millions of times from the Internet, is doing wonders for some of its subjects. Online retailer Taobao reported that sales of Nuodeng ham from the southwestern province of Yunnan shot up 17-fold after the program that featured the specialty product aired on May 14; sales of cooking utensils also went up when the series was airing, and most of the orders were placed just before midnight, as the program ended.
China’s biggest online travel agency, C-trip, meanwhile, has cashed in on the foodie trend, offering tours to the villages featured in “A Bite of China,” where jaded urban palates can feast on guoqiao rice noodles in Yunnan, for example, or sample yak-butter tea in Tibet. The company’s Vice President He Yong told journalists he is confident the culinary tours will be popular, as well he might be.
For as one commentator wrote recently in the Beijing News daily, seeking to explain why “A Bite of China” had swept the country off its feet, “Any Chinese person, no matter how international, still has a Chinese stomach — a spoiled, discerning, and experienced stomach.”