Spring Festival Gala Review by Chinese Doom Scroll
It actually wasn’t that bad!
Happy Year of the Dragon! Today I’m running excerpts from a guest post by the excellent Substack Chinese Doom Scroll, with some comments by myself. Moly posts a very entertaining daily recap of what shows up when she scrolls Weibo, “China’s Twitter” (if Twitter didn’t fall off a cliff and the entire country used it).
Every year, CCTV produces a Spring Festival Gala show 春晚. Originally, I was pretty pessimistic, since the last couple of years have been pretty … disappointing, to be honest. But scrolling around on Weibo today, I found a lot of people saying that this year’s show is really good — at least, the best one we’ve had in the last five years.
The first performance I’d recommend is the very first performance of the night, a Chinese drums + dragon ribbon dance! Well, at least it starts out that way, and then it cuts to Spring Festival performances being held at various major cities around China. The most impressive one to me, of course, is the massive drum formation in a giant plaza in Xi’an. That giant plaza, by the way, is called the Tang Dynasty Nightless City 大唐不夜城, and is a recreation of the main street of Chang’an 长安 back in the Tang Dynasty. (It looks all impressive in the video, but actually, on a normal day, it’s filled with super tacky disco neon lighting for some reason.)
Next, is a performance that is a song/rap performed in various different Chinese dialects, all about delicious, delicious New Year’s food. Meanwhile, they have some amazing chefs in the background making tortillas and noodles the whole time, while some people perform some kind of … dance? Human body lego-building? But this show made me hungry for noodles.
Next is a performance that’s theoretically a song, but it’s really supposed to show off traditional Chinese embroidery. All the costuming and all the closeups of the embroidery you see are handmade by skilled artisans. The dresses on display, and the closeups go from Han Dynasty to Tang to Song to Ming, and I am furious that they never give up too many shots on the actual pretty, pretty dresses, and just linger on the singers’ faces. We never even got to see what the backup models were wearing! What a shame.
Next, we have a wire fu koi dance. This was honestly so beautiful that at multiple points, I forgot to breathe. For anyone who doesn’t know how hard it is to control your body and maintain balance on a wire, every single one of those dancers absolutely has abs that can grate cheese. This is just amazing — might be my favorite performance of the whole night.
Next, we have the traditional Chinese opera medley that they have every year. I know Chinese opera is an acquired taste, but for those who are interested, the medley starts with an excerpt written specifically for the Spring Festival Gala, then cuts into a representative piece from traditional Beijing opera about a female general (no, not Mulan). Then, a bit of Henan and Kun (a Ming dynasty style that originated around Jiangsu/Anhui) Opera, with fast-talking clowns. Then we have some Sichuan Opera, with the long head antennas. Then, we have some Chaozhou Opera with a romantic duet. Then, some Hebei Ping Opera, with the fluffy fan. Then, we have some Shaoxing Opera, from Shanghai, another romantic duet, basically China’s version of Romeo and Juliet.
This video is long, because right after that, it leads into a section of Chinese Opera…fight scenes? Or maybe dance? Perhaps circus act is the best description? But it’s basically very stylized fight scenes. If you just want to see some cool circus tricks and not put up with the singing, you can start from about 6:30. This section finishes around 8:40, where they go back to a scene from a Beijing Opera again, an except from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义, where Sun Quan 孙权 expresses his worry about Liu Bei 刘备 and how many talented men he has working for him, and decides to marry him instead of fight him. Uh, marry his sister to him, that is.
(unless you read the fanfiction)
Then we have a ballet performance based on a famous Chinese poem about geese. It’s a very simple poem, typically the first one children manage to memorize, so this performance also has the CUTEST KIDDOS in it. There’s theoretically actual ballet going on in the background, too, but who’s going to be looking at them when there are CUTE FLUFFY BABY GEESE BUTTS to look at.
Next, a performance at the Xinjiang sideshow. They’ve actually had an excerpt from all of their side shows, but the previous two (in Henan and Dongbei) both had such jumbled editing and camera angles that I could hardly see what was going on. The Xinjiang one does a pretty good job of showcasing a bunch of local folk dances, and it’s delightful. [Jordan: the skit spotlights the most famous Uyghur celebrity, actress Dilraba. It is always uncomfortable for me watching Uyghurs have to perform in these sorts of state-sponsored activities … like every other Uyghur celebrity, she came out hot in 2021 in support of Xinjiang cotton. Sigh.]
Next, a wushu/martial arts dance between the Yong Chun 永春 style (that’s what the Ip Man movies theoretically feature) and the Bagua 八卦 style. They even do the thing where the background dancers pointlessly circle the two main dancers while they “fight,” which is hilarious to me. [Jordan: The solo female bit one minute in was the highlight of my household’s viewing. Says A: “The rest of the show had women in this male-pleasing mode, but in this one they weren’t showing off how bendy they were or being pliant partners. Rather, here we had a rare glimpse of CCTV letting women be perceived as authoritative and not bowing to men. None of them had to appease anyone and smile — they’re simply performing as a symbol of power.”]
We’ve got the typical yearly display of all the ~*~ethnic minorities~*~. This year, it’s folk songs from Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. Yes, they have Mongolian throat singing.
We also have the typical yearly military song, while they show off their newest toys in the background. Yes, the performance is done by actual soldiers.
[Jordan: watching a dance routine by the PLA’s “hot-blooded heroes” 热血英雄 where they walk in a circle like a concussed Roman Testudo just killed me.
Also, this 3D carrier with jets flying into your living room was…something?]
And we have another circus act featuring a lot of trampolines and aerial acrobatics, called “Leaping Carps.” The idea in Chinese mythology is that if a carp can leap over a waterfall, it turns into a dragon 鲤鱼跳龙门. This is another one I highly recommend you watch if you don’t want to watch through all of these — probably my second favorite performance of the night. It not only features circus people, but also has Chinese national trampoline athletes.
Might be a letdown after the insanity that came before, but here’s a lighthearted, harmless little pop song about how people are constantly sharing everything on social media. Nothing too outstanding about it, except that the singers were so upbeat and happy that it put a smile on my face.
I guess they decided to split up the showing off ethnic minorities into two parts this year, because we have yet another medley of Chinese folksongs coming up. The first one is from Sichuan about the sun and the mountains. Then we have a Zhejiang folk song about picking tea leaves. Then a Dongbei folk song with their characteristic handkerchief spinning. Then a Ningxia folk song about getting your mule. Then a Guangxi folk song about Guangxi folk songs. Then we have a whole bunch of kiddos from Hong Kong and Macau singing their traditional folk songs. Then a Shaanxi folk song about how they conquered China under the leadership of Mao. Then a Hubei folksong about taking a boat across the river (the backup dancers here are from a dance troupe of disabled people!). And then we have a folk song from Taiwan, just in case you forgot that Taiwan is totally a part of China~*~
And finally, the song that ends every single Spring Festival ever since it began, “An Unforgettable Night” 难忘今宵. It’s the same song that plays every year at the end of the show, but the Gala feels incomplete without it, so here you go!
There were quite a few programs I skipped over, mostly comedy skits.
The first comedy skit of the night was a xiangsheng 相声 performance, which is basically the Chinese version of the Japanese manzai 漫才 — a comedy duo act with a funny man and a straight man having a hilarious conversation. This year, the comedy skit is full of jokes and puns made off of Chinese poetry. Then there’s another xiangsheng later, which involves eight to nine people instead of a duo. It’s about the thoughts that jump into your head when you receive a mysterious, “You there?” text from your boss, and you agonize over how to respond to it, and just as you’re about to figure out a perfect response, your boss recalls the message, causing another round of panic over what that means. There are a lot of pretty funny memes about the difficulties of social interactions at work.
Xiangsheng hasn’t been funny at the Spring Festival Gala for several years now, but I gotta say, both of the skits this year put a smile on my face at some point.
Then we have a comedy skit about a dad who does all the housework, childcare, and cooking while the mom sits on the couch and scrolls on her phone, and a daughter who complains that she never gets to go to her husband’s family for Chinese New Year. And when they try to point out a problem with her, she starts chasing the husband around the stage and hitting him. This is definitely the skit that’s drawing all the controversy online, with people being like, “This is so opposite to everything that actually happens in real life that it almost makes me think it’s some kind of high-end satire.” And yeah, it is kinda gross, considering there are plenty of other performances tonight (like another comedy skit about how your dad totally loves you even if he does nothing but put you down all the time, and a sappy song about how great fathers are) that erases moms and all the work they do. I get why people are mad.
It doesn’t help that comedy skits have been used as concentrated propaganda in previous years’ shows before, so people have gotten into the mindset of watching them as an indicator of what the CCP wants to promote or even what potential future policy might be based on.
There’s a third comedy skit about a guy who blows all his money on an online influencer, spending so much money on her that she decides to visit him in real life to say thanks. He tries the whole time to charm her into dating him and just comes off as an absolute weirdo, until the moment she finds out that they used to be classmates back in middle school, at which point she instantly agrees to date him. I’m … honestly not sure what the message is here. You really can get together with your favorite Only Fans uploader? If you don’t meet your true love by middle school, you’re done?
And finally, we have a comedy skit about northerners coming to Dongbei, basically a recreation of all the memes we’d already seen online about Harbin tourism. It’s basically a typical case of why people don’t like Spring Festival Gala comedy skits anymore, because instead of creating memorable memes, it just plagiarizes popular memes, and uses them in a way that’s just not funny.
I do have to say, though, that I did in fact enjoy this year’s Spring Festival Gala. There was propaganda, of course, but it wasn’t as thick and concentrated and nonstop as, say, the 2021 Spring Festival Gala. And there were genuinely a lot of high-quality, impressive performances. And I really love this trend of having lots of music and rap performed in local Chinese dialects. I’m a total slut for obscure dialects — I hope this trend continues.