My Trip to Minning Town ——This family docudrama TV series from China warmed my heart. “我的《山海情》之旅”——这部来自中国的电视剧温暖了我的心


Jeffrey Stanley,影评人,编剧, 2022-24 富布赖特校友大使,纽约大学蒂施艺术学院教授,德雷克塞尔大学媒体艺术与设计学院兼职教授。他的影评曾发表在《华盛顿邮报》、《纽约时报》、《Time Out New York》、《纽约出版社》等媒体上。

Meet Mr.Bai, the headmaster of a one-room school in an impoverished, experimental farming community in China’s vast Gobi Desert.  His school needs many material improvements but he’s a devoted teacher, so he makes do with what little they’ve got. One thing he’d love to see is a new playground. He keeps applying for funds from the local district government, but his requests go ignored. 


Impassioned and frustrated, he finally takes the drastic step of going over the local politicians’ heads and complaining in person to the regional government. Before he knows it, he’s thrown into the shark tank of local politics. How much is he willing to compromise his ideals just to get a playground?


Yikes. All of this drama for a village playground could be the comedic makings of a wry satire a la Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People, but this story is set a lot further east, and treats its subject matter with a dignity and respect I found refreshing in our age of cynicism.


Mr. Bai’s passion for a playground is but one subplot among many in the 2021 Chinese TV series Minning (a close pronunciation in English would be Ming-Ning) Town, produced by Daylight Entertainment (Nirvana in Fire, Ode to Joy, Like a Flowing River, The Story of Ming Lan). The trials of the beleaguered Mr. Bai (played by Zu Feng) brought to mind one of my favorite overlooked 19th century US novels, Edward Eggleston’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster, which has twice been adapted to film. Other times, this heartwarming saga delving into frontier life reminded me of cherished classic American series like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. But Minning Town isn’t about a bygone era. It covers a roughly 15-year period from 1991 to 2016, and its setting is the Gobi Desert.

白校长对操场的执著是电视剧《山海情》的众多情节中,制作团队是《琅琊榜》、《欢乐颂》、《大江大何》、《知否知否应是绿肥红瘦》等电视剧的班底。陷入困境的白校长(祖峰饰)让我想起了我最喜欢的一部被忽视的 19 世纪美国小说,爱德华·埃格尔斯顿的《印第安纳大学校长》,它曾两次被改编成电影,同时,这部探索边疆生活的电视剧让我想起了美国经典剧集,《草原上的小屋》和《沃尔顿一家》,但《山海情》的时代背景并不是一个过去的时代, 这部剧横跨1991年到2016年大约15年的时间,而发生地则是戈壁滩。

Inspired by real events and the lives of ordinary farmers, the setup is that China’s Central Government has launched a poverty alleviation program in which economically disadvantaged villagers living hardscrabble lives in remote mountains are cajoled into relocating to the vast desert to try and make it bloom. Hey, if the US can build sprawling cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles on top of a desert, why can’t they?


But there is literally nothing there for the villagers. All they have to go on is faith that the Central Government will follow through on its promises to irrigate the land for crops while they build homes, or rather shacks, with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. But if they just hang tough, things will gradually improve, or so they are promised. Permanent homes will be built. And a hospital. And a bus line to the city.


Should they trust the government?  Would you trust your government? Some of the villagers do and some don’t. Some consider making this leap of faith an act of patriotism while others are more cynical and set in their ways. Indeed, there are many deserters along the way who make a break for it at the first sign of a sandstorm and run back to their harsh but familiar home villages.

他们应该相信政府吗?你会相信你的政府吗? 有的村民有,有的没有。 一些人认为这种信仰是爱国主义的飞跃,而另一些人则更加愤世嫉俗并固执己见。 的确,过程中有许多逃兵,一有风沙征兆就逃之夭夭,跑回他们贫穷但熟悉的家乡。

But ultimately, this isn’t a show about deserters. It’s a show about the pioneers who stuck it out and continue thriving there to this day. Some characters are narrow minded villagers who find honor in sticking with tradition.


I was particularly struck when the young woman Shuihua (Rayza) runs away from home to escape a marriage her father has arranged with a young man from a neighboring village in exchange for a donkey (yes, that is value placed on her), only to be overcome by family guilt and trudge home to fulfil her father’s wishes and honor tradition. At first, I was troubled by the filmmakers’ apparent messaging here about the need for women to be dutiful to men as their primary purpose in life, but then I thought, like it or not this is probably true for a woman in a rural farming village.


I had nothing to fear. Shuihua’s is but one storyline in the series. We meet an array of women on the show who follow a variety of paths and have their own ideologies and who pursue their own dreams for their futures. And as for Shuihua, we keep following her on her marital and professional journey through the end of the series. She’s a complex character struggling to find her footing in a new world as the old ways crumble beneath her feet.


Every episode put a lump in my throat at least once, and I can’t wait to watch it with my son because the stories are universal to the human condition. They just happen to be set in China. All of us have somewhere in our family and national histories stories of immigrants arriving in a harsh new place and having a go of it. For some of us, this happened generations ago. For others, it’s happening right now somewhere in the world, as anyone following the news knows.


Either way, you will surely find yourself rooting for the characters. I was engrossed, waiting to see what would happen with lead character Defu (Huang Xuan), a young man in his early 20’s on whom the government thrusts the title of village spokesman. He has no political aspirations but he’s favored in his community because he holds a two-year college degree in agriculture. Many of his community’s daily problems with the desert relocation program will fall on his shoulders.

无论哪种方式,你肯定会发现自己支持角色。我全神贯注,等着看主角马得福(黄轩饰)会发生什么事儿,他是一个 20 岁出头的年轻人,政府授予他代理村主任头衔。他没有政治抱负,但他在社区中受到青睐,因为他拥有两年制农业大学学位。他的村子在沙漠搬迁计划中遇到的许多日常问题都将落在他的肩上。

He must learn diplomacy and politicking in a hurry, while worried sick about his own family and friends. For instance, in one storyline a group of early teens, including his kid brother Debao (Bai Yufan) and headmaster Mr. Bai’s daughter Maimiao (Huang Yao), run away from home, sending the community into a frenzy.


Along with the seriousness, there are moments of homespun humor peppered throughout that made me laugh out loud. When an official arrives from the faraway city of Fujian, a southeast coastal province designated by the Central government to help them out of poverty, and in his Fujian dialect lays out a vision for the future in which the community will grow mushrooms and sell them in the nearest city, thus “building a bridge” for their survival, the villagers scratch their heads wondering why the hell anyone would want to build a bridge in the desert when there’s no water.


He realizes with some embarrassment that his bridge metaphor in his Fujian dialect went over their heads and tries again in simpler terms: they will sell their produce at farmers markets in the city. This is met with lots of smiles and nods of approval; that is, if it’s for real. Can they trust the government, or will this desert experiment be abandoned, leaving them to wither and die? This uncertainty about their future is a specter that hangs over them throughout the series. 


And don’t get me started on the humor, heartbreak and heroism of the great mushroom caper. An esteemed agriculture expert, Prof. Ling (Huang Jue) settles nearby, temporarily so he believes, to conduct experiments to learn what grasses can be grown to control desert erosion. As a side project, he tries growing mushrooms in small amounts to test whether they might be commercially viable for the farmers.


The possibility of a cash crop is good enough for the villagers who, when they get wind of his experiments, are raring to take the gamble. He’s reluctant to take the risk at this early stage of his research, but after getting to know the farmers and seeing their dire circumstances first-hand, he’s convinced to use their entire community for his experiment.


Minning Town’s glaring problem is a recurring, i.e., predictable, five-part deus ex machina cycle in several subplots, as follows: local or low-level authority figures are not to be trusted; an impoverished major character has no choice but to be subservient to them; the authority figure callously refuses to address their concerns; in a last-ditch effort, the character in question goes over the authority figure’s head to a more powerful authority figure who turns out to be an avuncular benefactor who almost magically solves their problem while chastising the lower level authority figure; and lastly, our major character learns that authority figures are to be trusted after all so it’s best to work within the system, so they express tremendous gratitude to their savior.


The benevolent authority figure is often a representative of the government, so this repetitive, thematic messaging to always work within the system comes to feel heavy-handed and propagandistic. I’m not sure whether it’s the result of China’s notoriously strict censorship laws (CNN, 7/8/22) which require that TV shows not in any way harm the government or social stability (Time, 3/4/16), or a lack of inventiveness from the writers, but it’s a palpable part of the series.



For instance, later in the series, Maimiao, now 16, becomes eligible to work in an electronics factory in Fujian. For a village girl this is an opportunity to send money home to her family, and it’s a glamorous change that offers her newfound freedom. When she and her coworkers are being harshly treated by their immediate supervisor Ms. Yang (Zhou Fang), I could already guess how Maimiao would solve the crisis. I turned out to be right.

例如,在本剧的后半部分,现年 16 岁的麦苗有资格在福建的一家电子厂工作。对于一个乡村女孩来说,这是一个向家人寄钱回家的机会,这是一个迷人的变化,为她提供了新的自由。当她和同事受到直属上司杨女士(周放)的严厉对待时,我已经猜到麦苗会如何解决危机。事实证明我是对的。

Despite this mild thematic shortcoming, the show is always dramatically engaging, professionally produced with a big-budget feel, beautifully shot, and its cast is as good as any you’ll find on US broadcast or streaming television. As a lover of international cinema and streaming series, I’m especially excited by it, as the US is in the midst of a surprising international content boom.


Streaming content from around the world is increasingly available at our fingertips. 10 years ago—heck, even five years ago—I simply could not have imagined Americans, actual Americans, flocking to their TVs and mobile screens to watch anything with subtitles, whereas it’s been the norm in other countries for decades. I’m thrilled to see this window on global entertainment finally opening here.

来自世界各地的影视内容越来越触手可及。10 年前——可能是 5 年前——我根本无法想象美国人,会抱着他们的电视和手机屏幕观看带英文字幕的内容,而这在其他国家已经成为常态。我很高兴看到这个关于全球娱乐的窗口终于在这里打开了。

Netflix is the leader of this phenomenon (RRR and Squid Game come to mind as recent examples) but Amazon Prime is not far behind (MirzapurThe Deep House, et al) in normalizing international content for US audiences.  “[A]ll COVID did was accelerate an already emerging trend,” explains writer Jeff Kotuby for The Streamable (“U.S. Appetite for Foreign Streaming Content Surges to New Highs,” 3/19/21). He pinpoints 2019 as the year of Americans’ paradigm shift toward embracing global entertainment.

Netflix 是这一现象的领导者,但亚马逊在为美国观众提供标准化国际内容方面也不甘落后。“新冠病毒在加速这个趋势,”作家杰夫·科图比在《 The Streamable》杂志里这么说(摘自《美国对外国流媒体内容的胃口飙升至新高》,21 年 3 月 19 日),他指出 2019 年是美国人拥抱全球娱乐的一年。

Prof. Paolo Sismondi of USC coined the term “glocalization” to describe this uniquely 21st century sensation a decade ago in his book The Digital Glocalization of Entertainment:New Paradigms in the 21st Century Global Mediascape (Springer, 2012).  He elaborated on his term last year in an article he wrote for The Conversation (“Netflix’s big bet on foreign content and international viewers could upend the global mediascape – and change how people see the world,” 4/7/21)enhancing the term to include “a company operating globally, adapting its content to meet the expectations of locally situated audiences across the world.”

十年前,南加州大学的保罗·西斯蒙第教授在他的著作《娱乐的数字全球本地化:21 世纪全球媒体景观中的新范式》(Springer,2012 年出版)中创造了“全球本地化”一词来描述这种独特效应。去年,他在为 The Conversation 撰写的一篇文章中详细阐述了他的观点,“一家在全球运营的公司,调整其内容以满足世界各地观众的期望。”(《Netflix 对外国内容和国际观众的赌注可能会颠覆全球媒体格局——并改变人们看待世界的方式》”21 年 4 月 7 日出版)

Does Minning Town romanticize poverty?  Of course it does, it’s a TV show. So did Little House on the PrairieThe WaltonsThe Hoosier Schoolmaster, and every Hollywood screwball comedy made during the Great Depression. And they’re all awesome. As Sisismondi writes:

TV and movies are one way that people, as we go through life, make sense of the world…often it is media that exposes people to other cultures, above and beyond our own . . .But media portrayals may well be inaccurate. Certainly, they are incomplete. That’s because movies and TV series aren’t necessarily meant to depict reality; they are designed for entertainment. As a result, they can be misleading, if not biased, based on and perpetuating stereotypes. But the way people are exposed to media entertainment is changing. Today streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ and Disney+ collectively have 1 billion subscribers globally.



电视和电影用强有力的图像和故事来填补知识空白,这些图像和故事告诉我们思考不同文化的方式……但媒体的描述很可能是不准确的。当然,它们是不完整的,那是因为电影和电视剧不一定要描绘现实,它们是为娱乐而诞生的,因此,如果没有偏见的话,它们会基于和延续刻板印象而产生误导,但人们接触媒体娱乐的方式正在发生变化。如今,Netflix、Amazon Prime、Apple TV+ 和 Disney+ 等流媒体平台在全球共有 10 亿用户。

You’re probably in that number, but you don’t need to subscribe to any of those platforms to see Minning Town. You can catch all 23 episodes on Youtube for free, and yes, you can turn on the English subtitles. Why not start with trailer?

您可能就是那些没有订阅这些平台的人,但您无需订阅即可观看《山海情》,比如在 Youtube 上就可免费观看。