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What China’s Spring Festival Gala says about a nation and its New Year traditions.

Over the years, China’s Spring Festival Gala, known as Chunwan (春晚 chūnwǎn), has evolved to become more than an officially sanctioned TV extravaganza to celebrate Chinese New Year. It’s also an accompaniment to the feast that most families enjoy together on New Year’s Eve. It’s hated as much as it’s loved, but it’s so popular that it can make the career of any musician, actor, comedian, or magician who performs in it. Produced annually by China Central Television (CCTV) since 1983, the show is a major topic of conversation around the dinner table and on social media during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday. The show this year reached 78.72 percent of China’s 1.35 billion people, or well in excess of 1 billion viewers (stats in Chinese here).

Despite its unparalleled ratings, most people like to complain about the Spring Festival Gala, especially the youth. China’s younger generations are close followers of social media and of international TV series and films. They often have strong opinions about the Spring Festival Gala’s extravagant stage settings, dated jokes, and stultifying ideological lessons that the show strives to communicate. This year, the main propaganda points throughout the show were national unity and the importance of family ties, whereas last year’s show emphasized Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” by showing off the country’s military prowess.

The People’s Daily defends the Spring Festival Gala

This year, apparently anticipating criticism about the Spring Festival Gala, the Communist Party’s house newspaper the People’s Daily published a commentary (in Chinese) right before the show, which attributed the show’s failure to win viewers’ hearts to people’s increasingly critical tastes and the fact that competing entertaining options, such as watching movies and playing video games, have reduced the appeal of the show. The article also encourages those who “are getting accustomed to taunt the show” to come up with some constructive suggestions rather than simply sniffing at it.

Social media censorship

However, after the broadcast, state authorities appeared to have zero tolerance for negative comments, and little tolerance for even constructive criticism. Many Weibo users have complained that their posts about the Spring Festival Gala were taken down without explanation. Sixth Tone, a website which is state-owned but aims to engage readers of English with an edgier tone than most Chinese government media, reported:

Users of popular knowledge sharing platform Zhihu were prohibited from searching for “Spring Festival Gala,” while those on messaging app WeChat found that they were unable to post certain words into group chats or onto their Moments — a function similar to Facebook’s newsfeed. Posting the sentence “Cherish life, stay away from the Spring Festival Gala” — a play on a similar expression referring to drugs — returned an error message saying: “Failed to send; your text contains inappropriate content.”

The Sixth Tone post itself was censored, but you can still read it at China Film Insider. Some of the other themes from the show that generated discussion this year are explained below:

Sexist sketches

Under the main theme of “close family ties,” many comedic sketches touched upon the role of women in the family, yet in a way that triggered outrage from the audience. In a skit titled Long Lasting Love 真情永驻, a divorcing couple came onto the stage and talks about each other’s shortcomings. While the audience anticipated that it would be love that ultimately brought the couple back together as the title indicates, the solution turned out to be in vitro fertilization (IVF), as the real reason behind the couple’s split is that the wife is unable to conceive children. Internet users reacted strongly to the sketch: One commenter wrote, “I don’t know what message this sketch intends to convey. For me, this is the best anti-marriage advertisement.”

In response to the sexist themes of many sketches in the Spring Festival Gala, some internet users started a hashtag campaign on Weibo demanding that “CCTV apologize to the nation’s women” (央视向全国女性道歉). The tag, however, was censored by Weibo after gathering much attention.

Political song and dance

Whereas last year’s show was replete with marching soldiers singing songs in praise of the Party and government, this year, perhaps because of increasingly loud activism for independence for Taiwan and Hong Kong, the Spring Festival Gala shifted its focus to national unity. In a song titled “Nation” 国家, Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan 成龙 stood in front of a massive Chinese national flag together with students from mainland China (including representatives of ethnic minorities), Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Though many complained about the heavy political flavor of the song and dance routine, some applauded the performance for its use of sign language.

Fewer old faces, more pop icons

Once a stage that was only reserved for established artists, the Spring Festival Gala this year featured many young singers and artists in an effort to attract a younger audience. The 2017 show kicked off with TFBOYS, a hit boy band, and the leading cast of the popular TV drama Ode to Joy 欢乐颂, sometimes called the Chinese version of Sex and the City. Other pop stars who made it to the stage were Chinese singer Lay 孙艺兴 from the Korean pop group EXO, Lu Han 鹿晗 from the same band, mainland actor Jing Boran 井柏然, and Hong Kong actor William Chan 陈伟霆.

This did not please all of its intended audience. Some internet users criticized the show for its overuse of young idols, as many could only perform by lip syncing, and some acts were called childish or strange. A good example is the song “Being Healthy” 健康动起来, performed by Lay and Jing Boran, in which the two grown-up actors were singing and dancing in vegetable costumes.

High-tech elements

One of the most notable scenes from last year was when 540 dancing robots and 29 neon drones backed up a song performed by the famous Chinese singer Sun Nan 孙楠. This year’s show continued to serve as a platform for the nation to show off its latest high-tech achievements. Viewers could use mobile apps to watch a 360-degree panoramic view of some scenes, and many acts featured high-definition 3D projections of colors and lights in the background, notably, a duet by Mao Amin 毛阿敏 and Zhang Jie 张杰.

You can watch the entirety of the 2017 Spring Festival Gala on YouTube.