Organized by USC-UCLA Joint East Asian Studies Center, this year's Media & Culture in Contemporary China Panel Discussion took place from October 22 to 23 on both the USC and UCLA campuses. Chinese producer Zhang Jizhong, the keynote speaker of the two-day event, visited Los Angeles and talked to students and industry professionals about being one of the most influential television producers in China.
A household name in China, Zhang Jizhong represents the rare case of a celebrity producer being the central creative force of a television drama series. He is known for his adaptations of the Four Great Classical Novels of China (so far, he's done Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Journey to the West), as well as Louis Cha's popular swordsmen novels.
His works also have a signature epic story-telling structure, with large-scale battle scenes, well-choreographed martial arts, and artistic visual elements. His most recent production is a new series Journey to the West, and he is currently working on creating a Chinese theme park based on the Monkey King legend.
In APA's hour-long interview that took place right before his keynote speech at UCLA, Zhang Jizhong was very open about his opinions on numerous topics. In contrast to his powerful status in the Chinese entertainment industry, he was extremely down-to-earth and amiable in person. The 60-year-old producer excitedly showed us the new Naked-Eye 3D videos on his Android phone, and he expressed his passion for new technologies and their potential for the TV industry.
Interview with Zhang Jizhong
Interviewed and translated by Claudia Xie
Camera by Henry Chen
Video edit by Claudia Xie
Click here to read the original Chinese-language interview.
APA: Why did you decide to come to LA and participate in this panel about the Chinese Contemporary Media Industry?
Zhang Jizhong: The planning started last year when UCLA invited me to come to LA and talk about the television industry in China. Since I started out in this industry, I have been producing TV series based on Chinese traditional culture, such as classic literature, history novels and popular swordsmen (武侠) novels. Therefore, instead of having to go along with the directors' stylistic choices, I was able to put a stylistic signature on the works I produced as a producer.
APA: Your topic for the panel is on the "Producer-Centered System in China." How did the system form in China? Was this the case from the beginning, or was it a gradual process?
ZJ: Before, China had a Communist-planned economy. The state government made the decisions to make movies and television shows, not the market. In the past, the biggest producer was the state government. The government did not care about financial returns, as long as the movie or the television show achieved its propaganda purposes.
Afterwards, CCTV (China Central Television) started to hire producers who would select material for its programs. Gradually we started to have a producer system. CCTV then started to adapt the Four Great Classical Novels of China into TV series, and I was lucky to have participated in two of them: Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) and The Water Margin (水浒传). Since then, producers have become the important force for the production, as they are responsible for the entire TV series.
Personally, before becoming a producer, I have been an actor, a scriptwriter, an assistant director, and a director. So I knew the whole inner workings of making a TV series. At the beginning, when a director is not yet hired, I have to lead my creative team to conceptualize the theme and the content for the TV series. And I was thankful that CCTV gave me such as great platform; no other privately-owned company would have the capital nor the time to make such giant TV productions. In the end, I spent seven years making Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin, and another four years for my recent Journey to the West (西游记) TV series. Therefore I spent a total of 11 years making TV series for three out of the Four Great Classical Novels of China.
APA: You spent eleven years making only three series. What attracted you to these projects?
ZJ: The three novels that these series are based on are the most renowned forms of literature in China. To my knowledge, I am the only producer that has worked on three of the Four Great Classical Novels of China; this is what I am particularly proud of. These three novels have been circulating since the Ming Dynasty, which proves the life force of these works. These novels contain an abundance of traditional Chinese culture, and making them into visual representations, such as TV series, can help them become more popular and influential among the Chinese people today. This was what I felt worthy of doing, and what made me persevere for all those years. Although there were still many regrets: I wanted them to be perfect, but could never achieve it due to time and financial restraints.
APA: You mentioned that part of the reason that you want to produce TV series based on classic novels is that you want to popularize traditional Chinese culture amongst Chinese people today. Have you ever thought about bringing Chinese culture to the rest of the world?
ZJ: Of course. On this particular topic, I think we should learn from the US. Comparatively, U.S. is a rather new culture. China has 5000 years of history, but previously, culture was only passed on through school education. We did not utilize modern media such as movies. On the other hand, America is able to showcase its sceneries, culture, values and perspectives to the rest of the world through its movies. America is very good at utilizing its media, especially films, to improve and reinforce its status in the minds of other people. Although the Chinese economy is becoming one of the strongest in the world, our cultural industry is still rather weak.
However, there are many things you need to pay attention to when trying to popularize Chinese culture. First of all, you need to realize that China is still different from Western societies in terms of its values and social structures. Therefore, when the East and West clash, instead of a one-way communication, you need to find the middle ground between the two. I am currently working with some colleagues in Hollywood on a movie project called Monkey King, which is based on traditional Chinese culture. We have repealed many previous drafts for the script, and we are trying really hard to find the right balance of content that can be accepted and attractive to both Chinese and Western audiences. But it is extremely difficult.
APA: So your next move is in the film industry?
ZJ: Yes. Even though, in China, I am known to be the producer that always spends the most money to make TV series, I always feel that we do not have enough money. My latest series Journey to the West cost about $200,000 per episode to make, which is far less than an American TV series that can easily cost $5,000,000 to $10,000,000 per episode to make. Therefore, I want to produce movies that are shorter in length, so I could probably do a more delicate job with it.
APA: What are some of the challenges so far?
ZJ: Part of this trip to Los Angeles is to meet with my scriptwriter to discuss a new draft for Monkey King. It has not been as easy as I previously anticipated, because we did not understand America. Last year, I came to the US eight times; this is my third time this year, and I am planning to come back again later this year. The more you meet with American colleagues, the more you realize how different the U.S. media industry is from the Chinese system. I did not understand as much before, so I took some unnecessary detours when approaching Hollywood. The Chinese media industry right now is trying to become closer to the American system; for example, we are starting to see some Chinese talent agencies. However, our industry is still very young and still lacks experience. This can only be improved over time through constant communication and collaboration.