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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 January, 2004, 12:51 GMT
China's television revolution
by Kathy Flower
English language teacher and TV presenter

Back in 1981, UK teacher Kathy Flower went to China to present an English language TV programme as part of a government scheme to repair the country's education system after the Cultural Revolution of the 1960-70s.

She returned recently to make an updated version of the show and found a dramatically changed country.

Early morning in Beijing and the pale winter sun is shrouded in smog.

The newspapers publish daily air pollution figures for the major cities and Beijing is top of the league today. Ceaseless traffic hoots, going nowhere.

Kathy Flower
For a while I shared with Mrs Thatcher the role of the most recognised Brit in China, a position now held by David Beckham
When I first came here two decades ago, the melody of Beijing was played by millions of bicycle bells with percussion provided by horse-drawn wagons.

When I go for a walk today round these noisy, bustling streets, there are still people who give me a look which clearly says: "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

Fame

In 1981, with only three television channels, I was China's television English teacher.

For a while I shared with Mrs Thatcher the role of the most recognised Brit in China, a position now held by David Beckham.

By the early 1980s, the Cultural Revolution had torn China's education system to pieces.

Few people knew any foreign languages apart from Russian and certainly not English, the language of the hated imperialists.

China's then leader, Deng Xiaoping flung open China's doors. English was seen as the key to modernising the run down country and using television to teach the language was the way forward.

So we set to work in dark, cold studios staffed by people who had never met a "foreign devil", let alone allowed one near a television screen.

Fear

The morning after the first show, the programme director waited in fear, trembling in anticipation of his bosses' reaction.

In the 1980s sexy girls were never seen on Chinese television screens, it was far safer to look frumpy
Would they be pleased that he had taken Deng Xiaoping at his word, or would he be sent to the dusty wastelands of Mongolia for "re-education"?

He was lucky.

He and the programme survived and our series - Follow Me - ran for eight years.

The other two television channels showed films about tractors and coal-mining, so the ratings war was not hard to win.

At 6.30pm entire villages would gather round their one and only black and white television set.

Together they would chorus useful phrases such as "Good morning, how are you?" or, perhaps less usefully, "Would you like a gin and tonic?"

Glamour

China fell in love with our lead actor Francis Matthews, the "perfect English gentleman", and with the actress playing his beautiful blonde girlfriend.

In the 1980s sexy girls were never seen on Chinese television screens; it was far safer to look frumpy.

Kathy Flower (left) and colleagues recording the television programme
Kathy Flower (left) and colleagues record their programme
Twenty years later, the studios are warm and well-lit.

Our new production team spans the generations, each one shaped by the last 60 years of Chinese history.

My colleagues, in order of appearance, are first Mrs Hu, the graceful 62-year-old makeup artist.

She spent 40 years with the Chinese Army film studios, churning out the kind of revolutionary films no-one wants to see any more.

The studios have closed, leaving thousands of actors, dancers and film directors unemployed.

So Mrs Hu is grateful for this job.

Party duties

Chinese leaders Mao and Deng
Chinese leaders Mao Zedong (left) and Deng Xiaoping
She is longing for the birth of her first grandchild. When her two sons were born, she sent them to relatives in a distant province for three years.

Serving the party was more important than family life.

By the time the little boys were old enough to rejoin her, they barely knew her.

Next, the director, a charismatic man in his fifties.

He, too, started life acting in those unloved revolutionary films, playing roles such as Peng De Hai, one of China's most famous generals.

Then there is the 40-something human dynamo, Mr Li, who runs this television production company.

His publishing empire is vast but he comes from a poor family and his widowed mother had to take in washing to support her six children.

His politically correct class background did not, however, stop him from being persecuted.

And perhaps because of these earlier humiliations, the walls of his grandiose office is lined with photos of him meeting famous visitors.

My favourite is the photo with the caption: "President Li briefs British Prime Minister Tony Blair ".

And Mr Blair is indeed listening intently in the photo, as well he might. The company sold over 20 million books last year, 95% of them in English.

The remaining 5% accounts for the 30 other languages in which it publishes. There is not much call for Russian language books nowadays.

New generation

Finally there is 20-year-old Miss Wang, my co-presenter, a willowy beauty with ambitions to be a television "hostess".

In between filming she poses for the young cameramen.There are certainly no frumpy clothes for her.

By the time I'm back in London, two more television stations have offered Miss Wang a job.

Most of China's 300 TV channels employ beautiful young women to front the quizzes and chat shows that make up their staple diet, and there's not a tractor in sight.

For Miss Wang's generation, cherished by their parents, spurred on by their teachers, Mrs Hu's tales of her devoted service to Mao's China have little meaning.

For them, the past is another country.


From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 3 January, 2004, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
Country profile: China
13 Nov 03  |  Country profiles


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