New documentary series travels to Hangzhou’s past

New documentary series travels to Hangzhou’s past

New documentary series travels to Hangzhou’s past

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A still from new documentary The Southern Song Dynasty Photos: Courtesy of Zhejiang TV

A still from new documentary The Southern Song Dynasty
The Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279) is often described in Chinese history textbooks as being “weak.” As a result, the dynasty is often looked down upon by Chinese. Yet, in the eyes of some Western scholars the Southern Song is far from a low point in Chinese history. “They regard it as the beginning of modern Chinese society given the circulation of banknotes and the development of a handicraft industry. They even compare the Southern Song Dynasty to the Renaissance,” said Xia Yanping, director of upcoming documentary The Southern Song Dynasty. A seven-episode series to be aired every Monday at 10 pm starting tonight on Zhejiang TV, The Southern Song Dynasty project was inspired by this wildly different view of the dynasty, according to Xia. His hope is that the documentary can change the public’s perception of this dynasty.Change in perception Following the downfall of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127), the rulers moved the capital to the south where they started to become complacent with the stable life they enjoyed far away from invaders. This has long been regarded by many Chinese as capitulating to the enemy. “Many people only see the lack of action of the rulers but fail to see the other sides of the equation. If it was indeed a corrupt dynasty how did it manage to achieve such a high level of civilization? How could the people live so prosperously? The history of the Southern Song is not limited to emperors and nobility but also includes countless ordinary people and intellectuals,” said Xia.Xia believes that people look at the history of Southern Song through a distorted lens covered by a dark haze.”To see this history clearly we have to remove this haze.” CG historyUnlike traditional documentaries, The Southern Song Dynasty will be characterized by its heavy use of 3D CGI animation to bring scenes from more than 800 years ago to life. In one scene, 3D animation is used to vividly recreate a scene in which people cluster around the city’s Goulan area watching a Chinese opera. Resembling a modern stage, Goulan was a major place for entertainment during the dynasty, especially when it came to opera. The prosperity of Goulan partially reflects the flourishing economy of the Southern Song. Xia explained that investment in special effects accounted for one fourth of the show’s total budget.”In the field of documentary films, our 3D special effects are first rate,” Xia said at a screening and media press conference on Thursday.Tough problemsThe series took three years to produce. According to Xia, the most difficult part of the production was writing the script, which he said took nearly two whole years to complete.The script went through three versions. He kept two episodes from the first version and four from the second version.”We were not pleased with the quality of the scripts we were getting, some were just unreadable. Our problem was that writers who could write well were not willing to write for us because it meant conducting a lot of historical research. They don’t think it’s worth their time and prefer writing for TV dramas,” said Xia, explaining that in the end he decided to just write the scripts with his crew.Another difficulty came during shooting. “There was almost nothing left to shoot. In Hangzhou only two areas related to the Southern Song Dynasty are preserved. One is the Six Harmonies Pagoda and the other is the Baochu Pagoda,” said Xia. This may explain why the series was so interested in investing in 3D CGI for the show.Being a bit too ambitious was another issue. Once the crew wrote a script for some battles that took place during the Southern Song but had to give it up because the battles were too complicated to work into the series. They also had another reason for cutting the scenes. “It would have become a war movie rather than a documentary,” said Xia. And making a documentary, not an action show, was the whole point of the project.Yang Yang, vice director of the Scheduling Department for the Zhejiang Radio and TV Group, said that Zhejiang TV will not judge the success of The Southern Song Dynasty by using audience ratings or commercial profit.”The value of a documentary ferments slowly,” Yang said at the press conference. Zhejiang TV also has plans to make an English version of the series which it hopes to show overseas. A personal focusBased on what was shown at the screening event, the documentary is attempting to take a more personal look at the dynasty. For instance, when discussing the prosperity of the Southern Song, the show doesn’t quote statistics or historical documents, but instead approaches things by focusing on how detailed the dynasty’s tea culture was at the time. “When brewing tea, it is best to use spring water. If not that, then river water, while well water is the worst,” the episode’s narrator explains. This tradition is still observed today. Many locals in Hangzhou still use bottles to collect water from local springs, the most famous of which is the Hupao Spring. In the spring when Longjing tea begins to appear in the traditional markets, the people of Hangzhou always make sure to use Hupao spring water to make their tea just like their ancestors did. Most likely Xia adapted this approach so that audiences would feel a more personal connection to this dynasty, instead of focusing on the failures of its leadership.Newspaper headline: Jewel of the Southern Song

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