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Jing Zhao
Comm 594
October 12, 1998

My Life History with Television

In 1969, I was born in Yuncheng, a medium-sized city along the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization. I was born in a politically unstable period in China and grew up to great change and development. My life history with television is a reflection of the special features of Chinese youth of my generation.

My memory of childhood is like a black-and-white TV, not colorful but still full of happiness. We had few picture books, cartoons, or toys. Our world was small and poor, but these are not reasons for our kids to be unhappy. We amused ourselves by playing games and listening to grandma tell stories. Nobody at that time had any idea about television. So it is not hard to imagine the excitement the first television aroused in our neighborhood in early 1980s. That is a time when China adopted the "Open-Door" policy and began to concentrate on economic development. As an indicator of the improvement of living standards, TV as a luxury consumer good began to appear in some Chinese families, including my neighbors.

I can never forget my first encounter with television. I was then a primary school student. At that age, days are full of study and homework. One day, news spread out in the neighborhood: Ping's parents had bought a "small movie player" -- a TV. Almost everybody in our neighborhood went to have a look. It was just like a big party - happy, exciting and noisy. In the beginning nobody really paid attention to what was on the TV. Parents were talking about the price, functions and where it could be bought. Children couldn't stop shouting. Ping, a very normal little girl, suddenly became a princess in our eyes. I can't remember what programs were shown. However, I do remember that later that evening we children behaved ourselves so well and sat in rows in the small sitting room. We watched almost every program until midnight, when my parents took me home.

From then on, I went very often to Ping's home. At that time, the news about what happened in China and the world seemed to be so far away from me as to be in another world. However, I did find some movies, TV series and entertainment programs very enjoyable. My biggest dream then was to have a TV set and I kept asking my parents for one. My parents promised if I could do a great job at school, they would reward me with a TV set. Before the 1984 Spring Festival, my dream finally came true when I got the top prize in final exam from school.

Spring Festival is the most important traditional festival in China. You can't imagine how much we kids looked forward to it at that time because it means a holiday, new clothing, delicious food, fireworks, gifts, all of which came only once a year. In the early 80's, with
the rapid economic development in China, many people were making great progress in their lives. Before this Spring Festival, having saved money for over the year, many people rushed to buy a TV. I can clearly remember that buying a TV set at that time required certain kinds of certificates. With the help of a friend of my parents, on the eve of Spring Festival, a color TV set was finally brought home. My sister, brother and I were so happy. We volunteered to clean rooms, wash dishes, and do shopping and cooking to express our gratitude.

The portrait of the family on the eve of the Lunar New Year is deeply engraved in my mind. Wearing new clothing, eating delicious cookies, candy and beans, we children sat in front of the television while our parents were making "Jiaozi" (a Chinese dumpling) for us to eat at the turning-point of lunar new year. At that time, many Chinese families were just like us, gathering together for the Spring Festival. Having prepared for several months, many movie stars, singers and dancers, and comedians presented to numerous Chinese families various wonderful entertainment programs. I still believe the magic of the Spring Festival can only happen in China. Over one night, new stars appearing at the party can become famous all over China. Over one night, the song and jokes from the party became so popular that almost everybody talks about it. Spring Festival Party live broadcasted on China Central TV became an integrated and important part of the traditional Spring Festival. Its magic remains.

Later, when I went to high school, I was fully occupied by homework and great pressure from competition in class. For quite a long time, as a top student at school, I disciplined myself and didn't watch TV at all. However, one Japanese love story TV series deeply influenced my life, even though at the beginning I felt guilty for wasting time on it. The romance and grief of the story took my heart away. Being a traditional, conservative, "good girl," I was astonished and frightened by the great passion and strong feelings brought out in my heart by the story. I was so worried about the fate of hero and heroine that I couldn't go to sleep. I even cried at their tragic situation. I promised myself that I would devote myself to look for true love in my life. I am not the kind of person who madly clings to role models. The only exception in my life is the heroine of that TV series. I collected her pictures in any possible way. I made my first intimate friend through sharing feelings toward the TV series. Even my parents felt I was strange in those days. But actually, many Chinese girls at my age shared a similar experience. I think the reason is that is the only way for us to enjoy the beauty of true love, to escape from the great pressure at school and boring life at home.

Needless to say, life before the university entrance examination was extremely tough. TV seemed to be something in another world. I devoted myself completely to a vision of going to a top university in Beijing. In my eyes, TV was for children, not a grown-up and promising student like me. Even later, when I went to college, I didn't have many chances to watch TV because no TV set was available in the student dorms. I became a bookworm. I didn't watch too much TV because I thought TV was just something for idle people or children. At that time, as a result of both school and family education, my political view was very simple but strong. I had a firm belief that my generation was lucky: we were born in the new China and we grew up under the red flag. We should thank the Communist Party - our great and glorious party - for all of this happiness.

That was what we learned from schools and parents. Even sometimes I may doubt about based on some books I read. For example, I read a lot of books written by people who experienced Cultural Revolution. However, I never really doubted about it.

However, my world collapsed after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. It was like an earthquake in my life, destroying all my simple and fragile political views. TV, as the mouthpiece of the party, played a crucial and contemptible role at that time. This had such a far-reaching influence on me that it even changed my personality and career path later on. Today, though nearly ten years have passed, when I touch upon this topic, I still feel deeply concerned about whether I should really mention it or not. However, if I don't include the turning point in my life history with TV, my account will not be complete.

In 1989, I was a sophomore, belonging to a most enthusiastic group without much knowledge and experience concerning politics. I witnessed the whole event and participated as a normal student. I had been staying in Tiananmen Square for half a month with my schoolmates and friends. I experienced and witnessed many historical events there. To keep track of the government's opinion, we watched TV every day. I was angry but not surprised by what I saw on TV. It was something completely different from what I was experiencing. It was full of lies, big lies. I felt deeply hurt and helpless. How many Chinese were deceived! How could we tell the truth to the public? There was simply no way! One famous female news announcer in China Central TV station couldn't help expressing grief when announcing the news, she was sent back home immediately and never had another chance to a news announcer. The TV at that time was full of government propaganda. TV was only a tool of the government for their political purposes. I believe many Chinese remember the famous TV program in which the events of June 4th were summarized. It was replayed again and again on television. It was so well designed and edited that you can hardly doubt, if you didn't know what was going on in Beijing. It was the main information source people for all of China and quite a lot of people did believe what was shown on television. However, I not only lost any faith in TV programs but didn't trust the government anymore. TV, as the tool of the Party, deceived so many Chinese that had no chance to witness the true situation. However, I
can never be deceived anymore.

Life continued. For me, the world became a different place and I became a different person. I simply felt totally lost. I didn't know where China would go, and where I would go. No information, no books, and no TV programs could help me find the answers. All day long, TV was just full of propaganda, how stability was the top priority. I simply kicked TV out of my life. Once again, I became a good student only addicted to books.

Five years later, I became a journalist for China Daily, the only official English language newspaper in China. As a journalist, I was fortunate enough to take part in reform of China's press system. In 1994, a TV program produced by China Central Television entitled "Oriental Horizon" became a hot topic all over the country. It addressed openly the problems and negative elements of the Chinese government. It related the stories of normal people. For the first time, government officials were criticized by journalists. For the first time, normal people became heroes or heroines. This had great historical significance for China's TV program development because it had never happened before.

As a journalist, I was very excited about the reform. Like many Chinese, I watched the program almost everyday. To introduce China's TV reform, I had interviews with directors and producers of the program and wrote a long article about it for our newspaper. During interviews, I was deeply impressed by the journalists' enthusiasm and commitment to their work, and by their strong social responsibility. I still remember what they said: we are fortunate to have the chance to be a real journalist, we must prove we deserve it. That was really the start of a new period for press in China. Journalists had more and more freedom to report. News was becoming more transparent. As those journalists told me, the most rewarding part of their work was their programs were very influential and powerful. When government officials were criticized by the program, very soon they would be punished accordingly. When something unfair happened to normal people, the program would seek justice. They did help people solve a lot of problems. Needless to say, people loved the program. In 1995, the general director of the program was named as one of the top 10 outstanding young people in China, which indicated that Chinese government gave its support to the program.

In the past five years, China had seen tremendous progress in many aspects. Incomes are going up, people have more choices in education, more choice in jobs, and the freedom to travel. There's a genuine movement toward openness and freedom in China, especially China's TV programs. The live broadcast of the press conference between President Jiang Zemin and American President Clinton during his visit to China in June is a great breakthrough in China's press history. On the morning of June 27, 1998, I was alone at home watching the press conference held by President Jiang Zemin and President Clinton. Everything was going just like it was supposed to. Then, when President Clinton turned to the sensitive topics of Tiananmen Square incident, human rights, and Tibet, I was shocked and couldn't believe what was going on. Nobody ever touched these topics in public. I was so excited and realized immediately that something historical and crucial for China's press was happening. For a moment I couldn't believe it was a live broadcast. I thought to call some friends and tell them to turn on the TV. However, I couldn't find a minute to take my eyes off the screen. The next day almost everybody I met in the company asked, did you watch the press conference? Later in an interview with China Central Television, President Clinton said: "I did not expect my entire press conference with President Jiang would be played live on television, and then my speech at Beijing University. I did not anticipate being able to have that sort of open, sweeping communication with the Chinese people. And I'm very pleased and I appreciate President Jiang's decision to let the press conference be aired. That, I think, was very good."

This summer China suffered disastrous floods. The whole nation was called upon to donate to flooded areas. More than 600 million yuan ($72.46 million) was raised for flood victims at a charity party televised live on August 16 for both domestic and overseas viewers. It was the largest sum ever raised for a single event in the country. The nearly 4-hour party, hosted by the China Central Television (CCTV), was supported by people of all social sectors in China and overseas. More than 1,000 calls were received by the organizers' hot lines. I, like many Chinese people, watched the charity party from beginning to end. I was greatly moved by the unity of our nation, by the spirit of sharing the same fate, by the generosity of numerous donors. All of these were demonstrated vividly and thoroughly by the program to people in all corners of the country. People from all walks of life opened their purses to donate money for victims. After the program finished, the total donation had surpassed 600 million yuan and more was coming. I was working as a public relation specialist in for the multinational company then. We donated 4 million yuan that evening in the charity party. At a time when people in flooded areas were in great need, TV functioned as a strong and influential tool to call successfully for the help of the whole nation.

Now having been in US for more than one month, I can even feel the air I am breathing is full of freedom. Living in a completely new country without many friends, TV has become my best partner to kill time. And I do like the colorful and interesting programs presented on nearly 100 channels. What impressed me most is the report of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. What interest me most is that the fairness of everybody on television. No matter if you're the president or an average person, TV reporters can address you as long as you represent news to the audience. I appreciated this freedom very much at the very beginning. I never saw a president express such regret and acknowledge mistakes on TV to the whole nation. However, later on, I did feel some TV programs have gone too far and have been unfair to President Clinton. However, it is a complex story and I am trying hard to make some distinctions. In a country with great freedom, it will take time for me to watch TV in a more sensible way.

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