Lu Tianming was the first to dip his toes in the water.
As a prolific author famous for his political writing, Lu wrote the first anti-graft TV series in China in 1995, which also became one of the decade’s most influential contemporary TV shows, Heaven Above.
The nation seemed riveted to the seventeen-episode China Central Television (CCTV) drama. The show gathered audiences of nearly 40 percent of the entire population at its peak. It introduced audiences to a corrupt high-ranking government official and Party cadre (vice provincial governor).
When Lu wrote the script of Heaven Above, he was already a television scriptwriter for the China Television Production Center (CTPC) under CCTV. Established in 1983, the center produced a series of outstanding period TV dramas in the 1980s, such as Journey to the West (1986), Dream of the Red Chamber (1987) and Romance of Three Kingdoms (1994).
In the early 1990s, Lu was asked to write a series focusing on social reality to remedy CCTV’s excessive reliance on historical dramas. Corruption was the most hotly-discussed social phenomenon of the time.
In August 1993, China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, launched an anti-corruption drive, warning that “corruption is a virus that is invading the healthy flesh of the Party and state institutions.” Jiang told the Central Discipline Inspection Committee that “if we lapse into soft-heartedness, if we allow it to run rampant, it could spell an end to our party.”
Lu told NewsChina that writers at that time, who had experienced the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), would “shiver with fear” when it came to writing about official corruption within the Party and government.
Lu finished writing the script in early 1994, but filming was delayed for a year. Within the Television Production Center, opinions were divided on whether the project should go ahead.
One of the leaders in the Center, after reading the script, asked for a major revision with 13 recommendations for change. The leader’s first concern was that provincial-ministerial level officials should not be portrayed as corrupt: “What if audiences relate the character to a vice provincial governor in real life?” The second concern was the ending: the anti-corruption hero eventually faces tragedy, which defies the “happy-ending tradition” in CCTV productions that should give viewers a sense of hope.
The most “fatal” advice, Lu told NewsChina, was to replace the name “Heaven Above.”
“Heaven,” in Chinese philosophy and traditional religion, indicates the supreme authority and ultimate justice, a higher authority than any organization. “In socialist China, how can you appeal to Heaven? What’s the message you want to give?” the leader challenged.
Revising the script to meet the leader’s requirement would mean no less than a rewrite. As Lu refused to do this, the project appeared to have been turned down.
Nevertheless, the work was eventually saved after the writer appealed to a chief in charge of television series supervision under the SAPPRFT. Lu justified his depiction of high-level corruption by reasoning that CCTV had the responsibility of telling the public that the Party’s anti-corruption struggle was serious business. The official, who had grave concerns over Heaven Above, eventually approved the filming of the series, based on the original script.
Throughout the process of filming, the show’s producers and cast remained in a state of apprehension. Every leader who ever gingerly signed the permission documents of the series still could not help fearing that the show might mess up China.
The crew was so unsure about the fate of the show that they felt incredulous when CCTV informed them one day that the show was to be aired that evening. When the hand of the clock pointed to 8pm, as the opening song of Heaven Above started playing, Lu Tianming and other staff burst into tears.
“We never had any expectation whether the series would be popular or not. The only hope we had was that the show could survive,” Lu told NewsChina.
To the surprise of everyone, nevertheless, Heaven Above, without any initial publicity, immediately received a mass audience and very positive reviews. The highest viewership reached 39 percent, that is to say, four out of 10 Chinese were watching the show that night.
Some joked that Lu had lowered the crime rate that year, as thieves were at home, glued to the screen.
As historian Jeffrey C. Kinkley indicates in his book Corruption and Realism in Late Socialist China: The Return of the Political Novel, Lu’s Heaven Above was a “trendsetter” that laid down many of the genre’s conventions, including several key limits to its realism imposed by various unwritten rules. For example, the highest-level official who can be depicted as corrupt is a vice governor or deputy provincial Party secretary; there must be “good officials” who help ensure that corruption is defeated in the end.