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Objects of desire

National Treasure, a cultural program that focuses on precious antiquities, has spurred a nationwide craze for relic appreciation

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

Our program is quite a young one. ‘How young is it?’ You may wonder. Just 5,000 years old.” National Treasure caught audiences immediately with its witty opening line. 

After it premiered on December 3, 2017, the cultural “docutainment” program, which focuses on China’s museums and antiques, became a surprise hit with millions of viewers. 

Defined as a “documentary-like variety show,” the China Central Television-produced (CCTV) program combines elements of documentary, variety show, theater and other artistic forms. Showcasing 27 of China’s top national treasures, the program strives to let quiet cultural relics “come alive.” 

“We hope to make audiences feel that cultural relics are just like human beings who go through trials and hardship. Each item has its own life and personality. They don’t merely represent characteristics and values of our nation, but also influence the lifestyle of people today,” says Yu Lei, producer and chief director of the program.  

Come Alive 

National Treasure was two years in the making. Each of China’s nine major museums presents three national treasures in the show, including Beijing’s Palace Museum, Shanghai Museum, Nanjing Museum, and Hunan Provincial Museum. 
To inject an element of entertainment into the show, well-known actors were invited to perform as “guardians” of the treasures, who present the legendary stories behind each item in a short performance. 
In the first episode, the Palace Museum showcases three treasures: a stone drum, the painting A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains by Wang Ximeng and Large Vase with Variegated Glazes. The large vase, which dates to the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) is the highlight of the episode. 
Emperor Qianlong has long been mocked by netizens for his gaudy taste in porcelain, as he seemed to favour bright colors and complex designs. The show provides its own interpretation of the mystery of the emperor’s extravagant esthetics with a short play. 

Qianlong, played by the actor Wang Kai, has a dream in which ancient artists as well as his deceased father Emperor Yongzheng criticize his vulgar taste in art. The emperor argues that this style will show the world the mightiness and prosperity of his reign. Upon waking, to further make his point, the emperor orders craftsmen to produce a vase made of the most complicated techniques in the history of Chinese porcelain. And thus, we are told, the detailed and intricate vase came to be created. 
The story is fiction. But it amused audiences, and the photo of the Qianlong-era glazed vase later became a popular meme online. 

Besides the entertaining performance about Qianlong’s vase, viewers were moved by the tradition of the dedication of museum workers in the legendary story of the stone drum.
The Stone Drums of Qin, which rank among the “nine greatest treasures of China,” are believed to contain the earliest known stone engravings of words. They describe activities such as fishing, hunting and warfare in the pre-Qin era, up and through the foundation of the Qin imperial dynasty in 221 BCE. 
The show tells the story of one family who risked their lives to protect the stone drums from being seized by Japanese invaders during the second Sino-Japanese War (1931-1945). The Liang family, along with other staff of the imperial museum, set out on a 16-year odyssey of thousands of kilometers to escort 19,600 boxes of artifacts southward after the Japanese army took China’s northeast in 1933. Even today, the younger generation of the Liang family still dedicate themselves to preserving cultural relics in the imperial museum. 
“The stone drum story moved me to tears. Our relics and museum workers have suffered so much hardship,” Internet user “Yaqi” wrote, adding that the legendary story of the Liang family and the stone drum should be made into a film.  
The show was well received by viewers and earned 9.1/10 on the leading review website Douban. It has taken streaming site Bilibili by storm with 9.75 million views so far. 
“Diligent and dedicated museum workers as well as the family that protected the relics from war – these great but nameless national heroes should be remembered. It is these moving stories that bring the cold relics to life,” says the most-liked comment on Douban. 
“A very good program. Knowledge and entertainment are combined well,” another netizen, “Creamy Fang,” commented.  

Telling Stories 

From the perspective of Yu Lei, producer and chief director of the show, the key to the show’s success lies in its storytelling. 
“News, documentaries, variety shows, all TV programs tell stories. People won’t get bored by a good story. Our goal is to tell good stories of cultural relics and amaze ordinary people with things they used to have no interest in,” Yu told NewsChina. 
She stressed that National Treasure never focuses on the authenticity or material value of cultural relics but on the cultural and spiritual value of the treasures. 
“Previous TV programs with similar themes mainly emphasize antique collecting and appraisal, in which experts are invited to authenticate and evaluate antiques. Very materialistic in essence,” said Yu. “We hope to inform our viewers that what makes a treasure precious is not just that it is made of gold or jade, but the human value behind it.” 
Due to the story- and value-oriented design, sometimes opinions were divided between museums and the program-makers in selecting treasures. 
Museums wanted to exhibit the most exquisitely made treasures to impress audiences with their magnificent art. Almost all the museums selected bronze ware from the Shang Dynasty (traditionally dated to 1600 BC-1046 BC). Nevertheless, the program’s team preferred relics from a variety of eras to tell different stories. 
One of the discrepancies lay in the selection of a pair of gilded, wooden-core stirrups from the Sixteen Kingdoms period (304-439). The Liaoning Provincial Museum, in which the stirrups are displayed, expected the program not to exhibit this treasure, as the original piece is bent out of shape due to its decayed wooden core. 
The program, however, looked forward to telling a story about horseback riding through this particular artifact. “These are the earliest paired stirrups found in the world. The great value of this treasure is that it marks a significant shift for our nation. The stirrup spread westward through the Silk Road and brought about the era of knights on horseback in the West. What we expect is to tell this intriguing backstory that is unfamiliar to most ordinary people,” Yu told NewsChina.
It is argued that the rising feudal class structure of the European Middle Ages derived ultimately from the use of stirrups. Renowned American historian Lynn White Jr. set out the idea in his best-known work Medieval Technology and Social Change that the stirrup ushered in the feudal system after it arrived in Europe in the eighth century.
Not all viewers were satisfied with the show’s storytelling. Some criticized the show for not being informative enough to let audiences get a real appreciation of the cultural relics. 
“The show uses antiques to tell stories. Storytelling is such a big part of it that audiences can’t really get a good understanding of the treasures in terms of appreciation,” Douban user “Xiaotianqieli” wrote. 

Appreciation for the Past 

Last year saw a rise in quality cultural programs. In addition to National Treasure, the poetry-reciting game show Chinese Poetry Congress, letter-reading show Letters Alive, and literature-reading program The Reader also became huge hits. 

Documentaries on traditional culture and craftsmanship won much acclaim among the young. The three-episode documentary Masters in the Forbidden City, which follows the lives of relic restorers in the Palace Museum, attracted over two million views. 
Another much-lauded work is Discover Traditional Crafts, an independent documentary that filmed 199 local artisans and explored 144 endangered traditional handicrafts. 
One feature common to many successful cultural programs is that they are wildly popular on Bilibili, a streaming website known for youth-oriented, user-generated content. National Treasure marks the first time CCTV’s variety channel has officially distributed a program on Bilibili. 

Returning to tradition and the “spirit of craftsmanship” have become hot topics in recent years. The sense of timelessness in traditional arts, and the quiet lifestyle of artisans who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of beauty and perfection increasingly appeal to young people born in the 1990s, who complain about the fast pace and emptiness of modern life. 
“The younger generation’s capacity for appreciation and judgment should not be underestimated. It’s unwise for TV makers to falsely believe young people only seek entertainment,” Dong Qing, a famous CCTV anchor and producer of the successful cultural program The Reader, told the Shanghai Morning Post, explaining that young Chinese live in a much richer, more civilized and diverse society and have had a better education than their predecessors. 
In a press release for National Treasure on August 22, Shan Jixiang, curator of the Palace Museum, described the tremendous impact of cultural programs. 
“The documentary Masters in the Palace Museum is so popular among youth that more than 15,000 college students applied for work at the imperial museum,” the curator said. In his eyes, National Treasure is “a brand-new attempt to construct ‘museums without walls’ and bring museums into daily life.” 

“The number of people that this form of documentary attracts is relatively small,” Yu told our reporter, adding that National Treasure is more of an educational variety show targeting the general public, who see no point in visiting museums, and not aimed at experts or enthusiasts.
“Visiting museums is seen by many as a rather dull activity. That’s a terrible misconception. We hope to enlighten the public about the meaning of cultural relics and let them realize their inner connection with traditional culture and have fun in museums,” said the TV maker. 
Their efforts have paid off. A craze for treasure exploration has swept the country since the show aired.
During the three-day New Year holiday, more than 27,000 people visited the Shaanxi Historical Museum, 9.3 percent more than the previous year; the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor received around 75,700 visitors, up 57.7 percent compared to last year; on December 31, a queue of 500 formed outside the Hunan Provincial Museum, which took visitors more than an hour to enter.
Some scholars have expressed concern over the huge impact of the variety show on museums and the public. 
 “Museums are not places that hoard ‘national treasures,’ but places where human societies can come to understand themselves, history and the world through objects. 

Variety shows focus only on ‘treasure,’ and influenced by this idea, the public visit museums as if going on a ‘treasure hunt.’ To equate museums with objects is a very limited, even harmful, understanding of the function of museums,” wrote Song Xiangguang, a professor at the Department of Archaeology of Peking University and deputy curator of the university’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, on his personal blog. 
Song says that museums should keep their distance from variety shows. The latter, he explains, resorts to “emotion,” striving to get audiences emotionally aroused; museums, by contrast, rely on the power of “logic,” equipping teens and the young with the spirit of science and democracy, and encouraging them to understand the world through critical thinking