McLuhan Studies : Issue 3


Home Page


Next Article

Previous Article

Table of Contents

Author Index

Title Index

comments


ZHAO YUQIN & LI JINGYE

OUTLAWS on the MARSH on TV
and in PRINT





The 43-part TV serial, Outlaws on the Marsh, adapted from the Chinese classic with the same name aired on CCTV's prime channel during prime time in late 1997. This well-known literary work overnight became the hot topic of people's conversation all over the country. Both praise and criticism made the headlines in all kinds of media. Great interest was shown in comparing the two media, TV and print, in terms of which was more effective in presenting the ideas and characters.

Outlaws on the Marsh is set between the years 1101 and 1125 in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is about why and how 108 men and women banded together on a mountain surrounded by marshes in what today is Shandong Province. The classic has been noted for its vivid portrayal of a large cast of humble characters who had fallen from the upper class during internal struggles. A tragic debacle forced them to join hands and rebel against local despots and troops of a corrupt imperial government. The four novels, Journey to the West, A Dream of the Red Mansions, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws on the Marsh, are considered the four classic Chinese novels. For centuries, they have enjoyed great popularity among Chinese both at home and overseas, and also among some foreigners around the world. But in print, none of the novels has aroused such notice in such a large audience as did the recent TV serial.

This paper does not look to conclude which medium is better but only to examine some characteristics of the media of TV and print and to illustrate and compare their effects on viewers and readers of Outlaws.

1. TV, a medium that comes to you; print, a medium you go to.

TV, as the most prevalent medium, has now come into almost all Chinese homes. Television sets are everywhere. Wherever you go, it comes to you: at home, in the office, in shop windows, in waiting rooms, even along the streets. Once a TV is turned on, whether you like them or not, whether you need them or not, the programs come to you. You sit there, open your eyes and ears and take them in. The only selection you can make is the channel. Outlaws on the Marsh was screened on CCTV's first channel at prime time which was the most screened channel and time. Within days, the program attracted an unprecedented 900 million Chinese viewers. The viewing rate was estimated at 44%-the highest in history (15% is generally regarded as high). But the print version of the novel seldom sells more than half a million copies.

Books, by contrast, will not come into your home without your active cooperation: it is not as simple as pressing some buttons. A book is an object. It has to be purchased or borrowed. You go to the bookstore or library, you select it. The need to make a choice among the ocean of books, along with the time and expense involved in locating it, lead to a highly selective diet of print information. Also, your selection is shaped by your interest, knowledge, skill, etc. (Usually you don't go to an unknown book unless you have heard of it or you are interested in the topic generally.) The number of readers of the novel of Outlaws will never surpass the number of viewers of the TV series.

2. TV, a medium of inclusion; print, a medium of separation.

Since TV comes to everyone, we would say that TV is a medium that tends to include many different types of people in a common set of situations. In term of complexity of decoding, TV viewing involves an accessible signal code that is barely a code at all. TV's code is electronic signals which produce facsimiles of everyday sights and sounds, and have basically one degree of complexity. TV by no means presents "reality," but TV looks and sounds more like reality than sentences and paragraphs do. A TV show displays more natural experiences. Understanding visual images has little to do with literacy. Outlaws on the Marsh was produced to tell the story in a realistic way. It was viewed by all groups of people, the old and the young, male and female, literate and illiterate, etc. It is not surprising that, during the airing of the play, people of all groups were united by the common topic of the story.

In the print medium, words are the only means for people to understand the content. Print demands that the reader have a high proficiency in decoding those complex characters, so it excludes many less-skilled people: children, the illiterate, and so on. The Chinese language uses a more complex writing code than the alphabet, a "logographic" writing system in which one symbol represents a whole word. This system requires the learning of up to 5,000 symbols for basic literacy and the mastery of as many as 20,000 symbols (or more) for scholarly pursuits. Such a system clearly limits the number of people who have full access to the medium. The published form of the novel, Outlaws on the Marsh, is as long as two volumes-960,00 words. Though many of the more complex Chinese characters have been changed into simpler ones for the modern reader, the original style of language has been preserved (for example, a tiger is called a big insect). Therefore the complexity of the printed code and the skill, training, and effort needed to decode it allows only certain people access to it. If we were to classify books in terms of the complexity of code, there would be introductory, intermediary and advanced, and Outlaws on the Marsh would clearly belong to the advanced group. But it was presented as a TV show-a form accessible to a wide audience, since TV plays bypasses these complexities.

Furthermore, in terms of content, TV programs will always concern the mass interest. Besides the social benefit, the TV people have to consider financial interest. Because TV offers its content to all members of the population, the content has to cross the barriers between different fields. In print, however, people cannot easily cross from one field into another one. Doctors, soldiers will not spare as much time for reading novels as they will for watching TV. Usually there is a clear borderline between groups of readers. Even among the four great Chinese classics, there are subtle distinctions between reader-groups. An old Chinese saying goes, "the old mustn't read Journey to the West; the young mustn't read Outlaws on the Marsh; the lascivious mustn't read The Dream of Red Mansions, and the warlike mustn't read The Romance of the Three Kingdoms." All four classics have been adapted into TV plays and easily crossed all of these barriers.

3. TV, a public medium; print, a private medium

In terms of the complexity of decoding and content, we can say that TV is a public medium since it is used by a larger group of viewers than are books. But the sense of being public will be more obvious in terms of the conditions of attendance. Watching a program on TV is like stopping to watch an event in a public park. It is shared by all. It gives the viewer a sense of connection with the outside world and with others who are watching. It provides the largest simultaneous perception of a message-to family members at home, to bystanders in the shop, to young and old, to males and females, etc. So little kids gaze on the love-making act with their parents, grandpa laughs with his grandchild at Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. By contrast, reading a book is an individual, private business. It demands a reader's commitment and active attention. Whatever world is created in the book is shared only by the reader himself, not simultaneously by more than two. For reading usually is best done alone in a quiet place and to the exclusion of other activities. You can drink tea, eat popcorn, do some cleaning or make comments with others while you watch TV, but never when you read a book.

4. TV, a form of reception; print, a form of perception

As mentioned above, TV comes to you, providing you with information whether you need it or not. In this sense, we say that TV viewers receive whatever information with no choice except those of channel and viewing time. Book-readers have the right to select which one to read. But here we will emphasize the difference in terms of understanding the content of the information provided in the two media. TV viewers just receive whatever appears on the screen. When people watch TV, they only need to put together the products of seeing and hearing. The products on the screen are ready-made: no further creation is to be done by the viewers. The characters, the music, the scenes, the sadness (tears and crying), the happiness (laughter and leaping)-all are present on the screen. You just sit there, watch and feel whatever is there.

Print not only demands that the readers read the language and understand its meaning, it also demands that the reader use his mind to reconstruct the characters, actions, feelings, etc. While reading the abstract words on the page, the reader has to imagine what the people look like, what voice they speak with, etc. His mind will be actively involved in interacting with the words. No wonder students are asked by their parents to watch TV for a little while as a rest after they've been reading for some time. A reader is a second worker and constructor. People say that there are as many characters as readers. Each reader creates a character in his own mind. So readers discuss the characters' personalities and appearance, since there will be different opinions according to how each reader understands the language. Inasmuch as the understanding of the language differs from person to person, so the perception in their minds also varies.

But the characters on the TV screen are what the director and the actors or actresses created: they are there, invariable, vivid and alive. Let's take the character Pan Jinlian from Outlaws on the Marsh for an example. In the novel, she was described as a lascivious girl who seduced other men and killed her husband. Readers have long debated whether the girl was worthy of sympathy or not. To some, she was a bad woman; to others, she was a victim of feudal society. On screen, however, the character we saw looked na„ve, pretty, and good-natured, but later she became a victim of society. If she seduced other men and killed her husband, it was due to the human desire for love and freedom. So the figure on-screen was indisputably that of a woman who worthy of sympathy and pity.

5. TV, an expressive medium; print, a communicative medium

TV viewers accept on-screen characters as they are because they are vivid, alive. This effect derives from TV's expressiveness. "Being expressive" refers to use of gestures, signs, vocalization, marks, and movements by a person in an environment. The tone of voice and facial expression give viewers a sense of how the character feels and responds. There is always a direct physical resemblance to the reality. TV uses both verbal and non-verbal expression. Non-verbal expression plays a major part in conveying feelings, emotions and intentions. It is estimated that verbal expression provides 7% of what is communicated, vocal inflection 38%, and facial expression 55%. On-screen, even a silence can be imbued with meaning. A landscape described in print in thousands of words can flash across the screen in seconds and give the viewer a vivid and concrete impression. The Chinese Kongfu can achieve its effectiveness only on screen by the excellent performance of the Kongfu people.

By contrast, print uses only abstract verbal symbols. The author communicates events in certain places and historical times, and people' feelings on different occasions. The reader tries to understand what the writer intends to say. Communicating by coding and decoding abstract words only is dull. Also, readers understand to different degrees. The meanings of words and sentences can be explained in different ways, but pictures on screen present only one.

6. TV, a medium of comprehensive techniques; print, one of words only

TV's expressiveness is undoubtedly due to the co-operation of many techniques such as photography, music, stage properties, settings, costumes, make-up, etc. The proper use of these techniques largely determines the success of the TV play. Outlaws on the Marsh successfully dealt with all these techniques. But the technique most needed in print is skill of with words. The effect of the words upon the reader's imagination will surely lag far behind that of TV's comprehensive techniques. TV watchers employ more than one sense. They can "listen to TV" (without watching ), can "feel" TV, (without sound) and even just "see" TV (without understanding the language): TV does not depend only on language. So films and TV plays can travel around the world and be viewed by people of all languages, but books can be accessed only by those who understand the language-or who can get a translation.

Last, we would like to comment on the two media. First, we would note that each has its own strengths and limitations. People will prefer one or another as situations and purposes vary. No matter how successful TV is, reading on-screen can never take the place of reading on the page. Though reading on-screen has the advantage of vivid participation, it is limited in expressing the original work's style, ideas, and charm of language. Reading on the page is the best way to understand a literary wok. Printed words on the page can bring the reader to a deeper perception of the work; reading on-screen provides speed and an abundance of cultural food, though no deeper digest of them.

Second, two points as concerning the relation between a TV play and a literary work. TV derives much nourishment from literary masterpieces. They enrich the cultural content of TV programming and raise aesthetic levels, as well as the language, of television. In turn, the successful adaptation of a novel leads to more people reading those books. Many have become best sellers after they were adapted to TV. The cultural fast food of TV plays whets the viewer's appetite for the nutrition in the original. It was reported that several editions of Outlaws on the Marsh sold out during the airing of the show. Bothe media profited financially. According to Ren Dahui, general producer of the TV serial, by January 19 of this year (1998) it had already recouped about 100 million yuan (US$ 12 million) by selling air time for advertisements on CCTV, broadcast rights, and video copies to distribution agents in Southeast Asia, North America, Occeania and Europe.

Finally, we would like to end by likening the two media to two beauties, each attractive in her own way. Think of the print medium as a beautiful sculpture that stands high up there like a goddess. TV may animate her, make her appear willing to come to you; but she will disappear after sharing her beauty with you for a moment. In print, however, her static and silent charm will take you into a deep and serene world of art-and you can stay there as long as you wish.


Return to top of page