Shining new light on the nation's treasures

A new program on CCTV-3 opens a window into the wonders of cultural exploration, once considered too academic and specialized for ordinary viewers.
National Treasure

In the first episode of "National Treasure," actor Wang Kai portrayed the role of Emperor Qianlong.

A new program on CCTV-3 opens a window into the wonders of cultural exploration, once considered too academic and specialized for ordinary viewers.

“National Treasure” premiered on December 3, 2017, looking at historical artifacts and museology.

A large audience tunes in to the program every Sunday not only to see their favorite actors and actresses portraying historical figures, but also to learn about China’s cultural heritage. 

The program has generated a huge number of online discussions — the Sina Weibo hashtag #cctv国家宝藏# (in English, cctv National Treasure) has 1.2 billion views and 1.15 million discussions.

It also received a 9.3 rating out of 10 on Douban.com, the social networking site that allows users to rate content including film, TV, books and music.

Featuring 27 pieces of China’s most precious treasures from nine top-level museums — the Palace Museum, Shanghai Museum, Shaanxi History Museum, Nanjing Museum, Hunan Provincial Museum, Henan Museum, Hubei Provincial Museum, Zhejiang Provincial Museum and Liaoning Provincial Museum — the 10-episode series will later select one televised piece from each museum to curate a special exhibition at the Palace Museum, to celebrate its 600th anniversary.

A goal of the program is to tell the background stories of the national treasures through a combination of different art forms.

Each treasure is presented by “national treasure guardians” in a short theater play to narrate its legendary tales, featuring some of China’s most popular actors including Tony Leung, Wang Kai, Liu Tao and Duan Yihong.

Chen Sisi, a millennial who enjoys “National Treasure” very much, said that although the show is very serious and emphasizes on the profundity of Chinese history, it also has light-hearted and popular elements that make the episodes not so heavy.

“Some of the cultural relics have become wanghong (Internet celebrity) on social networking sites, and the show has provided us an opportunity to learn about them in-depth,” she said. “It can easily appeal to much broader audiences by combining relics and museology with hot topics on social media.”

Chen cited the example of the large vases with variegated glazes presented by the Palace Museum in the first episode, which corresponds to the public’s ongoing mocking of Emperor Qianlong’s (1711-99) very “rural and rustic” aesthetics, as a number of porcelain works from his period are filled with bright colors and complicated patterns.

“Also, the celebrity’s own characteristic kind of accords with the relic’s history and the connotation the show wishes to express, like actress Liu’s performance in presenting the wine vessel, Zun of Fuhao in the Shape of Owl.”

Another highlight is the focus on the behind-the-scenes staff including archeologists and restoration specialists.

National Treasure

Actress Liu Tao presents wine vessel, Zun of Fuhao in the Shape of Owl in "National Treasure."

Xi Muliang, a 27-year-old theater critic and archeology specialist graduated from the School of Archeology and Museology of Peking University, joined the “National Treasure” as a consultant.

“National Treasure” went viral for the program’s unique presentation of relics and the ravishing performances by actors.

“I think it’s important to have the celebrities because it provides a fresh perspective,” said Xi.

Original format

In spite of the show’s success, some people are concerned the celebrities are stealing the show.

“‘National Treasure’ reflects the progress of an industry that’s undergoing a transformation and some experts are not quite accepting the theater performances,” Xi said.

“In my opinion, although the show is new in some aspects, it provides a new way of looking at things. It is not about memorizing things for exams. It is more about sharing ... an interpretation of people’s cultural rights as it allows broader audiences to come in contact with the subject matter.”

After a surge of expensive overseas programs, the Chinese television industry started to shift focus to originality and positive values in 2016, emphazing content.

“National Treasure” was developed over two years. Yu Lei, producer and chief director, said the show’s purpose is to help the public develop an interest in the subject, rather than being strictly academic.

“The biggest reward of making ‘National Treasure’ is to encourage more people to develop an interest in the subject,” Yu said. 

“A lot of people who didn’t know much about relics and museology seem to understand more after watching this show, and that’s our biggest success.”

The production team themselves learned from scratch, so choosing the 27 treasures was not an easy task.

The museums first provided 10 relics for the show to choose from, not only looking at value but also the spirit and personality behind each treasure and how they can connect with the present.

National Treasure

Actor Duan Yihong (right) in the short play that presented the Sword of Goujian.

“At first, 19 of the 27 relics chosen by the nine museums were bronze ware because they thought the oldest are the most valuable. But we cannot just stay in the pre-Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) period, there are other dynasties, categories and ways of expression,” Yu said.

Featured in the episode on January 7, the gold-plated stirrup with wooden core from Liaoning Provincial Museum wasn’t among the first batch of submitted items, and the museum was quite reluctant when the show wanted to feature it because the stirrup is almost worn out. But the production team insisted.

“What we want to tell the audience is that the value of the treasure is not how much money it’s worth, how beautiful it is, whether it’s made of gold or jade ... The biggest value is how it represents a turn in history, or witnesses the peak of our civilization,” explained Yu. 

“The stirrup proves that the Chinese invented the earliest double stirrup in the world, which was passed to Europe through the Silk Road and probably contributed to the age of chivalry. This is an object we ordinary people cannot imagine, and that’s what we hope to present through the show.”

The intriguing stories in “National Treasure” were written by a team of 12 scriptwriters. Zhu Feng, the theater director who also played several historic figures in the show, noted that it’s more important to attract young people through stories that are easy to comprehend.

“The legends serve as an intro that can take the audiences to see the relic’s story in this life, that after discovering something, they would want to rush to the museums and see the relics in person, this has already happened and we are very gratified,” said Zhu.

The four museums featured in the first four episodes aired in December 2017 were packed with visitors during the New Year holiday as people flocked in after watching the program.

Two of the three treasures from Henan Museum were originally not on display, but brought out later after the TV episode aired.

Rooted in the Chinese history and culture, “National Treasure” combines entertainment with history and archeology, creating a new, original variety show format.

“We were living in a market of imported programs for some time and we were constantly buying formats from other countries,” said Yu. “‘National Treasure’ is a difficult project because everything, from the content to form, is new. We, to some extent, opened up a new field and I believe more people would be entering the world of relics and museology.”

Over the past few years, the Chinese museology scene has become more proactive in promoting historic and cultural heritages to the general public. In contrast with the traditional museum visits and serious documentaries, different institutions have sought ways to bring the relics to life and tell the stories in more engaging ways.

The Palace Museum has taken social media by storm with its creative cultural products that are sold on Taobao.com. Their online store’s official Weibo account @故宫淘宝 has more than 890,000 followers as they bring new life into the history lessons with modern expressions and even mischievous stickers.

Cultural documentaries have also become popular among young people. On Bilibili.tv, a Chinese video sharing website for anime, manga and game fans — a demographic of mostly young people, the three-episode documentary “Masters in Forbidden City” centered on relics restoration gained roughly 3 million views and 72,000 online comments. 

More and more young people are being drawn by historic and cultural heritage.

Guo Qi, born in 1993 and a graduate from the Central Academy of Drama, joined the Palace Museum’s theater project “Treasure the Treasures” in March 2017 as the promotions manager for six months. The play centered on the migration of the relics in the Palace Museum between 1933 and 1948 and how they were preserved during wartime. All actors and actresses are staff from the Palace Museum who work in their free time.

“The play tells the story of the older generation, and on stage there are the new generation talent from the Palace Museum. I think it’s very inspiring to work with them because they are fully committed to their works,” said Guo. 

“Every one of them is an ambassador to the Palace Museum, they know about all the treasures in the museum and their love for relics and museology really touched my heart.”

Treasure the Treasures

"Treasure the Treasures" is a theater project produced by the Palace Museum.


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