TV series ‘To the Wonder’ captivates audiences with authentic portrayal of Altay’s nomadic life

<img id="673427" style="border-left-width: 0px; border-right-width: 0px; width: 100%; border-bottom-width: 0px; border-top-width: 0px" alt="Promotional material for TV series To the Wonder Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi” src=”https://www.globaltimes.cn/Portals/0/attachment/2024/2024-05-16/74235334-232b-4e40-9e4e-9c46f273e0fe.jpeg” class=”aligncenter”>

Promotional material for TV series To the Wonder Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi

Altay in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is no stranger to tourists, as the prefecture is home to vast landscapes, rich culture and diverse ethnic traditions. 

A recent popular TV series
To the Wonder, based on the adaptation of novel My Altay by author Li Juan and directed by Teng Congcong, has once again put the spotlight on the nomadic life in the region.

The eight-episode TV series, ­initially released by content platform iQiyi on May 7, has dominated social media discussions this week and now sitting at the top of Chinese view-­rating site Douban scoring 8.8 out of 10. The unexpected wide recognition, including being shortlisted with other seven TV series to compete at the Cannes International Series Festival, came as a pleasant surprise to Teng and her team. 

While they initially set out to create a small-scale web series, the positive reception reaffirmed their belief in the power of storytelling to bridge cultures and foster understanding.

“We weren’t thinking about going overseas at the very beginning. We didn’t think about going to Cannes or even being broadcasted on China Central Television [the national broadcaster],” Teng told the Global Times on Tuesday. “Originally, we just wanted it to be a costeffective web series.” 

Central to the series is its portrayal of the clash between tradition and modernity of the local people, a theme that also resonates deeply in other parts of the world. 

“I think one reason [for being shortlisted] must be our theme… The collisions between nomadic culture and urban lives may lead to the gradual disappearance of ancient cultural traditions,” Teng said. 

“The many surprises that came afterward, I think it’s really because we worked hard to create a good work.”

Teng’s decision to adapt Li’s collection of essays into a TV series was made before 2018 when she discovered the “rare gem” that was Li’s prose, resonating with its themes such as self-discovery and the beauty of Altay’s landscapes.

<img id="673426" style="border-left-width: 0px; border-right-width: 0px; width: 100%; border-bottom-width: 0px; border-top-width: 0px" alt="Promotional material for TV series To the Wonder Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi” src=”https://www.globaltimes.cn/Portals/0/attachment/2024/2024-05-16/60d194be-4c5d-4352-9ab3-453eed795eea.jpeg” class=”aligncenter”>

Promotional material for TV series To the Wonder Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi

Early groundwork

Reflecting on her first encounter with Li’s writings, Teng recalls being captivated by the evocative descriptions of Altay’s beauty and the profound insights into local life. This initial fascination planted the seed for what would later become a passion project spanning several years.

The groundwork of the series started in 2020 when Teng and her crew started local exploration in Altay and conducted interviews with local people. Shooting of the series started in April 2023 and lasted 56 days.

To ensure an authentic portrayal of local life, Teng and her team hired a consulting team of four experts from Beijing-based Minzu University of China to check on-site if the details, from costumes to dialogue, in the TV series are correct when filming the scenes. 

“We had a dedicated team of folk culture consultants. Whether it’s the preparation of props and costumes, the translation of the script or the pronunciation of the actors, there is a specialized team of folk culture consultants to help us oversee everything,” Teng revealed.

“There are some aspects of ethnic cultural elements during filming, and they also have to assist us in verification. For example, we had weddings and rituals, and we needed guidance on how to bind the sheep during a ceremony, and how people should dance and undress at the wedding.”

The male protagonist Yu Shi had spent half a year to learn the Kazak language rather than using a dubbing speaker to make his role more natural when filming.

“Since I couldn’t understand the Kazak language, I needed them to ensure the accuracy of the actors’ lines. I focus on performance, and they help ensure the accuracy of language interpretation,” Teng said. 

Passionate mentality

Despite facing time constraints and adverse weather conditions during the shooting, the director fostered a positive work atmosphere, fueled by the team’s shared enthusiasm for the project.

“The working atmosphere has always been very good because everyone is excited about this theme, although it’s very arduous, with continuous unexpected events, everyone’s mentality is very positive,” she said. “I think this excitement also comes from love and passion.” 

Whether it’s the universal themes of love and self-discovery or the authentic depiction of Altay’s culture, the series strikes a chord with viewers. Teng said she believes that the success of the series lies in its ability to connect with audiences on a human level. 

“I think what will attract people is that everyone communicates sincerely, even if I sincerely disagree with you, but I sincerely respect you,” she told the Global Times. “This should actually be a very important part of human nature, the yearning for truth, goodness, and beauty.”

A clip featuring female protagonist Li Wenxiu, who is played by actress Zhou Yiran, arguing with her mother Zhang Fengxia, played by actress Ma Yili, on whether the daughter is a “useful” person, was widely circulated on social media. Zhang won the argument as she told her daughter you were not born to serve others to be “useful.” 

Audiences hailed that the series healed their “spiritual exhaustion,” but Teng believed it is just a production of current time. 

“Many of the audiences, especially the young generation, have a mentality of rejecting the rat race, refusing to say how much money they have to earn, what kind of house they have to buy, or even getting married just to meet their parents’ expectations,” Teng said.

“Instead of being evaluated by others as whether you are a useful person to society, or how other people’s children are doing, I think the audience is gradually liberating themselves from these [social and psychological] burdens.”

Unlocking charm of Chinese culture in foreigners’ eyes

Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Fond of Chinese classical literature, he expresses his understanding of
A Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the four great classics of Chinese literature, and Chinese poems through thousands of paintings. He is Canadian artist Brandon Collins-Green, or Lin Buran in Chinese. Often painting throughout the night, he has created more than 4,200 works. Living alone in a “shabby” 9-square-meter room that he rents for 350 yuan a month in the bustling downtown area of Nanchang, he has come a long way since he first came here in 2015 to pursue a master’s and doctoral degree in ancient Chinese literature.      

Brandon loves learning about the minimalist lifestyle of ancient Chinese people. He seldom reads modern literature because he thinks the content is too standardized and stereotypical. “So far, I have read the novel thoroughly three times, translated most of its poems, songs, lantern riddles, and dialogues into English, and completed over 1 million words of essays and 2,000 related paintings during my PhD studies. Even my doctoral dissertation centers on the novel. The greatest influence of
A Dream of the Red Chamber on me was my outlook on life. I am a bit like Zhen Shiyin, a character in the novel. I have seen through all things in the world with little material desire,” said Brandon. 

Timur Kuvatov, director-general and editor-in-chief of the Kazakhstan Today News Agency, is a Chinese martial arts fan. He has won martial arts championships multiple times and also served as a coach for the Kazakhstan martial arts team. 

“Chinese martial arts are a treasure of Chinese civilization. They are not just a sport but also embodies Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist ideas, reflecting the philosophical concept of ‘Harmony between Heaven and Humans,’ for example. It reflects the Chinese way of dealing with people, their understanding of life, nature, and the universe,” he said.

Vincent Cazeneuve, known as Wensen Qi in Chinese, is a French contemporary artist dedicated to lacquer creation. He settled down in Chongqing in 2009. His works have been exhibited in art institutions both in and outside of China, and private individuals have even collected some of them.

We have seen many people from around the world express their love for Chinese culture in various forms. What is the charm of Chinese culture that attracts these people? 

First is its profoundness and inclusiveness. China has a long history and vast cultural heritage, which bears rich philosophical ideas, artistic treasures, and traditional skills. Chinese culture retains its traditional characteristics and actively absorbs the essence of other cultures, making it easier to accept and appreciate. Whereas modern technology has made aesthetics worldwide similar, which damages cultural diversity.

Second, distinct cultural background differences arouse intense curiosity, getting people interested in Chinese culture and wanting to learn more about the lifestyles, way of thinking, and values of the country. The significant difference between the East and West is that Eastern culture emphasizes “comprehension” more, while the West values “logic.” This means Oriental “logic” is subtle and not as apparent as Western thinking. When we look at traditional Chinese paintings and Western oil paintings, we can find large areas of blank spaces appear in the former, while the latter is filled with colors and much less blank space. This indicates that traditional Chinese painting requires more association and imagination to appreciate and comprehend.

Third, Chinese culture embodies practical values. Focusing on harmony, balance, and coordination among people, its wisdom and creative thinking help achieve self-value and provide unique perspectives and methods for solving universal problems.

Cross-cultural communication brings about benefits. We can broaden our horizons, expand our thinking, and enrich our life experiences. Sometimes, people from different cultures can establish deep emotional connections and enhance empathy. In addition, it also enables us to understand our own culture and identity better. Through comparison and conversation, we reflect upon our own culture, draw on the strengths of others, advance further development, and build a more inclusive and harmonious world.

The author is a faculty member with the School of Applied Economics, Renmin University of China. [email protected]

Beyond words: Embracing the beauty of Chinese expressions

When we delve into a language, we do more than just learn its words and grammar; we penetrate deeply into the soul and emotions of a culture.

Chinese, one of the world’s oldest languages, boasts rich expressions that convey profound philosophies and delicate emotions. Every Chinese learner harbors a special Chinese phrase in their heart, one that may serve as a bridge connecting them to the stories of Chinese culture, or a window through which they can observe the commonalities and resonances between different cultures.

As UN Chinese Language Day approaches, China Daily website has invited five friends from different countries to share the Chinese expressions that hold special significance in their hearts. Join us in experiencing the boundless charm of Chinese and its cross-cultural resonance!