Introducing the Chinese TV Series
The Invisible Companion

By Richard King[*]

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December 2022)

I would like to announce the availability online, for educational and research purposes, of a Heilongjiang TV series based on Zhang Kangkang’s 张抗抗 novel The Invisible Companion (隐形伴侣), made in the 1990s but never shown in China. The ten episodes of the series are presented in five parts, and can be viewed at the end of this introduction.

Zhang Kangkang (born 1950) is a leading Chinese novelist.  She was raised in Hangzhou, and in 1969 was among the earliest urban high-school graduates (zhiqing 知青, “educated youth” or “sent-down youth”) sent to the countryside to settle in the villages and state farms of remote regions, participants in a Cultural Revolution exercise in social engineering that would last a decade. Officially promoted, by writers including Zhang Kangkang herself, as a great initiative, the rustication movement was increasingly unpopular with the seventeen million-plus sent-down youths, many of whom suffered physical and mental hardship and abuse at the hands of those charged with their care. For Zhang Kangkang, as for many of her contemporaries, rustication was both a traumatic and a formative experience, and many of the works written in the course of a literary career that has so far lasted almost half a century concern the lives of her generation, both in the countryside and following their return to the cities.

Her first novel, The Dividing Line (分界线), written while the author was based on a state farm in Heilongjiang and published in 1975, adhered to the political line and literary conventions of its day. Its hero is an urban youth who finds fulfilment, overcomes challenges both natural and ideological, resolves to remain in the countryside, and persuades reluctant comrades to do the same. Following the end of both the Cultural Revolution and the rustication movement, Zhang Kangkang refuted this idealistic version in her 1986 semi-autobiographical novel The Invisible Companion, on which the TV series is based. The Invisible Companion shows the urban youth experience in a harsher light, with its focus on a girl from Hangzhou sent to a state farm in the Northeast, and her progress from naïve enthusiasm to disillusionment. The innocent Xiao Xiao 肖潇 and her cynical boyfriend Chen Xu 陈旭 move in together, marry, have a child, and split up. Xiao Xiao tries to sustain herself through the hardships of life on the farm and her relationship with Chen Xu through fantasies, drawn both from Maoist mythologies (which she perpetuates in the reports she writes for publication) and fairy stories heard (as was the case with the author) from her mother. The novel was one of a number of works written by former zhiqing after their return to the cities in a period of relative freedom to expose the sufferings of the intellectual classes in the previous decade. In subsequent “post-zhiqing” fiction, Zhang Kangkang has written of the effect of their youthful experiences on survivors of the rustication movement; her most recent work, fifteen years in the making, completed but as yet unpublished, is a trilogy collectively titled 祛魅 Qumei, translated into English by Stacy Mosher as Disenchantment, which follows members of her generation from their days on the farm to the present.

The Invisible Companion was translated by the late Daniel Bryant, who visited the author several times in Beijing and hosted her at the University of Victoria in 1987, shortly after the novel was published. The ten-part TV series was made in the 1990s with a grant given to the author by the governor of Heilongjiang, the province in China’s northeast where she was sent and where the action of the novel is set. By the time the series was completed, official attitudes to painful revelations of the movement it portrayed had hardened, and release of the series was blocked. To the author’s knowledge, the series has never been seen in China, or anywhere else. Zhang Kangkang gave Daniel Bryant a set of VHS tapes of the series, which may be the only copy of the series to have been brought out of China. Daniel Bryant loaned the tapes to me, and following his death, his widow allowed me to keep them. I had them digitized in 2022, and colleagues in the University of Victoria Library converted that version into the present more convenient digital form. The author, the director of the TV series, and the Heilongjiang TV Drama Production Centre, which produced (though it did not broadcast) the series have graciously given permission for the material to be used for non-commercial, educational, and research purposes.

Each of the five parts represents two episodes, the contents of one videotape. The plot more or less follows the story of the novel, beginning with an attempt by Xiao Xiao and Chen Xu to escape the farm and get back to Hangzhou, with the earlier part of their story told in flashbacks. There are scenes of the work and the social life of the young urbanites, and portrayals of political activism, loneliness, and despair. The version made available is a digital copy of Pal-K videotapes at least 25 years old, and the visual quality is not great, but it’s quite viewable, and the sound is generally fine. There are no English subtitles. This is not a masterpiece of TV filmmaking, with none of the high production values and smooth storytelling of more contemporary shows, but as an early attempt to take the shine off the presentation of the lives of the zhiqing it deserves to be seen. There are passages in it that are powerful and moving, and the acting of the principals, notably Zhao Xintian 赵心田 in the role of Xiao Xiao, is impressive. It should be of interest to students and scholars of this chapter of modern Chinese history, and to those interested in the fiction of Zhang Kangkang and others of her generation.

[*] Richard King is Emeritus Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada. He has published extensively on the literature of the Mao and Post-Mao eras, including Milestones on a Golden Road: Writing for Chinese Socialism, 1945-80 (UBC Press).

Suggested Readings:

Cao, Zuoya. Out of the Crucible: Literary Works about the Rusticated Youth. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003.

Deng Xian 邓贤. Dream of the Chinese Urban Youth (中国知青梦). Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 1993.

There and Back Again: The Chinese ‘Urban Youth’ Generation. Renditions 50 (Autumn 1998 special issue).

Zhang Kangkang 张 抗 抗 . Great Wilderness, River of Ice (Memoir of rustication) (大荒冰河). Changchun: Jilin renmin, 1998.

—–. The Dividing Line (分界线). Shanghai: Renmin, 1975.

—–. The Invisible Companion (隐形伴侣). Beijing: Zuojia, 1986.

—–.  Collected Urban Youth Works by Zhang Kangkang (张抗抗知青作品选). Beijing: Xiyuan, 2000.

—–. The Invisible Companion. Tr. Daniel Bryant. Beijing: New World Press, 1996.

—–. Living with Their Past: Post-Urban Youth Fiction. Ed. Richard King. Hong Kong: Renditions Paperbacks, 2003.

The TV series:

隐形伴侣 [The invisible companion]
Director: Li Wenqi 李文岐
Script by Liang Guowei 梁国伟 from the novel of the same name by Zhang Kangkang 张抗抗
Starring Zhao Xintian 赵心田 as Xiao Xiao 肖潇 and Niu Liwei 牛力威 as Chen Xu  陈旭
Made by Heilongjiang TV 黑龙江电视台
No date appears in the credits; the author Zhang Kangkang says it was made “in the 1990s” [personal correspondence].