So, on Tuesday I made the case for why people should watch Fated to Love You. In this post, I assume you are already in bed … er … on board with the idea that this show is worth watching, so instead I am going to explain things which would not be apparent to viewers who are not familiar with the Chinese language and/or Taiwan.
Let’s start with that pun, in bed vs. on board.
Fun with Language
Fated to Love You is very playful with its language. The most commonly used pun on the show is shàng chuán (board a boat / on a boat) vs. shàng chuáng (get in bed / in bed). Some of the significant events in the story happens on boats (and in beds). I don’t think you need to know anything about Taiwanese culture to appreciate the comedic value.
There’s also a pun on Paris vs. Bali. In Mandarin, “Paris” is pronounced as “Bālí,” and “Bālǐ” is a district of New Taipei City (I talk more about “Bālǐ” below).
Fun with language can be difficult to translate. Take this scene for example:
Anson: Wǒ dǒng le.
Cunxi: Dǒng shénme a!
Anson: Zhè jiù shì jiānghú shàng liúchuán yĭjiŭ de “mŭzhū sài Diāo Chán.”
Cunxi: “Mŭzhū sài Diāo Chán?”
Anson: Hĕn jiăndān de luóji, jiăndān de dàolĭ ma.
Anson: I understand.
Cunxi: Understand what?
Anson: This is [a saying] that has been passed down for a long time in jianghu “the female pig overtakes Diao Chan.”
Cunxi: “The female pig overtakes Diao Chan”?
Anson: The logic is simple, the reasoning is quite simple.
Anson then goes on to explain that “the female pig overtakes Diao Chan” means that when a man hasn’t been around beautiful women for a long time, but he is around a plain-looking woman, he will start finding the plain-looking woman more attractive than the beautiful women he saw a long time ago.
First of all, what is jianghu? It is usually used to refer to the world where wuxia stories take place, but it also sometimes used to refer to the gangster underworld (for example, The Outsiders 1 & 2 are set in “jianghu”). It is a bit like the concept of “the wild west” in American culture—a place of adventure where laws aren’t exactly obeyed and people must struggle for their personal honor.
Now, who is Diao Chan? She’s is one of the Four Great Beauties of ancient China (yes, there is an official list of the great beauties of ancient China).
Now, for those who are not familiar with Chinese, the language is full of chengyu—sayings (usually of four characters) often based on allusions to classical Chinese literature. If you’ve ever seen the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “Darmok,” think of Chinese as being a bit like that language. Good and frequent usage of chengyu demonstrates that one is well-educated, so some Chinese-speakers (both native and non-native) put a lot of effort into mastering them. What Anson is doing is that he is making up his own chengyu (at least I think it’s made up—I was not able to find it in any of my references), and since Cunxi doesn’t know it, he’s asking for an explanation.
So yes, this show has lots of fun with words. But so far I have been dealing with pure Mandarin (or Mandarin peppered with Classical Chinese). This show also uses quite a bit of Taiwanese, as well as a little English, and even a teensy bit of Cantonese.
Mandarin vs. Taiwanese
I think it would be fair to call Taiwan the “island of Babel.” Nonetheless, there are two dominant languages: Mandarin and Taiwanese. While there is a significant portion of the population that is not fluent in Mandarin and there is a significant portion of the population that is not fluent in Taiwanese, the vast majority of Taiwanese are fluent in at least one of those two languages. The choice of which language is used has serious social and political implications (high-profile Taiwanese politicians generally have to know both languages lest they offend voters) which I cannot explain here.
Most characters in Fated to Love You speak Mandarin. The most significant Taiwanese-speaking character is Chen-Lin Xishi.
The fact that most of her dialogue is in Taiwanese communicates that she is an older, rural woman. In Taiwan, Taiwanese tends to be the language of older people, and Mandarin tends to be the language of younger people. Furthermore, Mandarin tends to be an urban language, whereas Taiwanese tends to be a rural language. Mandarin is also associated with the elite, whereas Taiwanese is associated with the working class. There are significant exceptions, of course.
Chen-Lin Xishi also occasionally speaks in Mandarin. She speaks Mandarin with a heavy accent (coming from me, that’s the lump of coal calling the kettle black), but doesn’t seem to have any problem with conversational Mandarin. However, there’s one scene where she tries to speak in very formal Mandarin, and she trips over words so much that she needs her daughter’s help to complete sentences. It’s quite funny.
And then there’s Ji-Wang Zhenzhu, who happens to be one of my favorite characters.
It’s obvious from the way Ji-Wang Zhenzhu speaks that she grew up in China, not Taiwan. The biggest giveaway is that she speaks with an “erhua.” “Erhua” is a certain style of speaking Mandarin in which it seems that every other word ends with an “r” sound. “Erhua” is strongly associated with the Beijing area. In Taiwan, if someone speaks with an “erhua” it’s generally assumed that they came from China.
Now, as someone who grew up in a region of China where people speak with an “erhua,” Ji-Wang Zhenzhu would not be expected to speak Taiwanese (Taiwanese is actually a dialect of Hokkien, and Hokkien is spoken in Fujian province, but Fujianese people generally do not speak with an “erhua”). However, when talking to Chen-Lin Xishi, who was failing at formal Mandarin, Ji-Wang Zhenzhu does sometimes use some Taiwanese. I know very little Taiwanese … but the way Ji-Wang Zhenzhu uses Taiwanese seems a bit awkward to me. It was clearly a move to save Chen-Lin Xishi’s face, as well as to show respect to her.
In a later scene, Chen-Lin Xishi tries to show her respect for Ji-Wang Zhenzhu … by speaking with an “erhua.” Even to me, Chen-Lin Xishi’s “erhua” sounds really artificial (Ji-Wang Zhenzhu’s “erhua,” on the other hand, sounds quite natural). And it’s funny because Chen-Lin Xishi is the last person in the drama who would have a genuine “erhua.”
Indeed, one of the many wonderful things about the drama is subtle development of the relationship between Chen-Lin Xishi and Ji-Wang Zhenzhu, two older women who come from very different walks of life. I’m afraid there’s no way to prevent a little of that from being lost in translation.
The characters will occasionally burst into song spontaneously. No, Fated to Love You is not a musical. Instead, the characters burst into song the same way that people might start singing the George Harrison song “Something” if someone said “I don’t know why I like her, there’s something about her.”
I admit, I don’t recognize all of the songs. But I recognize some. For example, one song that gets referenced a couple times is “Ní Wáwa” (“Clay Baby”), which is a traditional children’s song that has been covered by many artists. It’s basically a child singing about their own clay doll, saying that since it’s not a real baby and doesn’t have a mommy or daddy, the child will have to be the mommy and daddy. Here is a really slow version of the song on YouTube.
Does Jiangmu Dao (Ginger Island) Exist?
Much of this drama is set in a place called Jiangmu Dao (Ginger Island). Does Jiangmu Dao exist?
The answer is: yes and no.
Some of the Jiangmu Dao scenes were filmed at Zhentoushan. Zhentoushan is a peninsula (not an island) in Shimen resevoir in … Taoyuan county. I live in Taoyuan county, and my tap water comes from Shimen resevoir.
Even though it is technically a peninsula, there is no road to Zhentoushan, so the only way to get there is by boat (in other words, it practically is an island). About 50 households live in Zhentoushan.
Zhentoushan has an interesting place in Taiwanese history. If I remember correctly, it was a site of Atayal resistance against the Japanese (actually, that might have been Jiaobanshan, but Jiaobanshan is really close to Zhentoushan). Later, Chiang Kai-Shek (who was at the time the de-facto dictator of Taiwan) decided to build a villa in the area with views over Zhentoushan. The villa no longer exists, but I have visited the site and have verified that the view of Zhentoushan is indeed spectacular.
After the success of the drama, the residents of Zhentoushan have even gone so far as to rename their home “Jiangmu Dao” in order to draw in tourists. And the drama has increased tourism in this specific area a lot. There are tours from Amuping (another settlement next to Shimen resevoir) to Zhentoushan which have the name of the drama written on the boats. While riding the boat, they even show clips from the drama.
However, the thing is, most of the scenes supposedly set on “Jiangmu Dao” were not filmed in Zhentoushan.
First of all, some of the scenes which were supposed to be “Jiangmu Dao” were actually filmed in Amuping. If you actually know the area, the drama can sometimes be confusing, because the characters will say that they are leaving Jiangmu Dao, when in fact they are clearly leaving Amuping and going towards Zhentoushan.
Also, I don’t know where this boat terminal is, but it’s not in Amuping or Zhentoushan.
This is the dock at Amuping.
And there is no factory in Zhentoushan (the place has no road access, no one would put a factory there).
This temple is not in Zhentoushan (there is only one temple in Zhentoushan, which is really a shrine and not a temple, and it’s much smaller).
There is no school in Zhentoushan (I’ve been told that the children have to take the boat to get to school).
There are no rice fields in Zhentoushan (Zhentoushan doesn’t have much flat ground, though there are some rice fields on a terrace on the other side of Shimen resevoir.
Zhentoushan does have running water and electricity (the electric wires cross the water), but it’s not much more developed than that (again, there is no road access). It’s certainly not as developed at the Jiangmu Dao depicted in Fated to Love You.
In fact, most of the Jiangmu Dao scenes look like they were filmed in a lowland town (albeit spiffed up—this is an idol drama after all). It seems they used Amuping / Zhentoushan mainly because a) so they should show the characters travelling by boat to and from an “island” and b) because the scenery is nice. Otherwise, they are depicting a lowland town, not the backwaters of Taoyuan county.
It’s worth noting that this is not the only idol drama filmed in the rural areas of Taoyuan county. In fact Ethan Ruan, who is the male lead in Fated to Love You, also acted in an idol drama Green Forest, My Home which it set even deeper in the backwoods of Taoyuan County.
Environmental Injustice for Profit
One of the themes in Fated to Love You is a greedy businessperson trying to take over a rural area against the inhabitants’ will so his company can poison the environment with impunity. This is also a theme in Autumn’s Concerto. In fact, it’s a common theme in idol dramas.
Unfortunately, this is a reflection of reality. There are many examples of this kind of thing happening in Taiwan. Some examples: the naphtha cracker plant in Yunlin (that naphtha cracker plant was originally supposed to be built in a small town in Yilan—I know someone from that small town, and she says she’s very grateful that the government in Yilan rejected the plant), the destruction of the Alangyi trail, and the nuclear waste in Lanyu.
Then again, considering how much water is being poisoned by fracking, not to mention countless other examples, this is an issue in the United States too…
Star Cruises, which is featured in the first episode, is *the* cruise line in East Asia. In addition to their Taiwan-Hong Kong cruises, they also offer cruises from Taiwan to the Yaeyama islands. Even though the Yaeyama islands are governed by Japan, they are closer to Taipei than Tokyo. If it weren’t so astronomically expensive, I might be interested in taking a trip to the Yaeyama islands. Why? Among other reasons, part of Basara, one of my favorite manga, is set in the Yaeyama islands.
One of the museums featured in this drama is the Yingge Ceramics Museum. Some of Mars was also shot in the Yingge Ceramics Museum, but it makes much more sense in Fated to Love You. Yingge is one of the three or so centers of ceramics production in Taiwan, and is the most famous. After visiting the museum, my brain was crammed with more facts about pottery and ceramics than I thought I would ever know in my lifetime. Yingge is very close to Taoyuan city, where I live.
There is also a scene set at the Shihsanhang Museum of Archaeology in Bali (I told you I would mention Bali again). It is next to the Shihsanhang site, where archaeologists have found some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in Taiwan.
I have never been to Shanghai, and quite frankly I know very little about the city. I do know there is an exhibit at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum of paintings and sculptures from Shanghai artists, so there are certainly attempts to cross the strait with fine art.
The Thirteen Levels
The Thirteen Levels, in Shuinandong, is one of the most iconic buildings on Taiwan’s north coast. There is another idol drama I plan to discuss which features Shuinandong, so for now I will just say that Shuinandong is just below Jinguashi, which is next to Jiufen, an important town in Taiwanese culture which I have mentioned previously.
The point of this post is not to point out every clever use of language, explain every cultural reference, and to discuss every location. First of all, I did not catch every clever use of language, understand every cultural reference, or recognize every location. And I did not discuss everything I did recognize because this post is already long enough as it is.
What I want to do is give readers the sense that, behind this drama, there stands an entire culture and society. I think it’s entirely possible to enjoy Fated to Love You without understanding any of this. I also think that being aware of these extra layers deepens one’s experience of the drama.
Sara K. likes see how various things connect together. It is one of the finest pleasures in her life. She is also happy to squeeze a Basara reference into a post about a Taiwanese idol drama.