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Changing stories
2019-01-03 
The online documentary series, Forty Details of Our Lives, looks back at the country's four-decade transformation through 40 ordinary people, including vintage tin toy collector Zhang Yang and Wang Qunjing, an 85-year-old model. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A documentary explores the impact of four decades of China's reform and opening-up through the recollections of 40 people, Xu Fan reports. 

Beijing native Zhang Yang began to collect vintage tin toys in 1997 and now has a private gallery of up to 5,000 decades-old antique playthings.

His collection reflects the huge transformation and unprecedented expansion of the Chinese toy industry over the past a few decades and is featured in the documentary series, Forty Details of Our Lives.

Coproduced by Tencent Penguin Pictures and the Beijing-based company, Five-Star Legend, the 12-episode serial is available on the streaming site, Tencent Video, with the final three episodes released on Monday.

As of Dec 25, the nine episodes already released had accumulated nearly 4 million "clicks"-a small figure among top entertainment programs but a comparatively good performance for a small-budget documentary.

Recently, the nationwide celebration of the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up has seen a lot of films, TV dramas and documentaries flood into theaters and onto online platforms.

While most of the documentaries focus on milestone incidents or breakthrough projects, Forty Details of Our Lives employs a fresh angle that looks back into the past through the perspectives of ordinary people.

"The reform and opening-up has exerted a broad and far-reaching impact on the country. It has created an environment that has allowed Chinese people to change their lives through hard work. That's the core message the documentary aims to convey," says Zhu Lexian, general manager of the documentary studio of Tencent Penguin Pictures.

The online documentary series, Forty Details of Our Lives, looks back at the country's four-decade transformation through 40 ordinary people, including vintage tin toy collector Zhang Yang and Wang Qunjing, an 85-year-old model. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Covering fields such as agriculture, automotive, toys, literature and clothing, the serial follows 40 people from a dozen industries.

A year of preparation and six months of shooting saw the crew travel thousands of kilometers from Heilongjiang province in Northeast China to the metropolis of Guangzhou in the south.

Hu Qunfeng, the chief director, says that the documentary is tailored for online viewers, whose average age is much younger than traditional TV audiences. So each episode is short.

"We've done a survey and discovered that most young people can only attentively watch a story as short as around seven-and-a-half minutes," he explains.

So, every episode-which spans around 25 minutes-consists of three short stories. Usually, a documentary aired on TV is double that length, and a theatrically released production lasts at least 90 minutes.

In the first nine episodes, a Chinese-Swiss railway enthusiast travels around 120,000 kilometers to take 400 rides on trains in one year; a landscape architect tries to remodel urban buildings' roofs into farms; and a migrant worker-turned-writer finds true love with a pen pal.

But for Hu, the director's most impressive story is the "legend" of an 85-year-old mother of six daughters.

The elderly woman, named Wang Qunjing, was born in a poor family in Nanning in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

She has suffered and sacrificed much to raise the children. Like most thrifty Chinese women of her generation, she scarcely purchased new clothes and hardly cared about dressing up.

A turning point came during the Spring Festival in 2016. Wang visited her youngest daughter's home in Guangzhou, taking only a few clothing items with her. However, she was forced to borrow a set of dry clothes from her daughter because of rain.

A poster of Forty Details of Our Lives, a 12-episode online documentary. [Photo provided to China Daily]

When Wang put on the garments, her daughter was surprised to find that her mother carried herself like a tall, skinny model. The young woman took photos and posted them on the social media app WeChat. The pictures quickly went viral and made Wang an online celebrity overnight.

Wang has since been signed by a few fashion brands to model their clothes.

In the past, Chinese people took warmth and protection against dirt to be the top criteria to select clothes, and women tended to tailor garments at home. With the nation's rapid economic growth and the rise of personal incomes over the past four decades, people are used to regularly purchasing new clothes and updating their wardrobes to follow the latest fashion trends. "Wang is the epitome of that evolution," Hu says.

Interestingly, the change brought by the reform and opening-up is also influencing those who are behind the documentary. Most of the crew members-who are born in the 1990s-began to understand the struggles of older generations in the early years as the country stabilized following a decade of turbulence.

"We hope we can record the era and bring life to this history," says Zhu, head of Tencent Penguin Pictures' documentary arm.

Contact the writer at xufan@chinadaily.com.cn

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