Travails of online myth merchants

China Daily
Zhang Jialing dressed as a lingyu.

In the Chinese mythology collection “The Classic of Mountains and Seas,” the world of yore was a mysterious land where myriad elusive creatures emerged.

Some may ring a bell: in the deep sea lives a creature part human and part fish, much resembling a mermaid; the nine-tailed fox is a recurring figure in folklore and TV adaptations; and then there is the zouwu, the five-colored precious creature that won the heart of global audiences in the “Fantastic Beasts” film series.

On the Chinese internet, a team of young people has thrown itself into the difficult task of representing these mythical figures in the real world. In their videos, viewers can see all kinds of creatures take human form and roam around China.

For the past four years, the three founding members of the Jialegeling account, Zhang Jialing, Zhu Ying (better known as Xiangyang) and Bao Kai (known as Dake) have been producing videos in which they personify the mythical figures from “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” with costumes, makeup and location shooting.

Zhu Ying says that about six years ago she noticed that on social media, cultural products from Japan, South Korea and the United States were prevalent, and it pained her that more people were not acquainted with Chinese lore and legend.

“The three of us are very good friends, and it just so happens that we are all very obsessed with ancient Chinese culture, so the idea of opening up a social media account together came naturally,” Zhu says.

As very few social media accounts were producing videos on Chinese mythology, the question immediately arose on how they could blend ancient culture with the current social environment in a way attractive to young people.

The team then decided to recreate the mythical figures in the form of short videos, producing an effect as if the creatures had taken human form and walked out of the book.

Without any background in running social media accounts, the three simply started with what they had. Bao Kai, a professional director, took up the camera, Zhang Jialing was responsible for makeup and appearing as the protagonist of the videos, and Zhu Ying became the producer, in charge of planning, researching and voice-over.

“We had no idea how long we would do this or whether people would like what we were doing,” Zhu says. “So there was no thought of recruiting an actress or a professional makeup artist. But once we got started we gradually raised the bar for our works, and each of us has been learning and practicing hard.”

To faithfully recreate the characters from the book, some of whom may have a rabbit nose or fish scales, Zhang started learning special effects makeup, such as using silicone prosthetic molds, which has now become a hallmark of the videos.

It takes Zhang at least four hours to apply makeup and get into the costume for each character, and some of the more difficult ones take as long as eight hours, Zhu says. The team members often get up in the early hours so they can shoot during the day.

Over the past few years the character designs have become increasingly elaborate and exquisite. A lot of the mythological creatures feature extravagant body parts, some of which the team make by hand to keep costs down.

In the Jiuwei (nine-tailed fox) vlog, Zhang elaborated on the process of hand-making the props:“The texts say it looks like a fox, but it has nine tails. As I could not find the massive tails I wanted, I had to make them myself.”

They shaped steel wire into tail-like structures and attached artificial fur fabric onto them piece by piece to recreate the nine tails. Because the type of fur fabric they bought could not create the required effect, they had to buy another type and start from scratch.

The team filmed at the Three Natural Bridges resort in Wulong, Chongqing, on a rainy day, and a crew member had to haul the tail prop on her shoulders over mountain paths.

From the very beginning, despite the lack of funding, Bao insisted on shooting on location because the ancient texts had records of the natural features of the areas where the creatures emerge.

The team always aims to go to the original location. Even when some of the topography has disappeared in the past millennia, they try to find areas with similar natural features.

“When we were shooting the Baiminguo [a holy land] video, Dake insisted on going to the White Water Terraces site in Yunnan Province,” Zhu says. “To get there we had to take a route that was subject to falling rocks.

“We called the local bed-and-breakfast, and the owner advised us not to go. However, Dake said we must. His thinking was that this was the very kind of place where the mythological people from Baiminguo would have lived. So I agreed but made sure that everyone had accident insurance. Thankfully there turned out to be no safety issues.”

Tough journeys have become a daily routine for the team. Once, when filming in a desert, Zhang was severely sunburned, resulting in her skin peeling. Another video with underwater scenes required Zhang to dive dozens of times and Bao to film in water the entire time.

However, the team reckons its biggest hurdle is the cost of shooting each video. Early on the team pooled resources and borrowed money, but by July 2019, it was in such dire financial straits that it posted a farewell video saying how bad things were and that it may have to suspend the project.

That video attracted an outpouring of support encouraging the team to keep on making videos and proposing solutions such as advertising. Some admirers even contacted companies recommending that they support the account.

With such support the three founding members then vowed not to give up.

“When I first saw their videos I was struck by just how amazing they were,” a Zhihu user, Qiuye, said, adding that Jialegeling is her favorite social media account.

“I can’t watch enough of their videos. They attract me greatly and make me want to know in depth about the mythical figures and their stories.”

Zhu says: “When we first decided to do this it was out of patriotism and our cultural confidence as young Chinese. We just wanted to present our culture. What we present must meet our own standards.

“Fortunately our efforts seem to have been seen by people. Many of our viewers are even calling us ‘ancient culture inheritors.’ When we set out on this journey, this is exactly what we hoped would come.”