Survivor Wanderlust is a series looking more deeply into the culture of countries that have hosted Survivor as we wait out the prolonged off-season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve previously written about Cambodia and the Philippines, so now we move northward to the country that hosted the show’s fifteenth season, Survivor: China.
China really needs no introduction. The world’s most populous country has its earliest written record dating back as early as 1250 BCE! Survivor: China filmed at the Zhelin Reservoir in the northern Jiangxi province, a vastly different natural landscape from the typical tropical island setting of sandy beaches and coconut trees we see more often.
Personally, watching China was a breath of pre-HD fresh air. As a Singaporean Chinese, I appreciate seeing recognisable Asian cultures on American television. I enjoyed the many references to the rich Chinese tradition and how they were markedly integrated into various components of the show’s design, including the art style, challenges, and tribe campsites.
Right from the get-go, the season opens with a visit to a Buddhist temple where the players participate in a ceremonial welcoming ritual. Han Buddhism is inextricably intertwined in China’s culture, with its ethos seeping into practices such as traditional celebrations and philosophical thought.
After the ritual, the players are split into tribes and given a translated copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Sun Tzu was a Chinese military strategist who wrote extensively about alternatives to traditional battle and war. To sum up, he writes of knowing your strengths and weaknesses, understanding when to strike, as well as ways to deceive your enemies. The Art of War proposes strategies including forming alliances and recognising opportunities—ideas that apply to Survivor. It’s no wonder why China chose to reference the text throughout the season, most notably truncating portions in tree mails received by the tribes.
Next, let’s take a look at the season’s logo. 比智慧 比技巧 比耐力 (bi zhi hui, bi ji qiao, bi nai li) replaces the typical placements of “outwit, outplay, outlast” with its Mandarin translation. These directly translate to competing in wisdom, skills, and endurance, respectively. The background and foreground of the logo feature the historic Great Wall of China, one of the seven wonders of the world that stretches over 21,000 kilometres (13,000 miles, for ya’ll non-metric folks).
Colour palette-wise, the red and yellow choice of the logo is significant to Chinese culture. Red symbolises good fortune, luck, and joy; yellow also represents prosperity, but more than that, it is associated with prestige as it was the emperor’s colour in imperial China. Lastly, two dragons border the “Survivor” text. While dragons are often seen as monsters to be tamed or defeated in Western culture, dragons are auspicious creatures that symbolise power and strength in Chinese mythologies.
China certainly spotlights the dragon iconography throughout the season. Dragons are featured in challenges and rewards, and even in the tribe name 飞龙 (fei long), which translates to “flying dragon,” though many dragons in Chinese mythology could not only fly in the air but travel on land, as well as swim in the sea. The dragon’s fluid nature is aptly represented in the traditional dragon dance, which is featured in the season’s first Immunity challenge.
In the challenge, players have to carry the centrepiece of the dance performance—a long decorated dragon structure propped up and manoeuvred with vertical poles. The average piece is about 30-metres long and needs to be controlled by nine dancers. The performance is one that requires a lot of strength and coordination in both hand and footwork in order to create the elegance of the dragon dance.
As mentioned, one thing I really enjoy about China is its unique campsites. Both Fei Long and Zhan Hu’s camps are fronted by a simplified 牌坊 (pai fang) archway gate and their “entrances”. Traditionally, these gateways marked out the different administrative areas and were intricately decorated with multi-tiered roofing. In the season, we see a simple architectural design. However, they still sport key features including the wooden beams, stone bases, and calligraphy, which read the respective tribe names in Mandarin and 幸存者中国 (xing cun zhe zhong guo), which translates to none other than “Survivor: China“.
Another detail that could have been easily missed: a pair of stone lions known as 石狮 (shi shi) or “guardian lions” flank the gateway. These were placed at entrances and thought of as spiritual protection for the people residing inside. Unfortunately for Fei Long, the water that floods their camp is not from the spiritual realm.
In the premiere episode, we are also introduced to the tribal Immunity idol for the season, a figure shaped in the likeness of one of the many discovered terracotta soldiers in Xi’an, China. The terracotta army consists of more than 8,000 life-size soldiers buried with Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, who ruled from 247 to 221 BCE. When he died in 210 BCE, these terracotta soldiers were buried in his mausoleum to protect him from the evil spirits in the afterlife.
On the topic of Immunity idols, the hidden idols of China are some of the more unique and memorable ones in Survivor history. You may remember them as the idols hidden in plain sight, or the two that James Clement leaves the game with when he’s blindsided. The Mandarin words on the idols read 禄 (lu) and 風 (feng) in traditional Chinese, used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, but not actually in China, where simplified Chinese is officially used. 禄 refers to academic and career achievements or good fortune, while 風 means… wind? An interesting choice, though it may also refer to information, elegance, customs, or morals when paired with various other characters.
More understandable to me are the other plaques that are mistaken for hidden idols throughout the season. The “idol” that Jaime Dugan finds reads 福 (fu), meaning fortune or luck. The “福” character is often displayed upside down, making it a pun 福倒 (fu dao), literally meaning fu turned upside down, which sounds like 福到 (fu dao), meaning that fu, or good fortune, has arrived.
There are plenty of references to Chinese tradition and culture in the challenge designs and rewards across the season. I will list my favourite ones briefly below:
- Episode 3’s Immunity challenge features round puzzle discs with square holes in their centres. These are designed like ancient Chinese coins used as currency as early as 700 BCE.
- In the Immunity challenge that Peih-Gee Law and Jaime famously throw, the puzzle discs showcase the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, matched to their Mandarin names. The Chinese zodiac is based on the lunar calendar, which is a 12-year repeating cycle. Fun fact: 2021 is the year of the Ox!
- In episode 6’s Reward challenge, players are to decode the phrase “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. On the show, host Jeff Probst mentions that the phrase is made famous by the philosopher Confucius. However, it is in fact attributed to Lao Zi, who is regarded as one of the founders of Taoism.
- Episode 9’s challenge has players bounce balls on tanggu drums, which were used in 19th-century ceremonies.
- A Shaolin Wushu (a Chinese martial art) demonstration is performed for Peih-Gee, Denise Martin, and Erik Huffman as their challenge reward. It is one of the oldest and most popular styles of wushu and became one of the biggest schools of wushu since its development around 50 AD.
- Episode 13’s Immunity challenge is a shooting game that makes use of the zhu ge nu, or the repeating crossbow. The weapon is named after Zhuge Liang, an esteemed military strategist from the Three Kingdoms period in 220 to 280 AD.
- With our second socially-distanced Lunar New Year coming up this February, the steamboat reward shared by Todd Herzog, Courtney Yates, and Denise on the Great Wall of China really hits home. Steamboats are part of Lunar New Year’s Eve traditions, where family members gather and are “forced” together by nature of cooking and eating around the steamboat pot. The round hotpot also symbolises unity, as “round” is 圆 (yuan) in Mandarin, representing 团圆 (tuan yuan) or “reunion”.
There are numerous other intricate components of the show inspired by Chinese culture, which speaks both of the production team’s research and the deep richness of Chinese heritage. I hope this little article has sparked some interest in the customs and traditions of China! Happy Lunar New Year in advance to all those who celebrate it!
Get exclusive content and features by supporting Inside Survivor on Patreon.
In related news, we are currently rewatching Survivor: China on the Inside Survivor Discord every Wednesday night. If you are an Inside Survivor Patreon, come along and join in the rewatch and chat along with us.