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Mainstream Culture RefocusedTelevision Drama, Society, and the Production of Meaning in Reform-Era China$

Xueping Zhong

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780824834173

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824834173.001.0001

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Beyond Romance

Beyond Romance

“Youth Drama,” Social Change, and the Postrevolution Search for Idealism

(p.97) Chapter Four Beyond Romance
Mainstream Culture Refocused

Xueping Zhong

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on Chinese youth drama, a subgenre on television that offers yet another interesting example of mainstream culture’s representations of social contradictions and ideological tensions. It examines three types of well-received Chinese-made youth dramas and their best-known texts. First, it considers the dramas by the so-called master of Chinese youth drama, Hai Yan. It explores the representations shared by the young characters and the social and ideological implications of the commonality in Hai Yan’s dramas. Second, it examines the phenomenon of “post-youth” youth drama, which refer to dramas that focus on the generation of Chinese who grew up during the Mao era but who encountered significant changes in their lives during the post-Mao era. It looks at the ambivalence expressed within those dramas in which their main characters live through two sharply different eras. Third, the chapter examines “counteridol” youth drama, in particular one of its latest representatives, Shibing tuji (Soldiers, be ready, 2007). Focusing on its main character, Xu Sanduo, and the popular following this unlikely hero has generated, it speculates on why an unconventional “youth idol” has successfully captured the public’s imagination.

Keywords:   youth culture, contemporary China, dianshiju, Chinese television dramas, Chinese culture, mainstream culture, Hai Yan, Shibing tuji, Xu Sanduo

Across the heavily advertised landscape of contemporary China, many of the billboards highlight “youth” (and femininity), demonstrating globalizing consumer capitalism’s conquest of yet another new frontier. In this new frontier, the desire economy has significantly changed what it means to be young in China. But questions about the relation of these changes in the youth culture to the larger context of modern Chinese history and the latest social transformation in China remain underexplored. “Youth” is a key social, cultural and political marker in modern Chinese history. Youth-oriented “visuality” at once manifests desire and ambition, but also anxiety, uncertainty, disappointment, despair, as well as resistance, all of which cut across a much wider, deeper, rapidly changing and palpably troubled social landscape. Youth drama as a subgenre on television offers yet another interesting example of mainstream culture’s representations of social contradictions and ideological tensions.

Changing Meanings of Being Young and the Rise of Chinese-Made Youth Dramas: A Few Historical Pointers

Throughout much of the twentieth century in China, “youth” has been prominently associated with various forms of radicalism and revolutionary idealism and with social, cultural, and political changes brought about by reforms and revolutions.1 To better understand youth-related issues in contemporary China, manifested via youth drama on television, it is necessary to recognize their historical specificities. Given the limited scope of this chapter, I would like to briefly mention a few points of contention in relation to the major historical periods of the twentieth century.

Beginning with Liang Qichao, who coined the term shaonian Zhongguo, or young China, around the turn of the twentieth century, shaonian and qingnian—both refer to being young or young people—emerged as a “new” and “modern” (p.98) cultural and political imaginary for nation building.2 As such, “youth” was poised to become a particularly meaningful modern symbol, as well as a powerful social and political force, throughout twentieth-century Chinese history.3 The first and most well-known historical event directly associated with youth was the May Fourth New Culture Movement (1915–1927). On May 4, 1919, three thousand university students in Beijing demonstrated at Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, against the Western powers’ decision, negotiated at Versailles, to hand over a German concession in China to Japan.4 This demonstration ignited a nationwide nationalist movement and gave the New Culture Movement its identity as being prominently associated with the radicalization of modern Chinese youth.

At the same time, May Fourth–related youth identity coexisted with other “modern youth” imaginaries and identities informed by socioeconomic and ideological forces, making issues of youth symptomatic of the larger ideological tensions and political struggles throughout the first half of the twentieth century in China. Images of youth in both May Fourth literature and other popular and “modernist” literature and culture represented the variety of identities. Young protagonists in Yu Dafu’s “Sinking,” Guo Moruo’s implicit identification with Werther in translating Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” into Chinese, Lu Xun’s “Regrets for the Past,” Ding Ling’s “Miss Sophia’s Diary,” Ba Jin’s Family, and Xiao Hong’s and many other young women writers’ stories are some of the well-known “May Fourth” literary representations that directly address the social and cultural conditions that young men and women were confronted with in a society deep in social, political, and national crises. In addition to these literary representations, youth and their issues were also represented in so-called Mandarin Duck and Butterfly and modernist literature, in which the connection between youth and “modern” desire and its anxiety also loomed large. Together with other forms of representation, such as film and popular magazines, these cultural products revealed the complexity of the pre-1949 urban social, cultural, and political scenes in which representations of (urban) “youth” were symptomatic of the social contradictions and political and ideological struggles of the time. Despite the different political forces and ideological persuasions, however, the immediate national crisis China was facing conditioned a strong association between “youth” and the revolutionary spirit for national salvation. Although the May Fourth culture movement has been under critical scrutiny and even under assault in academic circles in the late twentieth century, one of the long-lasting legacies of the movement continues to be its critical and independent spirit.5

During the Mao era (1949–1976) after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the official discourse continued to uphold a “revolutionary (p.99) spirit” (geming jingshen) in the education of youth.6 As I have discussed elsewhere, young people (qingnian) would be molded according to the discourse of qingchun, or more precisely geming qingchun (revolutionary youth), in which a connection between youth and “revolutionary ideals” was emphasized.7 Before the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), young people were educated to see themselves as revolutionary successors, but their education was nevertheless a mixture of modern science, (selected) Western classics in literature and arts, (selected) traditional cultural materials, orthodox Marxist principles, and revolutionary ideals. The Cultural Revolution changed all of this, and its aftermath led to the emergence of a Chinese version of a “lost generation” who found themselves disillusioned by revolutionary ideals. As the Mao era yielded to the post-Mao era of the early 1980s, the decade would witness a collapse of revolutionary ideology and the unraveling of the qingchun-related idealism, signifying yet another round of changes in ideological and discursive struggles symbolized by “youth.”8

In the 1980s, along with the return of “rusticated youth” to the cities, the post-Mao era witnessed an emergence of old and new political and ideological forces whose voices would further contribute to the weakening of the Mao era’s revolutionary ideology. Via media and literature, many young writers and intellectuals joined forces in promoting “thought liberation” (sixiang jiefang) and in “reevaluating” (fan si) what they believed to be China’s problems. On the popular front, the much-publicized debates in the early 1980s generated by “Pan Xiao’s letter” and Zhang Hua’s death, in the then widely read magazine Youth of China (Zhongguo qingnian), are well-documented examples of the early post-Mao era’s public reevaluation of the “value” of being young (qingchun de jiazhi).9 In literature, especially in “educated-youth literature” (zhiqing wenxue) and “roots-searching literature” (xungen wenxue), which emerged in the mid-1980s, young writers questioned the Chinese Communist Party–led revolution with stories highlighting its violence, destruction, and failures, manifesting the shared disillusionment of the time. Through the fate of their characters, these young writers questioned whether the revolution had succeeded in moving China in the “right” direction.10 Qingchun would become one of the first cultural categories to be cut adrift from the Mao era’s revolutionary discourse and, like gender identities, it would become subject to cultural and ideological reconstruction.

Indeed, appearing on the cultural scene of the 1980s, the aforementioned cultural activities and their products would eventually merge into an “ideological preparedness” for the notion of youth to be delinked from its revolutionary and political orientation and reconstructed by a “modernization”-cum-consumer-capitalist imaginary. The appearance of new phrases that contain qingchun (p.100) within them is symptomatic of the changes in the meaning of “youth.” If the word qingchun in Chinese emphasizes a temporal dimension or the duration of being young (as opposed to the word qingnian, which specifically refers to people who are young), the word qingchun in geming qingchun (revolutionary youth) and in qingchun ouxiang (youth idol) nevertheless denote very different historical and temporal imaginaries. While qingchun in “revolutionary youth” is associated with the history of Chinese revolution and emphasizes a teleological connection between the present and an (imagined) better future, qingchun in the latter expression orients around a seemingly permanent state of the present that nevertheless emphasizes the ephemeral and fleeting nature of time and the time-sensitive “value” of youth. In the latter case, associating youth with such a temporal value, though relatively new to China, is a time-honored marketing practice deeply entrenched in the desire economy of consumer capitalism. The underlying logic of qingchun ouxiang informs the visible changes in the reform-era youth-related discourse and helps explain why today at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century in China, the word qingchun is often associated with such terms as qingchun fan (youth as a bowl of rice) or qingchun buzai (youth fleeting away), emphasizing the need to make the best use of something that is fleeting in nature.11 Following this logic, the visually enhanced youth in the postrevolutionary era symbolizes the impact of consumer capitalism in transforming the meaning of youth from its earlier social, political, and historical orientation to a seemingly pastless and futureless temporal one that emphasizes the importance of arresting the present.

At the same time, the social reality in contemporary China is far from a postmodern pastless and futureless recycling of fragmented realities of the present. Indeed, across the tension-filled contemporary social landscape in China, the rapid influx of the youth-embodied desire economy has inevitably had to contend with a mixture of cultural and historical legacies whose presence as part of modern Chinese history continues to inform different responses, including an uncertainty, if not a critical sense, about the value of such an economy. It is with this understanding that I now turn to the phenomenon of Chinese-made youth drama.

I refer to the subgenre as “Chinese-made” for a reason: it emerged against the backdrop of the widespread popularity of non-Chinese-made—principally Japanese and Korean—youth-idol dramas (qingchun ouxiang ju). Technically, “youth-idol drama” did not become a major phenomenon on television in China until the 1990s, when a large number of such dramas, first from Japan and later from Korea, flooded Chinese television screens.12 Varying in length from ten episodes to hundreds, these dramas possess an identical melodramatic narrative formula.13 They unfailingly focus on love relationships between young (p.101) individuals, mixed with tales of misidentification, misunderstanding, and familial interference. As a rule, these shows are visually formulaic but nevertheless pleasing to the popular taste—with beautiful young actors and a “tastefully” designed mise-en-scène—and narratively melodramatic and sentimental. They are reminiscent of a Chinese version of modern middle-brow fiction (such as Mandarin Duck and Butterfly literature or fiction by Qiong Yao) focusing mainly on rich and middle-class “family matters” with their complex relationships and individuals’ struggles within.14 To date, while often looked upon with a cool detachment by critics in China, imported youth-idol dramas remain highly popular. Despite recent regulations that have pushed most of these non-Chinese dramas out of prime-time slots and even though many do not get to be screened on television (and as a result become popular buys from the pirate DVD vendors who lurk on various street corners),15 they have exerted a powerful influence on the development of contemporary Chinese youth culture.16

What is interesting about this phenomenon is the fact that, while Japanese and Korean youth dramas have been popularly received in China, most domestic—Chinese—efforts at making a similar type of drama have failed to register viewers’ interest.17 Indeed, as popular, attractive, and entertaining as youth-idol dramas may be if they are from Japan or Korea, if they are set in contemporary China, stories about affairs of young people from urban, white-collar, and wealthy families tend not to meet with the same interest from the viewers, who tend to dismiss them as poor imitations.18 Chinese youth dramas would have to be different to be “believable.” As it turns out, they would have to be more in touch with social reality and social problems. Contemporary China’s social reality, in other words, functions to inform the reception and then the production of Chinese-made youth drama.19

In what follows, I will focus on three types of well-received Chinese-made youth dramas and their best-known texts. In the first case, I have chosen the dramas by the so-called master of Chinese youth drama, Hai Yan. Focusing on the narrative patterns and the young characters represented in Hai Yan’s dramas, I explore what the representations of these young characters share and what social and ideological implications are entailed in the commonality in Hai Yan’s dramas. In the second case, I examine the phenomenon of what I term “post-youth” youth drama. By “post-youth” I refer to dramas that focus on the generation of Chinese who were born and grew up during the Mao era but who encountered significant changes in their lives during the post-Mao era. I examine the ambivalence expressed within those dramas in which their main characters live through two sharply different eras. I am interested in exploring the “unseen rhythms” that inform their representations at a time when former “revolutionary youths” are compelled to learn quickly to survive in the new (p.102) postrevolution reality. I am interested in both the implications and the limitations in the dramas’ representations of such tensions. In the third case, I turn to what I call “counteridol” youth drama, examining especially one of its latest representatives, Shibing tuji (Soldiers, be ready, 2007). Focusing on its main character, Xu Sanduo, and the popular following this unlikely “hero” has generated, I speculate on why an unconventional “youth idol” has successfully managed to capture the public’s imagination.

Youth, Beauty, and Violence as the “Social” in Hai Yan Dramas

The first wave of popularly received Chinese-made youth dramas would come to be identified with two individuals, Zhao Baogang, a television drama director, and Hai Yan, a writer.20 Today, both names have become synonymous with Chinese-made youth dramas.21 The collaboration between the two has produced a few popularly received dramas, including Yong bu mingmu (Eyes forever open, 1999) and Na shenme zhengjiu ni, wo de airen (With what to save you, my loved one, 2002).22 Adopting one element that made Japanese and Korean youth-idol dramas popular, their dramas are also about impossible love between beautiful and young couples. As such, both Zhao Baogang and Hai Yan are nicknamed yanqing dashi, or masters of love stories.23 At the same time, there exists an important difference between the two men.

Most of the Zhao Baogang–directed dramas are known for the director’s skill in visually enhancing mise-en-scène and creating a sentimental mood, projecting a strong sense of melancholy when a passionate love ends tragically or simply goes nowhere. Regardless of whether a story is set in the early twentieth century or in contemporary transnational environments, most of Zhao’s dramas, offering viewers little sense of history, function mainly as a cultural vehicle in conveying a sense of longing for a desired private domain.24 Within the context of contemporary China, such sentiments befit the newly rising, for lack of a better word, “middle class” who orient their attention toward carving out a materially comfortable and emotionally safe “private” haven for themselves. Because of that, Zhao Baogang’s dramas are often compared to dramas adapted from Qiong Yao’s fiction, carrying with them a strong petit-bourgeois flair reminiscent of early-twentieth-century “middle-brow” fiction popular among city dwellers. Most of Hai Yan dramas differ in that they tend not to focus on the rising middle-class desire for a glamorous lifestyle or, for that matter, on melancholic longing and visual beautification, all of which constitute the signature of Zhao Baogang–directed dramas.25

Hai Yan’s main protagonists are almost always placed in social settings that are neither private spaces as within a family nor public spaces such as a work place. (p.103) More often than not, his main characters are part of the floating population on the move and on the margins, often in transit, from one place to another or from one position to another facing an unknown future, all reflective of major social changes in reform-era China. The desire and the drive that accompany such human migration as represented in the dramas help capture, perhaps despite the writer himself, the complexity of the social context and the cultural milieu in which the (uprooted small-town) youth search for meaning. In this sense, one can see Hai Yan dramas as a mix of nineteenth-century European critical realism with melodrama and Chinese social particularities, manifesting issues much larger than the angst and predicaments of being young and emblematic of a society in search of a moral direction. While the focus on the young in Hai Yan’s dramas does not escape a familiar collective and seemingly clichéd desire for zhen, shan, mei, or truthfulness, kindness, and beauty, respectively, his narrative renderings of such desire are not deployed in the “beauty for beauty’s sake” manner found in Zhao’s dramas. Hai Yan’s young protagonists tend to find themselves in a time and place where the “reality” is rampant with corruption, unquestioned and unexamined desires, out-of-control greed for material possessions, and a lack of a clear value system. It is the messy complexity of the Hai Yan dramas’ representations of youth that merits our further critical attention.

Even though the first television adaptation of one of Hai Yan’s stories appeared in 1988 as Plain-Clothed Cops, he did not become a household name until his second drama, Eyes Forever Open (1999), many years later. Suddenly, viewers began to be drawn to the young characters in Hai Yan’s dramas. With What to Save You, My Loved One (2002), Your Life Is So Passionate (Ni de shengming ruci duoqing, 2001), Love Is Sweet and Cruel (Yi chang fenghua xueyue de shi, 2004), Jade Goddess of Mercy (Yu Guanyin, 2003), and Ordinary Life (Pingdan shenghuo, 2004) generated further enthusiasm from viewers. One after another, the young and beautiful protagonists managed to touch the public in such a way that those who played these characters became stars, giving the actors an aura that comes from the characters they have played and turning the actors themselves into contemporary youth idols.

Because some of the more important implications of Hai Yan’s dramas derive from his representations of young and beautiful protagonists, I would like to provide a few examples. The young protagonists from Eyes Forever Open, Jade Goddess of Mercy, With What to Save You, and Ordinary Life each have different stories, and yet together they demonstrate a shared narrative pattern—indeed with all the necessary melodramatic elements—in which these characters are situated within a harsh and often unforgiving social reality.

Hai Yan’s second drama, Eyes Forever Open, managed to capture the imagination of its viewers with the creation of a young, flawed, but pure at heart (male) (p.104) character, Xiao Tong. Its narrative structure—a mixture of love relationships and criminal activities that require not only the presence of the police in the narrative but, more important, a narrative space in which the dark side of the society is dramatized—was also to become the signature narrative structure of Hai Yan dramas. The story centers on two relationships, one between a police woman and Xiao Tong, a college student whose vision was saved by the cornea of the police woman’s fiancé when he died in the line of duty, the other between the same young man and a young woman with criminal ties. The former relationship develops in relation to the cornea transplant, after which a superficial kind of “transference” takes place when the young man begins to feel attracted to the police woman even though she is older. As the plot develops and while Ou Qingchun, the police woman, does not know how to respond to a younger man’s attraction, an accidental encounter brings him into the life of a rich businessman’s daughter, Ouyang Lanlan. She fancies him and starts pursuing him. Xiao Tong in turn is asked by the police to take advantage of the opportunity, and as a result he becomes a temporary undercover agent for the police pretending to be her boyfriend. Because the criminal family is forced to be on the run, Xiao Tong must go along, all the way to a Tibetan region where the family hides from the authorities. In the end, the mission costs him his life, but he is supposed to have remained true to the police woman. This drama is said to be the first in which a relationship between an older woman and a younger man is positively portrayed. But more important, it helps establish Hai Yan’s narrative pattern in which a young protagonist can be placed in a harsh environment and yet can still remain “true” and “good.” The death of the young protagonist is another indication that Hai Yan’s love dramas differ from the dramas with happy endings (da tuanyuan) found in traditional Chinese theater and in Hollywood films; Han Yan’s dramas tend not to end happily ever after.

Jade Goddess of Mercy, though arguably more about its main female character, An Xin, is nevertheless narrated by Yang Rui, whose “growing up” journey begins with his meeting An Xin and proceeds with his eventual loss of the woman and his journey to her home province to both look for her and find out who she is. Early in the drama, Yang Rui has a chance encounter with An Xin, who works as a janitor at the sports club where Yang Rui practices boxing. This encounter turns out to be “fatal” for Yang Rui because he gradually falls for this young woman who is “wrong” for him in every sense of the word: she is a migrant worker doing a menial job, she appears to be somewhat secretive, she already has a child and turns out to be someone who was once married but whose husband was killed because of her own bad judgment, and she has been placed in a witness-protection program because the killer of her husband is still at large. All of these “wrong” factors turn Yang Rui’s life upside down. He loses (p.105) his job (his father also loses his job because of Yang Rui), has trouble finding and keeping another job because of the constant meddling of his vengeful former girlfriend (who goes so far as accusing him of bribery, an accusation that lands him in jail), and eventually loses An Xin, the object of his love (who decides to punish herself for the deaths of her husband and her son by disappearing from Yang Rui’s life and by, presumably, returning to her job as an undercover cop). In the end, after going through much hardship and still unable to be with the one he loves, Yang Rui decides to remain loyal to An Xin. This over-the-top love drama managed to become a huge hit when it aired in 2003.

Seemingly centering on Luo Jingjing and her relationships with two young men, the drama With What to Save You in many ways is more about the two young men, a handsome young lawyer, Han Ding, and a migrant worker, Long Xiaoyu, who is accused of murder. The young lawyer is so taken by Luo’s beauty and so wants to marry her that, at her request, he agrees to be the defense lawyer for Long Xiaoyu, whom Luo Jingjing supposedly is really in love with. Long Xiaoyu is the opposite of the young lawyer; he is from a small town and so poor that after the death of his father he had to drop out of college to become, first, a factory worker in his hometown and, then, a migrant worker in a different city. The poor young man needs a defense lawyer because he is accused of murdering his former girlfriend, a young woman who is portrayed as pretty but with a crude, petty intelligence. Han Ding sacrifices himself (by not studying for the exams to go abroad) and successfully defends Long, only to find out later that Long did indeed deal the last blow to his former girlfriend, effectively killing her. Long then commits suicide in the house of the dead woman, Siping,

Beyond Romance“Youth Drama,” Social Change, and the Postrevolution Search for Idealism

Figure 4.1. Han Ding with Long Xiaoyu in the back.

With What to Save You My Loved One (Beijing Dianshi Yishu Zhongxin Yingxiang Chubanshe)

(p.106) where Long once spent a long period of time taking care of her sickly mother when Siping was away working in another city. Narrated in part with the voiceover of the young lawyer Han Ding, a large portion of the story, consisting of conversations between Han and Long Xiaoyu in a prison meeting room and lengthy flashbacks, turns out to be about the efforts by Long Xiaoyu, to move beyond the lowly state of a migrant worker, first innocently, then with much apprehension, and finally with violence. Like the two dramas described above, this one is also sympathetic toward the two young (and handsome) male characters who in their own way are shown to be kind and “good,” one lucky enough not to be poor and the other not so lucky.

Lastly, in Ordinary Life, the protagonist Ding You is a young and innocent woman who, escaping the bullies in her hometown who sexually harass her, travels to the capital city of her province in search of a young man that she has had a long and secret crush on only to find herself incapable of escaping forces that drag her through a rude awakening in the capital city. Much of the story centers on her life in a big city where Ding You’s search for her youthful crush leads her farther away from him and to other unexpected events, including being pursued by the only son of a rich businessman, witnessing his parents being robbed and murdered, and feeling obligated to become his fiancée. Eventually, the harsh reality smashes all her dreams and causes her, like An Xin, to disappear into the sea of people never to be heard from again.

By way of these characters, we can see more clearly what Hai Yan’s protagonists come to represent: the young, the beautiful, and the innocent in relation to the rapidly changing world around them. The conflicts and violence in a society undergoing rapid transformation take place at the expense of the young, the beautiful, and the innocent. Few of these characters have a complete family and most are on the move, either running away from their hometowns (Ding You and, to an extent, An Xin) or moving from one place to another as migrant workers (Long Xiaoyu and his former girlfriend whom he killed), as an undercover agent for the police (Xiao Tong and An Xin), or in search of a loved one (Yang Rui and Ding You). All of them, additionally, inadvertently find themselves cut adrift from the people that they knew and having to experience “growing pains” in a much harsher environment. These characters collectively define the “Hai Yan formula” in which his young, beautiful, and innocent protagonists are placed in social settings in which they are confronted with rapid social changes, economic uncertainties, and sometimes violent consequences. How are we to understand such a formula?

Hai Yan’s youth-oriented melodramas resemble literary and filmic works from different cultures that also use youth as focus to explore social ills. In the context of contemporary China, aspects of these dramas are reminiscent (p.107) of not only of the tradition of “critical realism” and its melodramatic mode that was welcomed by the left-wing writers and filmmakers of the 1930s, but also of the contemporary “urban generation” films made by such directors as Jia Zhangke.26 To be sure, compared with the portrayal of the characters in such films as Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures by Jia Zhangke, Hai Yan’s dramas seem so stuffed with events and so filled with melodrama and (sometimes overly charged) emotions that they fail to leave the viewer enough time and space to reflect. Indeed, noted for their antimelodramatic representations of young characters, Jia’s films are lauded for employing a style that helps “document” a generation of “lost youth” who are situated, socially and economically as well as symbolically, in the middle of nowhere when the market reforms are rapidly changing the world around them and leaving them behind to bear the brunt of the consequences. The long shots, stationary cameras, and slow cuts all capture youngsters suffering from indirection and ennui and engaged in mundane and unremarkable activities in a life that does not get them anywhere. By showing the lives of the young as a rather empty experience, Jia’s films offer a powerful sense of the problem facing certain social groups, especially young people from rural areas and small towns as China continues its path of modernization and development.

At the same time, the busy narrative details and dramatic events in Hai Yan’s dramas are emblematic of a society busy with indirection. Without the prospect of living happily ever after, the young protagonists portrayed in Hai Yan’s dramas in fact function quite like Jia Zhangke’s characters in exposing the problems of a social environment and in doubting the possibility of finding personal salvation or locating ideals in such private space as the home.

In With What to Save You, for example, it is the character Long Xiaoyu and his tragic life experience that help make the representations of the other young characters in the drama more meaningful. In the story, Long does not appear until after Han Ding’s encounter with Luo and after a sequence of events that leads Luo to agree to live with Han. When Long does appear, he is already on the run, pursued for allegedly murdering his former girlfriend. From the moment that he appears, this young man’s story will symbolize the theme typical of Hai Yan’s narrative structure—dragging the young and the innocent through the mud of crime, murder, and the dark side of society. Performed by the now-famous young actor Liu Ye, Long Xiaoyu is portrayed sympathetically as a young man whose sincerity and whose life story convince the viewer that he is wrongly accused. This sympathetic perception is enhanced when Han Ding manages to prove that Long was wrongly convicted and saves Long from execution when the latter is already on his way to the execution site. And yet, at the end of the drama, Long is found guilty for having actually dealt the young (p.108)

Beyond Romance“Youth Drama,” Social Change, and the Postrevolution Search for Idealism

Figure 4.2. Long Xiaoyu locked up.

With What to Save You My Loved One (Beijing Dianshi Yishu Zhongxin Yinxiang Chubanshe)

woman the fatal blow after she was stabbed by a group of thugs. Legally, the “innocent” is not so innocent, after all.

In the drama, much of Long’s experience is narrated, via flashbacks, within the confines of an interview room in prison. The prison setting further enhances the harsh reality that Long finds himself in, but what he tells Han Ding, his lawyer, about his life before prison makes it unclear whether this imprisonment is worse than the life he has lived. While one is not sure meetings between client and lawyer like the ones shown in the drama actually happen in prisons in China and whether such meetings last as long in real life, the drama gives Long ample time to tell his own stories, thereby making it possible for the viewer to sympathize with him. The sympathy toward Long is achieved because Long’s tragic end is due in essence to his poverty; a perfectly “good” kid is pushed by forces beyond his control into a violent end simply because his desire to move beyond poverty motivates him to resist his “fate.” Once again, the drama lays a major part of the blame at the feet of a society in transition that is harsh to the poor and the powerless. Poverty and the struggles against it constitute the underlying theme in the drama that helps make the portrayal of Long Xiaoyu compelling.

The link between poverty and Long, and the sympathy that is meant to be generated in the viewer are echoed in Ordinary Life when Ding You’s story reveals a similar theme: a perfectly innocent young woman, after going to the city in pursuit of her dreams, is put through a series of harsh and even deadly events only to find her dreams crushed and her life turning from bad to worse. (p.109) Like Long Xiaoyu, the death of Ding You’s dreams begins with her own and her sister’s desire not to be poor, although the social stacks are set against both of them. Pingdan shenghuo, the Chinese title of the drama Ordinary Life, is meant to demonstrate the irony in Ding You’s experience: what is ordinary about life is when one realizes that it always involves the death of dreams in the most violent and yet also the most mundane fashion.

To reiterate, ostensibly about love between the young and the beautiful, Hai Yan’s dramas are more about the crushing of love and desire experienced by the young and the innocent because of their poor social status and circumstances and forces beyond their control. His representations of the young protagonists of the twenty-first century echo their nineteenth-century critical realist counterparts, in which youngsters are confronted by forces in a society that both lure them with material gains and also prevent them from achieving such gains. Melodramatic and emotionally manipulative as the Hai Yan formula may be, situating his young protagonists in a harsh reality nevertheless helps unfold the social dynamics and related problems in a postrevolution China undergoing development-oriented market reforms. In this sense, similar to many other subgenres in television dramas, Hai Yan’s youth dramas do not shy away from representing the harsh reality in which his young protagonists exist. What is more, by situating the lives of these and other young characters within the context of rapid socoeconomic transformation and within the social settings of the floating population in particular, Hai Yan’s stories indicate that, on the one hand, the revolutionary concept of youth from the Mao era has become a distant memory at best, and, on the other hand, the lure of “youth” as a marketable category—as “bowl of youth” for the young—essentially remains just that, a lure. More often than not, his young protagonists find themselves trapped in a rapidly changing and increasingly unfamiliar social environment in which they nevertheless must make sense of their own lives.

As a result, these dramas tend to strike a deeper social note than is apparent. The “fairy-tale” like quality in Hai Yan’s representations of youth can be understood as a narrative lure into representations of a harsh reality. The pure, the good-hearted, and the beautiful—zhen, shan, mei—quality of his young characters manifests a sentiment—indeed a strong pathos—that can be identified in terms of, to borrow Rey Chow’s words, “sentimental fabulation,” but that sentiment stems from a tradition that is critical of social injustice and, within the contemporary context of China’s market reforms, of the rapid and under-challenged reshuffling of social and economic relations and conditions.27 The sentimentalism is also symptomatic of the limitations of dramatic representations portraying the increased (and increasing) polarization of the rich and poor in China. Despite the criticism that resorting to melodrama for articulation of (p.110) criticism tends to lead to no more than momentary sympathy, if it is sympathy without condescension, however, this emotion may well be where social sentiment resides, a first necessary step for social action. I will return to this point in the concluding part of the chapter.

Age of True Feelings and “Postyouth” Youth Dramas

By “postyouth” dramas I refer to a small but visible group of dramas that focus on a generation whose youth straddles the Mao and post-Mao eras—those who grew up during the Mao era and who “came of age” during the post-Mao economic reform era. The most popular series in this subcategory of youth drama are Xuese langman (Romantic life in brilliant red, 2004), Xuese langman II (also known as Yu qingchun youguan de rizi, or Days of being young, 2005), Zhenqing niandai (Age of true feelings, 2006), Xuese qingchun (Youth in brilliant red, 2005), and Xingfu xiang hua’r yiyang (Happiness is like flowers, 2006). We must note at the outset that many of the viewers whose lives during the Mao era are supposed to be represented in these dramas are said to have found the representations largely inaccurate. Some have taken serious offense with what they see as distorted representations, while others dismiss them for their lack of in-depth understanding. The question, still, is what makes such dramas popular, and what their popularity means. Most of these dramas share a similar representational pattern—starting with the main characters’ lives during the Cultural Revolution and following them into the reform era, in which they experience drastic changes. I will focus mainly on one drama, Age of True Feelings, but would like to do so by way of Romantic Life in Brilliant Red, the first such drama to appear in China.

Romantic Life in Brilliant Red effected the successful inauguration of the “postyouth” drama. It appeared at the time when China’s reform era entered a third phase of economic reform in which society began to face serious human, social, and environmental consequences of the development-oriented economic miracle. At the same time, the title of the drama also suggests that the drama is a “typical” postrevolution production representing Mao-era youths’ experience of going through two very different historical periods by reevoking their lives during the Mao era, mainly through a nostalgic and ambivalent lens.

Romantic Life stars Liu Ye and Sun Li, two well-known young actors in contemporary China (made famous by, among other things, their roles in some of Hai Yan’s dramas). It starts at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, when the protagonists find themselves freed from both school and familial supervision. As such, the portrayal of the main characters reminds one of Wang Shuo’s fictional (and filmic) representations of da yuan youth (“big courtyard,” referring (p.111) to the living quarters of various central administrative organs, either civilian or military, commonly found in Beijing during the Mao era).28 Either consciously or unconsciously following Wang Shuo’s portrait of this generation of Mao era youth, Wang’s imitators have largely stayed within the same formula: the protagonists are the children of high-ranking officials, and they had the “privilege” of enjoying the chaos brought about by the onset of the Cultural Revolution. While the children of revolutionaries are expected also to be “revolutionary,” Wang’s stories in essence poke fun at the revolution by representing the refusal of these youngsters to subscribe to revolutionary ideals. Unlike Wang’s stories, however, Romantic Life (and other similar dramas) is more reflective, although the reflection is filled with contradictions and uncertainties.

The term xue se in the drama’s title, which literally means “bloody red,” can be rendered in English in a number of ways. Given that the story is about a group of Mao era youngsters and their experiences during and after the Cultural Revolution, this “redness” is obviously associated with the revolution led by the Chinese Communist Party. Because the revolution was “communist” in nature, in English the color red referred to within this context would have negative implications, including an implication of violence. In Chinese, however, the connotation is more layered. In the entry on this drama in Baidu baike, a Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia, there is a “word definition” (zici jieshi) that defines xuese langman as (1) cruel but exciting youth, (2) a pure sense of romance emitting from the bottom of one’s heart, (3) romance that is adventurous, and (4) a youthful era that is deeply marked by the eras of war and revolution.29 This mixture of meanings are at once revolutionary and postrevolutionary. On the one hand, revolution is still associated with the country achieving national sovereignty and ridding itself of imperialist aggression, and the color red continues to be associated with the lives of Mao era youth and the spirit that they were brought up with and that they revolted against shortly after the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, revolutionary ideals that used to be symbolized by the color red have now become a blur overshadowed by a collective farewell to the revolution in the post-Mao era. It is this mixed and contradictory connotation that makes the dramas that portray this specific “postyouth” generation worth discussing further.

In one dialogue, for example, we find a commentary on the generation portrayed in the drama:

We have wasted too much of our youth. That was a youthful age filled with an overblown sense of our selves, which at the same time was quite ridiculous. There coexisted laughter and tears, youthful spirit and decadence, sweet feelings and silliness, self-confidence and uncertainties. We were sensitive, stubbornly partial, and we (p.112) insisted on being this way, pretending that we were strong. We would easily hurt others but could also easily feel hurt by others. We pursued moments of decadent enjoyment and indulged in moments of lonely beauty. We strongly believed that we were different and that the world would change because of us. When we woke up, we were no longer young, and we realized that our future was no longer infinite. Then again, when had our future been infinite? For a brief moment [after our awakening], we thought we had grown up. Until one day, we finally realized that, besides desires, growing up also includes courage, responsibility, inner strength, and a necessary willingness to sacrifice. In real life, we are in fact still like children, yet to grow up, yet to understand what love is and how to be loved.30

The irony is that, despite the Wang Shuo–esque cynical tone generally present in the narrative, this passage contains a sense of idealism that does not exist in Wang Shuo’s fictional representations of youth. The idealism—conveyed via the quote above—refers to the ideals of an earlier period of modern Chinese history when being young would indeed mean more than indulging in one’s desires and would indeed be characterized by “courage, responsibility, inner strength, and a willingness to sacrifice.”31 As we will see shortly, this idealism is re-evoked within the postrevolution era when being young has become directly linked with the desire for material gain; its re-evocation pertains to today’s social reality and exists with an ambivalence toward both this generation’s own youth and their loss of idealism. To elaborate on this point, let me now turn to Age of True Feelings.

Directed by Gao Xixi, another well-known director of television dramas, Age of True Feelings tells the story of a group of educated youth after they return to the city (from the countryside), where they are compelled to live a life unavoidably shaped by the economic reforms. In this sense, this drama functions like a sequel to Romantic Lifes. The story begins, during the Cultural Revolution, with the three male protagonists trapped in a small mine located in the countryside, where they have been sent as educated youth. This opening sequence lingers on this scene for quite some time, presenting a dialogue taking place among the three young men, who are waiting with some hope but without certainty of being rescued. Feeling that they may not leave the mine alive, they begin to confess to one another their desires and thoughts, among them, feelings toward a fellow female educated youth, He Ying. He Ying, meanwhile, is frantically trying to get help from the local officials to rescue the three young men. Thus introducing its four major characters, the drama quickly ends the opening sequence with the three being successfully rescued. Shortly after, Hao Jiefang, who is from a high-ranking military officer’s family and who is also He Ying’s “official” boyfriend, leaves to join the army. He “entrusts” He Ying to the care of Zhao Penghui (p.113)

Beyond Romance“Youth Drama,” Social Change, and the Postrevolution Search for Idealism

Figure 4.3. The five main characters in Age of True Feelings.

Age of True Feelings (http://image.baidu.com)

and Li Heping, the other two young men who were trapped in the mine with him. Not long after the Cultural Revolution, all of them return to the city, only to have the first fissure occur amongst the four friends when He Ying decides to marry Zhao Penghui instead of Hao Jiefang.

From there on, the drama shows how the lives of these four Mao era youths drastically change in the post-Mao era. Zhao Penghui becomes a rich businessman. Not long after, his wife He Ying divorces him on account of an alleged affair on Zhao’s part with Fan Xiaojie (which, as the drama indicates, did not really happen as she thought). Zhao ends up marrying Fan Xiaojie, who subsequently becomes a drug addict. Meanwhile, Hao Jiefang harbors hatred toward Zhao, who apparently “stole” two women from him (Fan Xiaojie, Zhao’s second wife, was at first also Hao’s girlfriend). The two men also compete in business deals. Li Heping, portrayed as being more intellectual than the others, tries to remain true to his own beliefs while also trying to stay loyal to his friends. His own marriage disintegrates after his wife goes abroad and decides to stay in America, and he refuses to join her there. At the very end of the story, Hao (p.114) Jiefang gets killed. The final scene shows his three oldest friends, with He Ying carrying his ashes, on their way to the countryside where they once lived; the drama ends with them aboard an open-cover jeep driving toward their village (presumably to either bury or scatter Hao’s ashes).

The drama begins and ends with the four friends together and with their connection—in terms of love, friendship, and their sense of themselves—to the countryside where they lived as “educated youth.” If we recall how the drama begins—when the three young men were trapped in a mine—the message of their “reunion” at the end is an attempt to refocus the meaning of their friendship in relation to the early part of their youth. At the same time, it is not altogether clear if such a retracing entails a better understanding, on their part, of the roots that inform and shape their friendship. This kind of retracing can easily be labeled as nostalgia. Indeed, during the 1990s, especially around 1998, there occurred a wave of self-representations to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the “rustication” movement. Scholars have questioned many of the positive representations of the educated youth’s experience during the Cultural Revolution and considered them to be “nostalgic,” reacting against the present by sentimentalizing and idealizing a not so ideal past.32 While I recognize the validity of this critical assessment, I also question such a quick and ready dismissal without fully acknowledging the complexity that exists precisely because of the present situation.33

The complexity stems, first, from the critical perspective of the present and, second, from an uncertainty about and a desire to rethink the meaning of the past, namely, the meaning of a youth that straddles two very different historical periods. The result of this uncertainty and desire to rethink is manifested in the focus on zhenqing (true emotions/genuine feelings), which appears in the drama as the emotive domain in which the characters locate the positive meaning of their past. Indeed, throughout the drama, what connects the two eras is none other than their friendships—their true feelings for one another—which were formed during their years in the countryside as “educated youth” and whose near-disintegration is dramatized after their return to the city, where much of their life comes to be consumed by their constant efforts at getting ahead materially.

The implicit critique of the present manifests itself in the dramatic representation of conflicts that constantly bring their friendships to the brink of disintegration. For example, Zhao Penghui and Hao Jiefang enter into competition to make money and, more important, are willing to sacrifice their friendship in order to win. Entangled within the tensions in their friendship, additionally, are two women, He Ying and Fan Xiaojie. The latter, incidentally, is blatantly portrayed from a male point of view and in an overly melodramatic way. She is (p.115) shown to be willing to give up her own dancing career in order to marry Zhao Penghui, to be ready to throw away her independence once she moves in with him, and to lead a daily existence where her greatest hope is that Zhao will come home on time and have dinner with her. Her lonely existence culminates when she is hospitalized, supposedly having (temporarily) gone mad, after she turns to drugs, first involuntarily and then voluntarily. These details are reminiscent of the representations of contemporary China found in many of the other dramas I study in this book.

By situating Mao era youth within the contemporary desire economy, the “postyouth” youth dramas inevitably raise questions about the changing values their characters have to confront and about the implications of their various choices. By emphasizing the importance of friendships formed during the Mao era, these dramas nevertheless stop short of exploring the significance of the historical context in which such friendships were formed and shaped. The “true feelings” (zhen qing), in other words, are cut adrift from any specific political or social linkages. As a result, it is not always clear what the word “true” entails. Li Heping is the only character whose role in the drama functions to locate conscience and, by extension, “true feelings.”

Everyone in the drama changes with time except for Li Heping, who remains principled and unmoved by the desires and greed around him. From time to time, the drama suggests that his “goodness” is in essence egotistic and for self-protection. Most of the time, however, he is portrayed as an individual who is determined to resist taking the direction of so many other people toward money and power. He almost commits a corrupt act when he debates whether or not to sign, as an official, a contract to an unqualified company so that he can use bribe money to save Hao Jiefang, who has been arrested for squandering large loans he is unable to repay. When Zhao Penghui comes through with money to save Hao, Li is spared becoming another corrupt official. But even in his possible act of corruption, he is motivated by an intention to help his friend, not by a desire for self-gain. The question is what motivates his principled way of being. The drama offers no explanation except for setting him up as being different. This unidentified “virtue,” I would argue, echoes most of the dramatic representations in television drama in that, ideologically, mainstream culture does not quite know how to identify a “positive” message except with seemingly universal terms such as “virtuous,” “ethical,” and “good.” Like the zhen, shan, mei in Hai Yan’s dramas, the goodness in Li Heping is mainly assumed but never explored. But if we remember the historical linkage that informs this set of dramas, that is, youths’ lives set in both revolutionary and postrevolutionary times, Wendy Larson’s recent discussion of the “Lei Feng spirit”—“for Lei Feng … no opposition between matter and spirit exists”—helps illuminate one (p.116) cultural legacy, namely, that of the Mao era’s revolutionary culture, that informs the representation of Li Heping.34

To sum up, by way of showing how Mao era youths’ lives have unraveled in the reform era, these postyouth dramas offer a critical perspective on the social and cultural changes embodied and symbolized by the lives of various characters. Although their positive protagonists do not have a clear set of political ideals to subscribe to, the representational ambivalence toward the Mao era’s idealism and the post-Mao era’s desire economy that accomplishes the depoliticization of youth nevertheless indicates the role of historical experiences and the ways in which they are “remembered.” Such ambivalence informs the melodramatic representations of the friendships, conflicts, and reconciliation between the characters. In this sense, we wonder what the very end of the drama means: why do they bring Hao Jiefang’s ashes back to the countryside? Does their return to their collective “past” mean to further bury or to renew its meaning? The drama does not provide a clear answer. It echoes most of the other “postyouth” dramas in ending on a somber note, which indicates, on the one hand, a desire for larger meanings and, on the other, a continuing uncertainty about both the present and the past.

Shibing tuji and the Yearning for New Idealism

If Li Heping is too one-dimensional to generate excitement as a “positive” character, a more recent drama—which I refer to as a “counteridol” youth drama—manages to generate excitement about a “good” character on a different level.35

In 2007, word of a new television drama spread like wildfire, fanned by enthusiastic viewers’ response wherever the drama was shown. Like many other hit shows, this drama generated responses on the Internet in chat rooms, blogs, and various other vehicles, but, unlike most hit shows, the responses to this drama emphasized how “different” it was. Indeed, to many viewers, the drama was like a fresh breeze blowing out of their television screens.

The drama was Shibing tuji (Soldiers, be ready; hereafter, Soldiers).36 Scripted by Lan Xiaolong and directed by Kang Honglei, the appearance of Soldiers quickly captured the imagination of millions of viewers, who marveled at the “newness” of the show. What was new about it and why was its “newness” exciting to so many viewers? First, in terms of content, unlike most youth dramas, its story is exclusively about the lives of soldiers away from the civilian world and does not have a single female character. Unlike other militarily themed dramas, Soldiers does not include love interests or marriage issues in the personal lives of its soldiers and officers. The only family-related content appears in the beginning, when the protagonist Xu Sanduo is urged to join the army by (p.117) his widowed father (who has three sons, none of whom are married), and then sporadically in two other moments later in the story, both having to do with Xu’s all-male family. While the heavily homoerotic and masculinist dimensions remain invisible to almost all viewers in China, the exclusively male cast and their stories do set the drama apart from its counterparts in the category of military-related dramas and in youth-related ones.

Also refreshing or new is the protagonist Xu Sanduo. The story of Xu Sanduo is about how a poor rural young man, who is forced by his father to join the army and who is almost rejected, is transformed from a clumsy, clueless, but stubborn person into a well-trained but still clumsy, clueless, and stubborn soldier. The “transformation” of Xu Sanduo in the drama is informed by a desire to celebrate someone who can be “heroic” without any of the “normal” traces of a hero. As a “hero,” Xu Sanduo differs from traditional Mao era heroes, cynical Wang Shuo–esque youths, contemporary Chinese glamour-oriented middle-class youth idols, or white-collar chenggong renshi (successful professionals). Xu Sanduo’s difference from these mostly young cultural icons stems from his own version of antihero characteristics. One of his key characteristics is his single-minded way of doing what he believes to be the right thing and his supposed lack of the worldliness to know when to stop. Because of his unique personality, the drama is full of humorous moments brought about by Xu Sanduo’s seemingly unsophisticated behavior, including the questions he asks and the dialogue he has with other characters.

The drama begins ominously with a flashback in which Xu Sanduo, in a military exercise, falls from a fourteen-meter height to the ground. As he falls, his voiceover declares: “I made another mistake. They’ll laugh at me again.” In the midst of his fall, the drama flashes back to the moment in Xu Sanduo’s home village when his father tries to get this son accepted by the recruiting officer Shi Jin. The function of the episode is to show the kind of family Xu is from—a widowed father who mistreats his third son, Sanduo (which literally means “the third who is one too many”), and forces him to join the army because the old man believes that is the only way out of poverty for a rural boy. When Shi Jin, the military recruiter, comes to their home, the father clumsily tries to persuade him to take his son, whom Shi Jin knows does not quite fit the normal profile of a soldier. After a round of rather comical exchanges, Shi Jin feels compelled to turn what he sees as a weak but promising young man into a soldier.

Before becoming an acceptable soldier, however, Xu Sanduo has to endure an additional rejection when the battalion commander above Shi Jin refuses to accept him after the first three months of training. Indeed, Xu Sanduo is not “desirable material” to be made into a qualified soldier, and, as such, the only place for him is an outpost where a squad of five soldiers is stationed with very (p.118) little to do. Xu Sanduo’s arrival at that outpost is to change the entire place without his knowing that he is doing so. Before his arrival, owing to a lack of regular supervision, the squad has been reduced to a card-playing, wise-cracking place ruled by cynicism. Xu Sanduo, however, stubbornly believes that, as a soldier, he must do what a soldier must do regardless of where he is. Every day, he gets up on time, makes his bed according to what he was taught as a new soldier, and helps make the others’ beds because his fellow soldiers do not make theirs. He goes out for morning exercise alone while the rest of the squad remains in bed. He refuses to join card play, saying that it is meaningless (meiyou yiyi). He never seems to “get it” when his fellow soldiers sneer at him. His thickheadedness culminates when he accepts what he thinks is an order from his squad leaders to make a road in front of their post. When he starts the endeavor, the rest of the squad ignores him, believing that he will soon stop because of what they perceive to be the impossibility of the mission, only to realize that Xu is not going to give up.37

His sheer stubbornness finally moves the rest of the squad to join him in finishing the road. After that Xu Sanduo is “discovered” by the commander of his regiment and reposted to the battalion whose commander had refused to accept him and where Shi Jin is a squad leader. Xu Sanduo is placed in Shi Jin’s squad, where he goes through another long ordeal owing to the disdain on the part of everybody except Shi Jin toward his seeming lack of skills and his seeming slowness and thickheadedness. This particular dynamic remains the major thematic thread carried through the rest of the drama as Xu Sanduo, in his thickheaded and stubborn way, manages to surprise and subsequently impress all his fellow soldiers and officers.

In short, the military environment in which a civilian is supposed to be made into a well-trained soldier makes life doubly difficult for Xu Sanduo, a not particularly clever, savvy, or quick-minded individual. From the very beginning, he is looked down upon by those around him with a sense of incredulous bemusement, and he takes everything said to him so seriously that many exchanges become very funny. The others marvel at how he has one less or one more jin (literally “tendon,” which means “clue” here) than others and how he is like a “dog that always runs in the opposite direction” (ni zhe pao de gou). Ironically, of course, the seeming silliness on the part of Xu Sanduo always succeeds in turning the tables and makes others appear silly for underestimating him. In the end, as his battalion commander Gao Cheng finally remarks, Xu Sanduo is someone who, “although clearly a strong person, is born to appear like a nobody” (mingming yige qiang ren, tiansheng yifu xiongyang).

What is interesting about all of this is that Xu Sanduo does what he does based not on a particular doctrine, but on what he feels is the right thing to do. (p.119) What he feels is right has to have “meaning” (yiyi), and once he starts something that has “meaning,” he “never gives up” (bu paoqi, bu fangqi). Whenever he is asked what it means to have meaning (you yiyi), he always gives what seems to be a circular answer, “to live well is to do meaningful things, and to do meaningful things is to live well” (you yiyi jiu shi haohao huo, haohao huo jiu shizuo you yiyi de shi). Xu Sanduo, needless to say, is an idealized character. In many ways, so is the military environment that he finds himself in—every man in his own way is a good man. The idealism Xu Sanduo represents hinges on the desire to revive a kind of “spiritedness,” or jingshen, whose predominant characteristic is to do what is “meaningful.” The key question here is what to Xu Sanduo is “meaningful” and why his circular answer, in addition to the idealistic nature of this character, can generate such popular response. I will return to this Xu Sanduo philosophy shortly.

The combination of Xu Sanduo’s inner strength and his outward clueless-ness is what endears him to his “brothers” in the army and also to millions of viewers. When Baidu, the Chinese search engine, set up a page to select, on an annual basis, the ten most influential individuals in China, Wang Baoqiang, the actor who played Xu Sanduo, was chosen by Chinese “netizens” as the most influential person (born after 1980) for the year of 2007, topping other celebrity figures including Yao Ming (the basketball player for the Houston Rockets) and Han Han, a so-called born-in-the-1980s (ba ling hou) young writer.38 Wang’s presumed influence comes from playing the character Xu Sanduo, so, in essence, the most influential young person in China for the year 2007 is a fictional character created for a television drama. It is interesting to note that many online discussions about Wang Baoqiang, the actor who plays Xu Sanduo, make references to his life story as being like that of Xu Sanduo. The expectations placed on a real person based on a character he or she once played may not be news, but the extent of the identification has turned the actor into an unlikely youth idol in the popular culture. This viewer-imposed idol status and especially the expectations implied are surely daunting to the actor, but as a cultural phenomenon the status also poses interesting questions.

Shortly after the airing of Soldiers, responses began to show up on the Internet. Among them were comments to the effect that Xu Sanduo was a Chinese version of Forrest Gump. Counterarguments pointed out that Gump is a man of low IQ, while Xu Sanduo is not. While the counterarguments are on target, a more interesting and relevant question is why Xu Sanduo readily evokes Forrest Gump and how to understand the difference between the two. One of the key differences, I believe, is that, while both play the role of an “other” in society, their representations are nevertheless informed and shaped by very different historical and sociocultural logic. If the role of Forrest Gump is in part to (p.120) celebrate American small-town values and in part to celebrate the individual, Xu Sanduo’s “otherness” is meant to question existing norms, assumptions, and the lack of confidence to challenge them. Jokingly or endearingly described as a “dog that likes to run in the opposite direction,” Xu Sanduo’s responses to “common-sense” questions, statements, and assumptions create both numerous moments of comical release and moments of reaffirmation of certain (forgotten or marginalized) virtues and values. To be sure, like Forrest Gump, Xu Sanduo is not an antisocial rebel, and, as such, he may not appear to be a radical enough character to be taken seriously by critics. But the fact that the character Xu Sanduo has generated a tidal wave of responses from ordinary viewers sets him apart from the Gump-type characterization and compels us to take the character’s “otherness” seriously.

The editorial commentary on Wang Baoqiang having been chosen as the number one “most influential person of the post-1980 generation” for the year 2007, states that “it was a surprise when netizens supported Wang Baoqiang so strongly, but their support is also understandable. Wang Baoqiang represents the majority of the grassroots [in the society]. A great number of hardworking young people can find affirmation, hope, and strength in him.”39 It goes without saying that Xu Sanduo (and, by extension, the actor who played him) is inspirational. It also goes without saying that, if we unpack this “Xu Sanduo package” and analyze its composition, we can find layers of (most likely) conflicting meanings and in the end find the character deeply “mainstream.”

Played by Wang Baoqiang, an unlikely actor whose “career success” itself is reflective of the changes and contradictions in the era of economic reform,40 the character Xu Sanduo must first be understood in relation to all the other characters in the drama—his father, brothers, covillagers, fellow soldiers, and officers—and the military setting, and in relation to the larger historical context in which the mainstream culture has been undergoing a significant transformation. During the Mao era, the military was where revolutionary heroes and models—Lei Feng, Huang Jiguang, Dong Cunrui, and Zhang Side, to name the best-known ones—were created.41 These heroes comprised a mixture of heroism, revolutionary ideals, and revolutionary values that were translated into such virtues as altruism, bravery, and a willingness to “serve the people” (wei renmin fuwu) and to sacrifice oneself for the greater good. The Mao era’s official ideology that encouraged young people to cultivate a “revolutionary youth” (geming de qingchun) was embodied in these soldier-heroes. All of this, especially the idealism attached to these heroes, collapsed after the Cultural Revolution when, the entire revolution was thrown in doubt and when many young people became disillusioned in the face of subsequent rapid social and economic change. China entered an age of the “antihero,” symbolized by the (p.121) rise of glamour-oriented youth idols, nihilistic and self-interest-based philosophies of life, and Wang Shuo–esque characters whose function was mainly to poke fun at the revolution and its ideals. In the midst of all of this, along with the “bath water” went the “baby,” namely, the need for a fuller understanding of the meaning of China’s modern history in relation to revolutionary ideals, to a value system that combines spiritedness (jingshen) with a not too self-centered sense of the world, and to the question of why the revolutionary ideals have been marginalized if not completely jettisoned.

When, nearly three decades later, Soldiers unabashedly brings a kind of “heroism” and idealism back, it does so in response to a much-changed society. Unlike the Mao era’s soldier-heroes whose stories were dramatized in larger-than-life fashion, the protagonists in this television drama are “humanized,” with their flaws and personal quirks becoming a focus of narrative representation. What is more, with his lack of self-confidence and “worldliness,” his stubbornness, and his seeming slowness in getting the point, the main character Xu Sanduo is far from either an idealized revolutionary hero or a macho and clever antihero. And yet, this protagonist, along with all the individuals who come into contact with him, have turned the character and the actor who played him into a new kind of youth idol in today’s China. The question, however, remains: how do we understand this counteridol’s circular answer to the question of what is meaningful, or you yiyi.

Beyond Romance: Idealism in Postrevolutionary Youth

Xu Sanduo’s circular answer is symptomatic of the ideological ambiguity in contemporary China. While there is a desire for meaning that is more than material success and possessions, the society as a whole is unsure about what should constitute that meaning. On the one hand, the desire for meaning is produced via criticism, which explains the critical implications found in the Chinese-made youth drama (and in other subgenres) identified above. Social injustice, corruption, moral decay, and ambivalence represented in these dramas are meaningful especially when they generate responses from active viewers to the social ills that are televisually represented. However melodramatically they are rendered, or precisely because of the reorganization of the melodramatic elements, these mainstream cultural texts can be provocative enough to be meaningful to viewers. Their recognition and responses, in turn, help contribute additional meanings to these dramas. On the other hand, Xu Sanduo’s circular answer is also symptomatic of a void—indeed uncertainty—in the very notion of yiyi, or meaning itself. Meaning needs constantly to be searched for, symptomatic of the coexistence of ideological uncertainty and the possibility (p.122) for discursive struggle in contemporary China. In these dramas, meaning exists and is promoted in such ideal notions as “purity” (chun jie) and “goodness” (shan), loyalty to friends, or a willingness to persevere (bu paoqi, bu fangqi). “Meaning,” in this sense, corresponds to a collective desire for that which is considered to be “good,” which at the same time also leads us back to a similar circular question and answer: what, then, is “good”? When Xu Sanduo’s slogan bu paoqi, bu fangqi, or never give up and never give in, was picked up and took on a life of its own during the rescue and recovery operation immediately after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, this transference seemed to crystallize a moment of general selfless concern for those affected by the disaster. It also seemed to indicate that “goodness” is always contingent on when it is evoked.

The ideological implications, coming back to the dramas in question, lie precisely in the circular nature of this desire for meaning whose agency, often manifested melodramatically, functions to simultaneously expose and criticize as well as suture the social, cultural, and ideological discordance. The constant evocations of such “personal” virtues as purity, goodness, beauty, loyalty, friendship, and perseverance, simultaneously manifest a lack of such virtues and a desire to promote them, constituting a structure of feeling that is sentimentally meaningful while also symptomatic of an ideologically weakened awareness of the structural issues of the social changes—a quintessential postrevolutionary idealism. As such, televisual representations of youth in contemporary Chinese mainstream culture are symptomatic of the ideological uncertainties in the postrevolutionary era, but at the same time, to echo a point made at the beginning of the chapter, they are also indicative of a collective desire and search for ideals and idealism and of the cultural and ideological forces—and the tensions within them—that inform that desire and that search.


(1.) For discussions of the evolution of the category of youth in modern China and on its various implications, please see Frank Dikotter, Sex, Culture and Modernity in (p.182) China, and Mingwei Song, Long Live Youth: National Rejuvenation and the Chinese Bildungsroman, 1900–1958.

(4.) For information about what went on at Versailles, see standard texts on modern Chinese history including John Fairbank, China: A New History, and Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China.

(5.) Since the mid-1980s, questioning May Fourth has been one of the major scholarly trends in Chinese studies circles in the West. Like all historical movements, May Fourth may be subject to critical reevaluations for a long time to come, all the reevaluations informed by their own historical conditions and ideological stance. This latest round of critical attacks on the May Fourth movement stems from a shift in Western academia toward revolutions and radical social movements including non-Western nations’ struggles for national independence.

(6.) For a recent discussion of “revolutionary spirit,” see Wendy Larson, From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in Twentieth-Century China.

(10.) It is important to note that many of the same writers and critics, such as Zhang Chengzhi, Han Shaogong, Ah Cheng, and Li Tuo, to name just a few, have begun to reevaluate their own thinking and writing in the 1980s. Three decades of economic reforms and rapid “modernization” in China have generated new questions that have prompted many of them to rethink their earlier views. See for example, Zha Jianying, Bashi niandai fangtanlu (Interviews about the 1980s). Many of these and other writers’ additional reflections can be found on the Zuoan website http://www.eduww.com.

(11.) For a discussion on “eating a bowl of youth” (chi qingchun fan), see Zhang Zhen, “The ‘Rice Bowl of Youth’ in Fin de Siècle Urban China.”

(12.) Even though not all of the dramas from Korea are strictly of the “youth-idol” type, the television (together with the film) industry in Korea, nevertheless, has established itself as a powerhouse for generating shows that are not only popular in Korea, but also in other parts of East Asia (Japan, mainland China, and Taiwan). Most of these shows center on young characters and star some of the most well-known young Korean actors and actresses, whose beauty, though often the result of skilled cosmetic surgeries, has defined the most desired look for young people in these countries and regions.

(13.) The phenomenon of the “youth-idol drama” began in the early 1980s with importations of dramas from outside of China. The most notable example is the 1982 broadcast of the Japanese drama whose Chinese title is Xueyi (Blood in question). Its success (p.183) not only inaugurated what would later be known as qingchun ouxiang ju, or youth-idol dramas, but also made the young actors Yamaguchi Momoe and Miura Tomokazu two of the earliest youth idols in post-Mao China.

(14.) Qiong Yao’s fiction was introduced into mainland China around 1981 and generated the so-called Qiong Yao xianxiang, or Qiong Yao phenomenon. Early-twentieth-century “middle-brow” literature refers to the so-called Mandarin Duck and Butterfly literature and other similar writings popular among city dwellers in Shanghai. Qiong Yao’s “romance” novels, incidentally, can be set in either modern or unspecific “premodern” settings. When her gege novels (gege is a Manchu word for female, which tends to be translated as “young women, misses” in Chinese and today is often used in Chinese to refer specifically to daughters born into the Qing court or royal families) are adapted into television dramas, because of their settings and their “playful nature,” they are categorized as emperor dramas of the xishuo type. For a discussion of Qiong Yao in English, see Miriam Lang, “San Mao and Qiong Yao, a ‘Popular’ Pair.”

(16.) Regulations issued in 2000 by the State Administration of Radio and Television (Guojia Guangbo Dianshi Ju) stipulates that only 15 percent of prime-time slots should be devoted to imported television programs. See Zhu Guoliang, “Huangjin shiduan ‘fengsha’ yinjin ju” (Limiting imported dramas in prime time).

(18.) This claim mainly refers to the imitations produced in the late 1990s. Fen dou (Strive for success, 2007) is one recent example that is said to be “realistically” dealing with the lives of the young white-collar workers who were born after 1980 (the post-1980 generation).

(19.) See part 3, “Production, Reception, and Distribution,” in Zhu, Keane, and Bai, TV Drama in China, for discussion, in English, of some aspects of the reception issue. Also see Zhongguo dianshi guanzhong xianzhuang baogao (Reports on the viewership of Chinese television); Liu Yan and He Ru, “Dianshiju bianpai celüe yu guanzhong manyidu” (Television drama programming and viewers’ satisfaction).

(20.) Zhao is the director of a few hit television dramas, including Guo ba ying (Play to the fullest, 1993), Dong bian ri chu xi bian yu (East sunshine, west rain, 1996), Yong bu mingmu (Eyes forever open, 1999), Xiang wu xiang yu you xiang feng (Like fog like rain also like wind, 2000), Na shenme zhengjiu ni, wode airen (With what to save you, my loved one, 2001), and Biele, Wengehua (Good-bye, Vancouver, 2002). His meticulous attention to mise-en-scène and other visual elements to provide an up-to-date “modern” glamour has helped establish him as a weimei (beauty for beauty’s sake) type of director.

(21.) The two of them have also collaborated from time to time (on Eyes Forever Open and With What to Save You), but dramas based on Hai Yan’s fiction, including the ones directed by Zhao, are usually identified with the writer (as opposed to the directors).

(p.184) (22.) Born as Si Haiyan in 1954, Hai Yan is a self-claimed amateur writer, working as an upper-level manager of the Beijing Jinjiang Hotel Group (among other business titles). He is reported to have joined the army at the age of sixteen and later worked in the line of public security before becoming a manager. Through writing, he has become a famous figure in popular culture, and his success is uniquely symptomatic of the era in and about which he writes—few writers in China have had a writing career like that of Hai Yan, who owes his literary success (in terms of popularity) solely to the success of the television drama adaptations of his novels, a success that has in turn secured him celebrity status both in the print media at large and on the Internet. Because of his success, he has also become a legendary figure with a life experience that in part reflects the Chinese history of the past sixty years. Since first publishing Plain-Clothed Cops (Bianyi jingcha) in 1985, Hai Yan has written nine more novels, seven of which have been adapted into television dramas. He is also known to have participated in the planning (ce hua) of other dramas.

(23.) Hai Yan has participated in some of the adaptations of his novels, including Jade Goddess of Mercy and With What to Save You, My Loved One.

(24.) Such sentiments have been evoked and examined in recent studies of late Qing and early Republican history and culture. Because of an ideological orientation in the development of this trend, recent studies hold such sentiments to be more complex and less radical and one-dimensional than those produced by what is now termed the May Fourth movement. The irony is that when such sentiments reappear in contemporary Chinese culture mixed with additional historical and cultural legacies, they may not be seen as the real heir of that early middle-brow literature.

(25.) With regard to why certain television dramas become popular, one should be aware of possible deals involved in generating media hype. Recent court cases against some officials at the Chinese Central Television Station (CCTV) who were accused of receiving bribes for the broadcasting rights of certain television dramas are a reminder of such possibilities. When it comes to the Hai Yan phenomenon, additionally, it is not unlikely that the formula and content of his stories were fine-tuned by more than just the writer himself before they were brought to the television screen. Back-room manipulation (cao zuo) may well be part of the game. Nevertheless, these factors are not sufficient to explain the popularity of Hai Yan’s dramas (and other dramas identified, sometimes falsely, with his name). Within the context of the rapid social and economic transformations brought about by the market reforms in which questions of value, virtue, and what it means to be “good,” “real,” and “sincere” seem to have been pushed aside, Hai Yan dramas, their ideological clichés notwithstanding, appear to have touched a cultural nerve by bringing these seemingly outdated issues back. One is compelled to wonder about the structural implications in the representations in Hai Yan’s dramas and between this dramatic world and the everyday reality of the viewers who seem to be drawn to that imagined world.

(26.) For discussions in English of the late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century Chinese “urban generation” cinema, see Zhen Zhang, ed., The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.

(28.) Many of Wang Shuo’s stories portray so-called da yuan youngsters (1) who were “military brats,” (2) who were a few years younger than the Red Guard generation, (3) (p.185) who went to middle and high school during the Cultural Revolution, and (4) many of whom also went to the countryside toward the later part of the Cultural Revolution. One of his novellas, Dongwu xiongmeng, was adapted as Yangguang canlan de rizi (In the heat of the sun, 1996), a film about Mao era youth.

(29.) “字词解释:血色浪漫—1)残酷而又激越的青春,2)发自人的本心的纯真浪漫,3)带着探险式的浪漫,4)被烙上革命和战争时代的青春岁月‎” (http://baike.baidu.com/view/82329.htm).

(30.) “我们浪费掉了太多的青春,那是一段如此自以为是、又如此狼狈不堪的青春岁月,有欢笑,也有泪水;有朝气,也有颓废;有甜蜜,也有荒唐;有自信,也有迷茫。我们敏感,我们偏执,我们顽固到底地故作坚强;我们轻易的伤害别人,也轻易的被别人所伤,我们追逐于颓废的快乐,陶醉于寂寞的美丽;我们坚信自己与众不 同,坚信世界会因我而改变;我们觉醒其实我们已经不再年轻,我们前途或许也不再是无限的,其实它又何曾是无限的?曾经在某一瞬间,我们都以为自己长大了。但是有一天,我们终于发现,长大的含义除了欲望,还有勇气、责任、坚强以及某种必须的牺牲。在生活面前我们还都是孩子,其实我们从未长大,还不懂爱和被爱。‎”

(31.) Wendy Larson offers an interesting discussion on Lei Feng that is closely related to this point. In her somewhat imbalanced discussion pairing Lei Feng with Ah Q in Chinese revolutionary discourse, she seems to downplay the role of lixiang, or idealism—also a part of the “revolutionary spirit”—which is related to but goes beyond the “Lei Feng spirit.” See Wendy Larson, “Revolutionary Discourse and the Spirit: From Ah Q to Lei Feng,” in From Ah Q to Lei Feng, 77–113.

(32.) Ever since the first appearances of “positive” remembrances by former educated youth, critics have dismissed them as nostalgia. See Qiu Xinmu, “‘Zhishi qingnian shangshan xiaxiang’ yanjiu zongshu” (A summary of the research on the rustication movement of educated youth).

(33.) It is interesting to note that 2008 was the fortieth anniversary of the rustication movement, but, unlike in 1998, this anniversary was hardly mentioned in the media in China.

(35.) Shibing tuji, scripted by Lan Xiaolong (based on his 2003 novel of the same title) and directed by Kang Honglei, was a 2006 production aired in 2007.

(36.) Shibing tuji literally means “soldiers make a sudden attack.”

(37.) On the Internet there are sites where words, phrases, or sentences uttered by Xu Sanduo are listed by enthusiastic fans. Among them perhaps by now his most famous expression is bu paoqi, bu fangqi, or never give up and never give in. This slogan was picked up and took on a life its own during the rescue and recovery operation immediately after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008.

(38.) “Xu Sanduo: xiandai shenghuo de renwen huigui” (Xu Sanduo: the return of humanism in contemporary life), Baidu shouye renwu (Person on the cover page of Baidu), no. 11 (2007) (http://renwu.baidu.com/0711/index.html).

(40.) Wang was born into a peasant family in Hebei Province in 1984. Between the ages of eight and fourteen, he lived at the Shaolin Temple. He went to Beijing after his years at the temple and worked as an extra and a small-time actor. At the age of sixteen, he (p.186) was discovered by Li Yang, who placed him in Blind Shaft (Mang jing). The success of this film won Wang notoriety, and he has since appeared in some well-known films and television dramas. It was not, however, until his portrayal of Xu Sanduo that Wang Baoqiang became a household name. For more information, see http://baike.baidu.com/view/764555.htm.

(41.) Each of these individuals came from different times in the communist revolutionary period: Lei Feng (1940–1962) died during the Mao era; Huang Jiguang (1930–1952) died during the Korean War; Dong Cunrui (1929–1948) died during the Second Civil War (1945–1949); Zhang Side (1915–1944) died in Yan’an. During the Mao era, they became known as “revolutionary heroes.”