Apr 03, 2016

China is smitten with a military-themed romantic television series from its neighbor South Korea. But for the Chinese army, it’s a love that’s not meant to be. 

To say that the show “Descendants of the Sun” is popular among Chinese is an understatement. On video-streaming website iQiyi, the series’ exclusive broadcaster in China, the first 10 episodes have racked up a combined 1.8 billion viewings. On microblogging platform Weibo, posts about the show have been read more than 8.6 billion times. Millions are eagerly anticipating the six remaining episodes, one of which will be released each week.

The series tells the story of a special forces captain, played by Korean heartthrob Song Joong-ki, who is deployed on a peacekeeping mission to the fictional country of Uruk. He leaves his love interest, an army surgeon played by Song Hye-kyo, behind in South Korea. Later she is deployed to Uruk as well, and their romance continues.

Doctor Kang Mo-yeon (Song Hye-kyo) glances back at Captain Yoo Si-jin (Song Joong-ki) in a still frame from ‘Descendants of the Sun.’  IC

Jiang Ziwei, a 25-year-old from eastern China’s Fujian province, is among the show’s legion of Chinese fans. She told Sixth Tone that while she thinks military storylines rarely make for appealing television dramas, “Descendants” is different. She likes it for its combination of modern plot and beautiful people. “The male lead is especially attractive,” she said.

The popularity of “Descendants” has many in China asking why there are so few Chinese military shows that capture the imagination of audiences the way South Korean ones do, and play a part in boosting the image of China’s armed forces — the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

At a Ministry of National Defense press conference on March 31, a reporter even asked what China might learn from South Korea in order to make the PLA more appealing to the nation. The spokesman, who said that he too was a fan of military dramas, declined to comment specifically on “Descendants.”

Chinese military-themed dramas mostly focus on the Japanese occupation and are popular mainly among older Chinese. “Descendants” fan Jiang, for example, said these shows provide little appeal for people her age. Some feature what she describes as “crazy plot lines where people tear apart Japanese soldiers with their bare hands.”

The camera rolls as actors dressed as wartime Chinese soldiers act out an attack by enemy artillery, July 24, 2015. Filming of the television series takes place near Hengdian World Studios, Zhejiang province.  Damir Sagolj/Reuters/VCG

The “Descendants” debate has prompted some commentators from newspapers linked to the PLA to lament the quality of China’s own productions. 

One writer described Chinese military shows as “tasteless and boring.” Another said China hadn’t had a blockbuster military TV drama that appealed to a broad audience in a decade, let alone one that could appeal to viewers overseas. 

The last military show to garner a wide viewership was “Soldiers Sortie,” which first aired in 2006.

“When it comes to popularizing the military, isn’t this what we should hope to achieve as well?” said yet another commentary.

Still, a Chinese equivalent of “Descendants” could be a long way off.

On her blog, media commentator Wen Jing said that producing such a show in China would not be not easy, citing the distance between the PLA and the entertainment industry and the tight web of regulations that constrict military shows as potential obstacles. She also said those involved in the production of current military-themed dramas were too old to understand today’s young people and their tastes.  

Wen Haojie, a scriptwriter who has worked on military shows in the past, said in an interview with Sixth Tone that in China love cannot be the main thread in a military-themed script: “If the story does not closely resemble the actual military, then they will not support your show.”

In Wen Haojie’s view, a Chinese drama along the lines of “Descendants” could be a hit with the public, but a military story in which the protagonists have the time for romance would probably be dismissed by Chinese soldiers as unrealistic. “Their reaction would be, ‘We don’t have that luxury,’” he said.

Additional reporting by Wang Lianzhang.

(Header image: Xu Sanduo, played by Wang Baoqiang, crawls through a muddy training obstacle in a still frame from Soldiers Sortie.  Xiong Tao/VCG)