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2022-04-08 13:03:18 Voices

If there were ever an audience that could relate to being stuck in an endless time loop, it’s Chinese in the year 2022. So perhaps it’s no surprise that streaming giant iQiyi’s tale of two young people traveling back and forth in time, “Shining for One Thing,” has won over audiences and become a sleeper hit.

What sets “Shining” apart from similar shows like “Reset” — another time loop-themed series released this year — isn’t plot, but genre. “Shining,” which tells a story of young Chinese growing up and protecting each other, fits squarely into China’s once-vibrant “youth drama” genre, though whether the series’ success can revive the format remains to be seen.

In China, the “youth drama” is a specific TV show genre with over 30 years of history. Youth dramas have their roots in the early 1980s, in shows like “Once a Young Man” and “Idle Days,” which reflected on the tumult of the Cultural Revolution and the lives of the country’s first post-Mao generation. While these shows bore many of the hallmarks that would come to define the youth drama, they are better understood as predecessors to the genre, helping lay the foundation of what was to come.

The first Chinese youth drama in the true sense of the term was the 1989 series “Sweet Sixteen.” The show, which focused on a motley crew of junior high school students’ sometimes winding paths to maturity, represented a turning point in Chinese TV storytelling, offering a realistic view of the ignorance, trepidation, and rebellion inherent to growing up.

Previously, Chinese television had primarily revolved around adults. But the resounding success of “Sweet Sixteen” alerted producers to the largely untapped potential of younger viewers, and youth dramas quickly proliferated. As China’s pop culture industry took off, TV writers and producers began adapting tropes and storytelling conventions from across Asia in their work, most notably Japan’s “trendy dramas.” The shows they produced engaged with young viewers directly, catering to their tastes with frothy tales of young love and secret admirers.

A still from the 1998 TV series “Cherish Our Love Forever.” From Douban

A still from the 1998 TV series “Cherish Our Love Forever.” From Douban

The pinnacle of the genre’s early period is arguably 1998’s “Cherish Our Love Forever.” Not only did the series set new standards for production values, but it also pushed the boundaries of realism in its depictions of young romance. Tackling youth issues head-on, it didn’t hide from the reality of young love in a rapidly changing society — or the loss of innocence brought about by those changes.

After “Cherish,” youth dramas gradually came to dominate Chinese airwaves. It helped that the genre’s appeal was not limited to younger audiences. Young viewers certainly enjoyed seeing their lives reflected on screen, but even older audiences could appreciate the chance to relive their youth for an hour each evening.

Beginning in the 2000s, the youth drama market gradually split into two sub-categories. The first were so-called transplant dramas: either re-broadcasts or remakes of popular series from other Asian markets, such as the Taiwan-produced “Meteor Garden,” or adaptations, like the mainland-produced “The House of Apple.” These series featured attractive youth idols and plenty of flights of romantic fancy, often alongside superficial criticisms of contemporary youth culture.

A screenshot from the 2003 TV series “The House of Apple.” From Douban

A screenshot from the 2003 TV series “The House of Apple.” From Douban

The second category included more grounded dramas, such as Zhao Baogang’s “Youth Trilogy”: “Struggle,” “My Youthfulness,” and “Beijing Youth.” These shows sought to paint a portrait of young Chinese wavering between idealism and realism, with a particular emphasis on the transition from school to society.

Plagued by a lack of originality and creative focus, the genre has continued to subdivide itself into ever more niche categorizations.

Since around 2010, however, domestic youth dramas have fallen on hard times. Plagued by a lack of originality and creative focus, the genre has continued to subdivide itself into ever more niche categorizations, such as “cruel youth dramas” and “saccharine dramas.”

These new-style youth dramas, like “Fleet of Time” and “A Love So Beautiful,” take a dim view of the youth drama format, seeing it as little more than a vehicle for simplistic, emotion-driven stories. Their protagonists’ fates are either tragic or blissful; in both cases, they are quintessential “Mary Sues”: flawless heroes and heroines that audiences are invited to project themselves onto.

Behind this shift is TV producers’ growing obsession with online traffic and what the industry calls yanzhi, or “face value.” Excessively preoccupied with pandering to audience tastes, domestic youth dramas have become the entertainment equivalent of fast food, serving up blandly attractive actors in plots that seem calculated not to distract from the faces on screen. Stories are secondary, and the genre has been inundated with hollow adaptations of popular online novels and videogames.

These plots bear little relation to the lived experiences of the current generation of young Chinese. Tropes are repurposed between genres, stripping youth dramas of the very thing that made them special. Instead of tackling youth issues, today’s youth dramas tell sanitized versions of the “brusque company CEO falls for his subordinate” trope popularized by web novelists. The only real hint of the protagonists’ age is their school uniforms; their language and behavior are completely divorced from that of actual young people.

Although there are still good youth dramas being made — “With You” and “Stand by Me” come to mind — shows in the genre are generally low quality. Without any underlying cultural message or relevance, youth dramas have become pure fantasy.

A still from the 2022 online series “Shining for One Thing.” From Douban

A still from the 2022 online series “Shining for One Thing.” From Douban

That’s what makes “Shining for One Thing” such a rare pearl. Its story confronts viewers with both the beautiful and cruel sides of growing up, emphasizing youth not as a moment to be idealized, but as a process that, for better or worse, cannot be undone.

As the youth drama genre reaches middle age, it stands at a fork in the road. Creators and showrunners can either keep pandering to young people with vapid stories and perfect heroes — or they can deconstruct the genre and try to rediscover what made it shine in the first place. The desire to live in a fantasy world is understandable, but the most memorable shows are those that explore the simplest truths: youth is exciting, but fleeting; romance is alluring, but imperfect; and life rarely plays out how we expect.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Visual elements from Douban and VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)