Can China’s ‘Positive Dramas’ Take a Joke?
At first glance, Li Dakang, a central character on the hit 2017 series “In the Name of the People,” seems an unlikely candidate for fan favorite status: As the drab, thermos-toting Communist party secretary of fictional Jingzhou City, Li comes off more like a caricature of a middle-aged bureaucrat than a youth idol.
That didn’t bother viewers, however, who quickly set about making Li, played by actor Wu Gang, into a viral star. Online, Li’s fans, collectively known as “Darkcom,” posted semi-ironic slogans like “Protect Secretary Dakang’s double eyelids and thermos.” Other members of the Darkcom community cheered on the development-obsessed Li — a rare morally gray character in an otherwise black-and-white show — with chants like “don’t get dejected or GDP will fall” and by creating reaction GIFs based on his most notable lines.
In the process, Darkcom helped turn “In the Name of the People,” which was originally produced to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-graft campaign, into a genuine hit.
The show’s success, in turn, laid the groundwork for a popular resurgence of the Chinese TV genre known as zhengju, or “positive dramas.” Generally backed by the state and intended to propagate values, campaigns, or historical events deemed important by officials, the best zhengju, like “In the Name of the People” or more recent hits like “Minning Town” or “The Age of Awakening,” present a grounded, if idealized view of China that resonates with viewers tired of more overt political messaging.
But zhengju showrunners are also finding that contemporary viewers are rarely satisfied with passively consuming their work; instead, fans are repurposing positive dramas, turning them into memes that subvert or even outright contradict the series’ original goals.
Last year’s “The Age of Awakening,” which was produced in honor of the Communist Party’s centennial, offers a relatively benign example of the trend. On streaming sites, for example, the scene in which author Lu Xun writes “Diary of a Madman” is inundated by bullet comments — a kind of comment that scrolls over the video player — applauding the writer’s genius.
Bullet comments turn television into a participatory medium, enabling viewers to communicate with each other and pay homage to the show as they watch. Elsewhere on social media, some of the most popular scenes from “The Age of Awakening” were turned into reaction GIFs or spliced into short clips or music videos. The show’s director Zhang Yongxin, credited this groundswell of support with making “The Age of Awakening” a hit. “If we are the primary creators of ‘The Age of Awakening,’ then the viewers are its secondary creators.”
TV broadcasts have always been influenced by media technology, social relations, and cultural characteristics, and it’s relatively common for shows to acquire new meanings that transcend the intentions of their creators. This typically occurs through a process of contextualization; that is, works take on new connotations as they are interpreted and discussed by their audiences.
The advent of online technology has merely lowered the barriers to taking part in this process, allowing today’s viewers to play an increasingly active role in imbuing series with new layers of meaning. The emergence of online cultural phenomena such as bullet comments, reaction GIFs, and meme songs like the manic guichu have made audience-led secondary creation the norm.
As this online subculture evolves and goes mainstream, secondary content has become increasingly imaginative. The “meme-ification” of shows reflects the ways in which today’s audiences draw parallels between works of television and different cultural contexts or social realities. In the process of consuming media, they are contributing to its creation and reinterpretation — even media with serious political connotations and traditionally little room for alternative interpretations.
One of the most obvious consequences of this is the growing appeal of previously staid genres like zhengju. Take “The Age of Awakening” and “Minning Town,” for example. The former tells the story of the historical evolution of China from the New Culture Movement to the establishment of the Communist Party in 1921, while the latter focuses on the achievements China has made in its battle against poverty. These are not new topics on Chinese TV, yet both shows won over large youth audiences, with some viewers claiming they binged them twice or even three times in a row.
The popularity of the two series can be attributed in part to their objective quality. Politics also played a role: Younger Chinese are increasingly nationalist and leftist. But I would argue that the most important factor was the way audiences were able, through various new media, to interact with and even insert themselves into the action. This sense of participation not only helped raise the series’ ratings, but also helped the shows resonate, drawing new fans and enriching the viewing experience.
Even if it merely consists of sampling and remixing the original work, however, secondary creation can produce interpretations that deviate from the creators’ initial intentions. On its own, there’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth asking how new methods of content consumption are affecting Chinese viewers’ understanding of, and relationships with political TV.
Take “In the Name of the People,” for example. At its core, the show set out to tell a tale of institutional self-purification, the process by which an organic, albeit idealized political system can rectify its shortcomings without external interference.
If the show revolved around politics, corruption, and complex institutional power struggles, viewers’ reinterpretations of the series tended to eschew these dynamics in favor of idolizing an individual, Li, caught between the Party’s ideals and the realities of Chinese development. Although this hardly turns the show on its head, it nonetheless subverts the text of the script.
There are other questions worth interrogating here. For instance, do these new methods of cultural consumption actually enrich the viewing experience? Or are they flattening complex stories into idol culture? Regardless, creators need to be wary of the possibility that the erosion of textual authority means their shows, no matter how carefully vetted or produced, are not immune to popular reinterpretation.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: From left to right, memes from “The Age of Awakening,” “In the Name of the People,” and “Minning Town.” Visuals from Weibo and VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)