The Missing Link in Northeast China’s Cultural Revival
This is the second piece in a series on the “Dongbei Renaissance.” The first can be read here.
Can a single TV series remake the public image of an entire region? “The Long Season,” Tencent’s massively popular 12-episode thriller about a murder in China’s northeastern rust belt, has come close, as the show’s success has finally forced Chinese audiences to take the idea of a “Dongbei Rennaisance” seriously.
The notion that Dongbei, a Chinese term for the country’s three northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, is in the midst of a cultural revival is not new. The term was first coined in 2019 by the northeast-born rapper Gem. At first, it was treated as a joke, but the popularity of the region’s authors, musicians, stand-up comedians, and actors has only grown in the years since.
Well, some of them, anyway. With a few high-profile exceptions like comedian Li Xueqin, the driving forces behind Dongbei’s resurgence are overwhelmingly male. The stories they tell are likewise steeped in dated gender stereotypes.
In contrast to the radical gender politics that animated Chinese culture during the early 20th-century May Fourth Movement or the “culture fever” of the 1980s, the feminist gains of the past decade have faded amid the resurgence of patriarchal themes in literature, TV, and film. Dongbei has been at the forefront of this trend, as local filmmakers and authors explore Confucian filial piety, the reconciliation of fathers and sons, and family traditions.
Patriarchal metaphors are arguably baked into Dongbei’s identity: During the early years of the People’s Republic, the region was known as China’s “eldest son” for its importance to the country’s industry and economy. That status changed after China began marketizing its economy in the 1990s. Millions of layoffs hit the region’s state-owned factories, many of which closed for good.
Much of the Dongbei Renaissance seems to be a conscious response to the lingering feeling of emasculation those layoffs caused. Take “The Long Season,” for example. The show’s three male leads won plaudits for their nuanced, sensitive portrayals of men made redundant by a rapidly changing society. But the depth of their performances only highlights the lack of subjectivity of the show’s female characters. The women of “The Long Season” operate according to no coherent logic; they are two-dimensional and exist only to respond to men — or else confirm men’s stereotypes about women.
Shen Mo, a young university student, is alternatively tender and pure or fearless and fierce. At times, her roughness comes off like a caricature of the stereotypical boisterous, no-nonsense Dongbei woman. Yin Hong, another of the show’s prominent female characters, is essentially just an embodiment of tropes about women who tear down other women. After Luo Meisu, the wife of the show’s primary protagonist, dies by suicide, her husband almost never even thinks of her.
Then there is Huang Liru, whose character development is equal parts beguiling and baffling. A nurse, she first falls into bed with the factory director on the eve of a major round of layoffs, then inexplicably marries Gong Biao, a man with little talent and limited prospects. Finally, during a period of financial desperation, she gets together with another man, with whom she founds a beauty salon.
Sly, bold women who seem to exist solely to seduce men and stir up trouble are a dime a dozen in the Dongbei Renaissance: Think Anna and Yi Xiaonan in novelist Shuang Xuetao’s “The Deaf-Mute Age”; the narrator’s lover, Sui Fei, in Ban Yu’s best-known story “Winter Swim”; or Chen Guilin’s wife, Xiao Ju, in the 2011 film “The Piano in a Factory,” who abandons her husband for a businessman she believes can provide a better life for her and her daughter.
The men in these stories are far from perfect, but they’re portrayed as generally responsible, sensitive human beings. At best, the women are moved by the male characters’ perseverance and learn to tolerate their shortcomings. At worst, they’re scheming femmes fatales or delicate flowers who snap at their first encounter with toxic masculinity.
If literature and art are a reflection of a region’s history and culture, the leading lights of the Dongbei Renaissance have little excuse for turning their female characters into such two-dimensional archetypes. Throughout northeast China’s tortuous history — from its origins as a multiethnic, mostly nomadic frontier region to the collectivist factories of the early People’s Republic and even the layoffs of the 1990s — women have not only routinely performed the same work as men, they’ve also frequently acted as their household’s primary breadwinners.
As a relatively recent migrant to China’s northeast, I’ve been struck by the difference between the women I encounter every day and those being depicted on the country’s screens. I’ve seen little girls shrieking with laughter as they go toe-to-toe with boys; offices dominated by successful women; and female ramen chefs who are challenging gendered stereotypes about the profession. Why are their lives absent from the Dongbei Renaissance?
The literary scholar Liu Yan has argued that novels by Shuang Xuetao, Ban Yu, and Zheng Zhi — three of Dongbei’s most celebrated contemporary authors, all of whom hail from the same part of the northeastern city of Shenyang — don’t bear any relation to the actual experiences of working-class families. This is partly because they cannot seem to conceive of women as anything other than mothers or objects of desire. When Ban Yu chose to make the narrator of his story “Easy Ride” a woman, he had so few insights into her changing body and desires to offer that many readers may not have realized her gender until the story was almost over.
Compare that to the last flourishing of Dongbei culture, in the 1930s. After left-wing authors from the region fled the Japanese occupation in 1931, they produced a number of poignant works about the suffering of local families at the hands of their colonizers. One of the leading figures of that group was Xiao Hong, whose female characters exuded all the passion of living, breathing people. By that measure, the Dongbei Renaissance has a long way to go to reach the heights of its predecessor.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Wu Haiyun.
(Header image: A still from “The Long Season.” From Douban)