Making new friends

Why a local drama inspired by a US show marks a new era for Chinese TV

Making new friends

Not exactly struggling: Ma Yilin and Tong Dawei star in the drama

To a generation that lived in the 1970s, the word ‘struggle’ is associated with the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and in particular with struggle meetings, where party officials were beaten and forced into self-criticism by Red Guards.

Struggle today is the title of one of the country’s most popular youth television dramas. Somewhat similar to the hit US series Friends, the show follows the lives and loves of a group of graduates, as they make their way in modern Beijing.

Like Rachel, Ross, Chandler et al, their ‘struggle’ is with contemporary urban life, careers and relationships – and not with being sent to the countryside for re-education. And like Friends, the drama has become something of a phenomenon – to such an extent that “Have you watched Struggle?” has become a popular form of greeting.

The show caters to an important demographic: the one-child generation. Born in the 1980s this group is a social experiment like no other on planet earth. They are the product of China’s one-child policy, and as such have grown up without brothers and sisters. And unlike generations before them – who grew up in poverty – they have experienced relative affluence. For this reason, they are often considered spoiled, selfish and over-indulged and have even been termed the ‘Little Emperor’ generation.

But the Little Emperors – now in their mid-twenties – have their own set of anxieties (as well as ambitions) and it seems to be these that Struggle has so successfully tapped into.

The drama focuses on the lives of six characters – hence the Friends analogy – three of whom are male buddies from university. The main character is Lu Tao, the son of a rich property developer, who follows his father into the property business.

In the show’s opening episodes Lu falls in love with his girlfriend’s best friend, Xia Lin – a betrayal which becomes the drama’s first ‘struggle’. Their relationship hits the rocks when Lu becomes more focused on money than love; and as a consequence she leaves him to further her own career, landing a job as a designer’s assistant in Paris.

Lu then buys a loft (another Friends link) and christens it ‘the Heartbroken Utopia.’ He then invites two university friends to move in with him.

The 40 episode show has many twists and turns, but climaxes with Lu realising that although he is rich, he isn’t happy and misses Xia.

The show, which is still being aired on networks around China, struck a chord with audiences partly thanks to the show’s humour, partly through its deft exploration of social issues and partly because of the chemistry between the heartthrob actors Ma Yili (Xia) and Tong Dawei (Lu). However, it also managed to capture something else: the spirit of the Little Emperor generation. The characters are decisive and individualistic; they do what they want, sometimes in spite of what their parents think. Unlike older generations of Chinese, they don’t hesitate; they seize the moment. And above all, in the face of all their struggles, they are optimistic about the future and its potential.

Struggle is also the first homegrown show to decisively capture the top slot in its category. In the 1990s Japanese imports such as Tokyo Love Story held sway in what is termed the ‘youth idol drama’ genre. More recently Korean dramas such as Winter Sonata proved most popular. The result was a deluge of Japanese and Korean shows.

A more self-confident China is now able to produce popular ‘cultural software’ of its own rather than import it. Struggle’s director, Zhao Baogang said he decided to make the series because he felt the current crop of dramas didn’t capture what young Chinese wanted to see. His sequel to Struggle – called Who Decides My Youth – has just started airing on CCTV, and Zhao plans another drama called Beijing Youth. He views the three as a ‘Youth Trilogy’.

And could that trilogy even get exported?

“Youth idol drama was always relatively weak in China,” says Wang Weiping, the deputy director of the Administration for Radio, Film and TV. “But Zhao Baogang is a big gun and his youth idol dramas can have a major social impact. I hope Zhao can make his youth idol dramas popular around the world and become the first person to compete with the Japanese and South Koreans in youth idol dramas.”

What Wang probably means here – given that Western television audiences have little interest in youth dramas from Asia – is that China might even sell Zhao’s shows to the Japanese and Korean TV networks. A case, perhaps, of the Little Emperors striking back…

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