Updated: Oct 14
I'm constantly conflicted when I recommend C-dramas online.
Just like with K-dramas, when a Chinese drama resonates with me, I enthusiastically tell people around me to watch it.
I gush about character arcs, performances, the music, the clever use of tropes. Every word I write or say online is imbued with my affection for the story. I'm an enthusiastic endorser, an avid cheerleader. I use my tiny presence on the internet to push this story I like in front of more people.
All the while, I know that all of these stories had to first go through a process of vetting by the government of China.
The censorship conducted by the Chinese Communist Party is somewhat misunderstood. They don't just remove scenes and themes from stories according to their current social and political mood, they also add and modify the stories to support the Party's vision for the country.
When I'm watching a well made Chinese drama about a woman in her 30s navigating a relationship with a much younger man or two gamer boys becoming friends across time as they enter true adulthood, I don't want to think about the CCP vetting these stories to ensure nothing they say runs counter to the Party's policies.
I just want to watch a story unfold that strikes a chord in me. I don't want to think about the politics of the country which the creators of these dramas have no control over.
But dramas aren't isolated from politics.
And because of the stranglehold of the CCP on the movie and drama industry, every piece of work they produce is injected with a little bit of the government's propaganda.
It could be something quietly omnipresent in every drama, like the unusually high level of citizen trust in all government bodies.
Or it could be something the writer is forced to change major plot structures to accommodate.
For instance, in the 2021 drama, You Are My Glory - a romance drama full of wonderful couple moments - you have this secondary track of the male lead's career in aerospace.
He talks about how Chinese aerospace is 30-40 years behind the US but "it won't take them 30-40 years to catch up".
And sure enough, as the romantic relationship evolves over a decade you see his project to launch a deep space explorer slowly taking shape.
And this is something Chinese aerospace is actually planning to do over this next decade.
The climax of the 32 episode drama is the successful launch of this deep space explorer at around about 2030.
This is no coincidence.
I originally assumed that the writer wrote this ending with a goal of aspirational storytelling. It was wonderfully spun over years of the characters' lives, with their hard work and sacrifices inevitably bearing fruit.
The author of the original story, Gu Man, is also the scriptwriter for the drama, and therefore, the plot moves so seamlessly that if the change hadn't been pointed out to me by a reader, I would never have realised that anything had been changed.
Unsurprisingly, this part of the show is very focused on national pride, the hard work required to build a nation's infrastructure, and the personal sacrifices that help a country move forward.
Truly inspiring stuff.
Brought to you by CCP's censorship board. (Or people in production trying to get on the good side of the CCP to get the script passed.)
If you are of a mind to figure out just how deeply the censor board is involved in any production, you can take a look at the access they've been allowed.
The drama crew of You Are My Glory got to film extensively on the grounds of different aerospace facilities.
And yes, this is nothing out of the ordinary. Governments all over the world help their movie industries tell stories of their hopes, achievements and ambitions. That's how they support the growth of their soft power.
And the creators of You Are My Glory make good use of the CCP's support to tell the best story they can.
There are these ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS wide lens shots of the varied Chinese landscape as the male lead travels from one part of the country to another. The sheer vastness of China is incredible and mind boggling.
They show the night train traveling through hundreds of miles of completely flat land, buses carrying aerospace engineers into immense deserts, endless coastlines next to the launch center...
Everything inspires admiration.
You understand the pride the Chinese people must feel towards their country.
And then they further underline the themes of pride and loyalty towards the nation by describing the male lead's work in haloed terms. His choice to invest his youth and intelligence in a government job that asks for daily overtime for very little pay is romanticized to the point where it starts to feel like a recruitment ad (2). His colleague's troubled marriage because of his absence from the side of his ailing wife is resolved by the wife witnessing the fruit of her husband's years of labour - the successful launch of the explorer.
Where the original work had entirely focused on the choice between dreams and practicality, the second half of the drama became largely about the personal sacrifices needed for a nation's progress.
Did it make the story any less enjoyable? Absolutely not. I loved the drama so much, I've been talking about it for a week and I'm half way through a re-watch.
And this is the reason I feel conflicted.
When I sincerely recommend these dramas to friends and strangers online, it's because they are thoughtful and well made and I admire the work of these writers and directors.
But in doing so, how much am I spreading the words of a government that brutally squashes all criticism and demonizes citizens who raise their voices in protest?
You see, the sympathy and admiration You Are My Glory creates within the viewer with its skillful storytelling also benefits the goals of the CCP.
For instance, let's take the scenes where the male lead and his colleagues compare their current technology with the U.S.A.'s.
This is an old trick that helps the Chinese government constantly claim the role of underdog fighting to make its way to the top in a world where everybody wants it to lose.
You will find this theme repeated in most contemporary dramas where at some point the main characters will talk about how they're desperate to prove to the world that China can be the best in every field.
It willfully ignores the reality of China's dominance in politics and trade across the world, because acknowledging that would hobble the underdog narrative.
So, yes, even when I'm recommending a sweet romantic drama with a harmless parallel plot of China's dreams of expanding its reach into space, I'm indirectly supporting this narrative.
It's a bizarre quandary and I wish it didn't have to be this way.
I'm vehemently against placing blame on artists working in the Chinese drama industry because they're the ones living and surviving under a totalitarian government.
But I can't ignore how much the country's politics colours every aspect of storytelling in Chinese dramas.
So, my compromise (with my self) is to only recommend the dramas I feel strongly drawn to and never without pointing out problematic instances of clear government influence.
Cause talking about it is better than pretending it never happened.