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Chinese Idol Survival Shows – The Start of a New ‘Idol Era’

Idol reality survival shows are riding a new wave of popularity in China.

Yin Lin Tan

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China has a vibrant online popular culture media environment, where new trends and genres come and go every single day. Chinese idol survival shows, however, have seen continued success and now seem to go through another major peak in popularity. What’s on Weibo’s Yin Lin explains.

On May 30, the finale of Chinese online video platform iQIYI’s Youth With You 2 (青春有你2) broke the Internet. Official videos on iQIYI’s Youtube channel garnered over 300 million views. At the time of writing, the hashtag “Youth With You 2 Finale” (#青春有你2总决赛#) has 3.15 billion views; the hashtag “Youth With You 2” (#青春有你2#) has 14.5 billion views. 

In recent years, China has produced a slew of so-called ‘idol survival shows.’ They have enjoyed much popularity among local audiences, as well as overseas—more than 393 hashtags related to Youth With You 2 trended in Asia, Europe, South America, and North America. In this overview, we explore the background, status quo, and future of China’s idol survival shows.

 

The Start of The ‘Idol Wave’ in China 

 

In China’s idol survival reality shows, so-called ‘trainees’, or aspiring idols, participate in a series of different challenges to compete for a chance to debut.

The ‘idol culture’ (偶像文化) has been dominating popular culture in Japan and South Korea for many years. An idol is, in short, a heavily commercialized multi-talented entertainer that is marketed – sometimes as a product – for image, attractiveness, and personality, either alone or with a group.

Especially K-pop and the Korean entertainment industry have since long been extremely popular among Chinese youth, heavily influencing pop culture in China today (more about Korean and Japanese idols here and here, and also read our article “Why Korean Idol Groups Got So Big in China and are Conquering the World“).

These kinds of shows are ubiquitous in South Korea’s popular culture, with Produce 101 (2016) becoming one of the most popular and successful South Korean reality series ever. 

The concept is simple. Every week, viewers vote for their favorite contestant. Trainees with insufficient votes during elimination rounds are eliminated from the competition. 

Nine Percent, the group formed from Idol Producer (Source).

The group formed from the final trainees then goes on to ‘promote’ for a period of time, usually one to two years.

This method of creating an idol group, in which the members are basically selected by their own fans, is a major way to bridge existing distances between fans and their idols. Fan participation is a key factor in the success of idol reality shows.

While China has had several idol survival shows, iQIYI’s Idol Producer (青春有你, 2018) was the first to reach levels of popularity similar to that of South Korea’s Produce 101

Idol Producer premiered in January 2018 with Zhang Yixing as the host and Li Ronghao, MC Jin, Cheng Xiao, Zhou Jieqiong, and Jackson Wang serving as mentors.

This first season of Idol Producer brought together a total of hundred trainees. Though most trainees were from China, there were a few from overseas, such as You Zhangjing from Malaysia and Huang Shuhao from Thailand. The younger brother of Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, Fan Chengcheng, also participated in the show.

The first episode of Idol Producer attracted more than 100 million views within the first hour of broadcasting. In the final episode, more than 180 million votes were cast, with first-place winner Cai Xukun raking in more than 47 million votes.  

Trainees performing on Produce 101 China (Source).

Two months after Idol Producer, Tencent launched Produce 101 China (创造101) in March 2018. Both shows marked the start of the ‘idol wave’ in China. 

In the next two years, more idol survival shows would dominate the Chinese entertainment scene. iQIYI released Youth With You 1 (青春有你) and Youth With You 2 (青春有你2) in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Tencent, too, released Produce Camp 2019 (创造营2019) and Produce Camp 2020 (创造营2020), the latter of which is currently airing. 

 

China’s New Idol Survival Show Era 

 

In 2018, both Produce 101 China and Idol Producer enjoyed overwhelming popularity, accumulating more than 4.73 billion views and 3 billion views respectively. Their sequels, however, have failed to achieve the same level of success.

At the time of writing, 150,000 viewers have completed Youth With You 1 on Chinese community site Douban, versus 470,000 viewers for its predecessor, Idol Producer. Additionally, the number of votes cast for the first episode of Youth With You 1 was much lower compared to its Idol Producer equivalent. 

The number of votes for the top 19 trainees on Idol Producer (left) versus Youth With You 1 (right) in the first episode (Source).

As for Produce 101 China, 510,000 viewers have completed the show on Douban, but only 340,000 viewers have finished watching its sequel. 

Groups formed from these shows have met with varying amounts of success and have run into problems regarding scheduling conflicts. 

Nine Percent, the boy group formed from Idol Producer in 2018, was known as a group that rarely met. Their second album was a compilation of tracks from solo members. Members had existing contracts with their own companies while simultaneously promoting with Nine Percent; hence, due to scheduling conflicts, members would often forgo Nine Percent activities for those of their own company. 

Rocket Girls from Produce 101 China. (Source)

Rocket Girls, formed from Produce 101 China, also faced problems after debuting. Due to conflicts between Tencent and their management company, Yuehua Entertainment, Meng Meiqi and Wu Xuanyi, who placed first and second respectively, left the group two months after debut.

Despite the problems faced by groups formed from such shows, some idols were able to ride on the momentum they gained from participating.

For instance, Cai Xukun, first-place winner of Idol Producer, swiftly rose to become one of the most popular trainees on the show, consistently ranking first place in every round of elimination. He was also the host of the recently concluded Youth With You 2.

Liu Yuxin obtained first place in the last episode of Youth With You 2. (Source)

Other trainees have also seen individual success. Liu Yuxin, the first-place winner of Youth With You 2, gained attention for her androgynous look: short hair, a cool personality, and wearing shorts instead of a skirt. Her hashtag “Liu Yuxin” (#刘雨昕#) has been viewed more than 550 million times on Weibo. In the final episode, she received more than 17 million votes.

Despite the lowering audience ratings for other recent idol shows, the success of Youth With You 2 might mark the start of a new ‘idol era’. Even Chinese netizens wondered why the show is so popular compared to Youth With You 1.

Just one day after the finale premiered, the hashtag “Youth With You 2 Finale” had already been viewed more than 2.2 billion times on Weibo. On Douban, 580,000 viewers have finished the show—more than any of the previous idol survival shows by iQIYI and Tencent.

 

The Future of Idol Survival Shows 

 

Chinese idol survival shows were received with much fanfare when they first entered mainstream popular culture in 2018. But the ensuing conflicts that the resulting groups ran into resulted in netizens doubting the success and effectiveness of these shows. 

Trainees from Produce Camp 2020 practicing for the theme song. Source

This year, however, the popularity of both Youth With You 2 and Produce Camp 2020 might signal a comeback for the idol era in China.

And this time around, Chinese idol survival shows are also gaining more traction outside of the PRC, becoming more and more popular among global audiences. Both Youth With You 2 and Produce Camp 2020 have been well-received by viewers from many different countries.

On social media, online commenters praise the two shows – and Chinese idol survival shows in general – for having a more “laid-back atmosphere” between the trainees and mentors. Web users also comment that they enjoy how the shows highlight the friendship between the trainees, rather than the feuds.

It seems that what sets Chinese idol survival shows apart from the South Korean ones is precisely why some viewers prefer them. The longer running times, for example, makes it possible to give more screen time to the different trainees and to give a deeper understanding of the relations between them.

Youtube comment on Episode 1 of Produce Camp 2020. Source

Youtube comment on Episode 1 of Produce Camp 2020. Source

Reddit comment on Episode 9 of Idol Producer. Source

With the popularity of idols like Liu Yuxin and Wang Ju who challenge conventional beauty standards, shows can also look into moving away from the cookie-cutter aesthetic that idols usually adhere to. 

Furthermore, management companies and broadcasting companies have to come to an agreement regarding what scheduling arrangement would benefit all parties and be conducive towards the idols’ physical and mental health. 

Selected trainees from Produce Camp 2020 took part in a photoshoot with Elle. Source

It remains to be seen whether THE9, the newly formed group from Youth With You 2, will be able to flourish in the time to come and avoid the troubles that other groups ran into. 

As for Produce Camp 2020, it seems set to enjoy just as much success as Youth With You 2 did – if not more. Only five episodes have been released, but the show’s hashtag already has 16.1 billion views.

A reviewer on Douban writes: “The trainees are all confident, taking opportunities to express themselves and actively showcase their talents. So much youthful and positive energy!” 

The latest newcomers to the idol reality show genre further consolidate the success of the format. Recently, Mango TV released Sisters Who Make Waves (乘风波浪的姐姐们, 2020), where female celebrities above 30 years old compete to make it into the final five-member girl group. The first episode was viewed more than 370 million times within the first three days of release and immediately became top trending on Weibo.

The number of survival shows in China right now and their growing popularity shows that audiences seemingly can’t get enough of the genre. It is an indication that, despite setbacks in the past, China’s idol survival reality show genre is still going strong and might be here to stay.

You can watch the currently airing Produce Camp 2020 and Sisters Who Make Waves here and here.

By Yin Lin Tan

 Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Yin Lin Tan is a Singapore-based writer and aspiring journalist specialized in culture and current affairs. She is particularly interested in exploring issues related to East Asia, with a special focus on China. Yin Lin can be reached at tylanin[at]gmail[dot]com.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Social Media Reactions to The New York Times Bad Review of ‘Wandering Earth 2’

A New York Times bad review of ‘Wandering Earth II’ has triggered online discussions: “China’s gonna save the world, the US can’t stand it.”

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This Chinese Spring Festival, it’s all about going to the movies. After sluggish years for China’s movie market during the pandemic, Chinese cinemas welcomed millions of visitors back to the theaters during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.

Much-anticipated new movies attracted Chinese moviegoers this festive season, including Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the suspenseful Hidden Blade, or the animated Deep Sea by Tian Xiaopeng.

But the undisputed Spring Festival box office champion of 2023 is Frant Gwo’s Wandering Earth II (流浪地球II), the sequel to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (2019), which also became the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

The narrative of the follow-up movie Wandering Earth II actually takes place before the events of the first film and focuses on the efforts by the United Earth Government (UEG) to propel the Earth out of the solar system to avoid planetary disaster. This so-called Moving Mountain Project – which later becomes the Wandering Earth Project – is not just met with protest (the majority of Americans don’t believe in it), it also bans the Digital Life Project, which supports the idea that the future of humanity can be saved by preserving human consciousness on computers (backed by an American majority). The film is all about hope and resilience, human destiny, and geopolitics at a time of apocalyptic chaos.

Outside of China, the sequel was also released in, among others, North American, Australian, and UK cinemas.

Although the film, featuring movie stars Wu Jing and Andy Lau, received an 8.2 on the Chinese rating & review platform Douban, a 9.4 on movie ticketing app Maoyan, dozens of positive reviews on Bilibili, and was overall very well-received among Chinese viewers, a bad review by The New York Times triggered discussions on Chinese social media this weekend.

Chinese media outlet The Observer (观察者网) initiated a Weibo hashtag about “The New York Times‘s completely sour review of Wandering Earth II” (#纽约时报酸味拉满差评流浪地球2#, 6.2 million views at time of writing).

The New York Times review of Wandering Earth II, titled “The Wandering Earth II Review: It Wanders Too Far,” was written by Brandon Yu and published in print on January 27, 2023.

Yu does not have a lot of good things to say about China’s latest blockbuster. Although he calls the 2019 The Wandering Earth “entertaining enough,” he writes that the sequel is a movie that is “audaciously messy” and has lost “all of the glee” its predecessor had:

“(..) the movie instead offers nearly three hours of convoluted storylines, undercooked themes and a tangle of confused, glaringly state-approved political subtext.”

The topic was discussed on Chinese social media using various hashtags, including “The New York Times Gave Wandering Earth II a 3″ (#纽约时报给流浪地球打30分#, #纽约时报给流浪地球2打30分#).

Instead of triggering anger, the bad review actually instilled a sense of pride among many Chinese, who argued that the review showed the impact the movie has made. Some commenters pointed out that the movie is a new milestone in Chinese cinema, not just threatening America’s domination of the movie industry but also setting a narrative in which China leads the way.

“We’re gonna save the world, and America just can’t stand it,” one commenter replied.

That same view was also reiterated by other bloggers. The author and history blogger Zhang Yi’an (@张忆安-龙战于野) argued that The New York Times review was not necessarily bad; it actually shows that Americans feel threatened by the idea of China’s important role in a new international world order, and by the fact that China actually will have the capacity to lead the way when it comes to, for example, space technology innovation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Zhang argues that if a similar movie had been made by India as a Bollywood blockbuster – including exploding suns and wandering earths – The New York Times would have been more forgiving and might have even called it cute or silly.

But because this is China, the film’s success and its narrative plays into existing fears over China’s rise, and it clashes with American values about what the international community should look like.

Zhang writes: “The China in the movie doesn’t boast itself as the savior of the world, but in reality, China really is capable of saving the world. The United States is no longer able to do so (电影里的中国没有把自己吹嘘成救世主,现实中的中国真的有能力做救世主。而美国却已经不能了).”

One popular Film & TV account (@影视综艺君) also summarized the general online reaction to the bad review in the American newspaper: “Whenever the enemy gets scared, it must mean we’re doing it right. Our cultural export has succeeded.” That post received over 120,000 likes.

On Zhihu.com, some commenters also attached little value to the review and showed how the overseas reviews of Wandering Earth II widely varied in their verdict.

Meanwhile, a state media-initiated hashtag on Weibo claimed on January 28 that Wandering Earth II has actually “captured the hearts of many overseas audiences” (#流浪地球2海外上映获好评#), and that the film’s “imaginative” and “wonderful” visuals combined with its strong storyline were being praised by moviegoers outside of China.

On IMDB, the movie has received 5.9/10; it has gotten a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score. The Guardian gave it 2/5. Meanwhile, on Weibo, one reviewer after the other gives the film 5/5 stars.

Weibo blogger Lang Yanzhi (@郎言志) writes: “Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks and slander directed at the China-made science fiction movie Wandering Earth 2, especially coming from Western media and pro-Western forces, because the film’s “Chinese salvation” narrative made them uncomfortable. This was already the case when the first film in the series was released. It is very clear that Wandering Earth is not just a movie: it is a symbol of great influence.”

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Zilan Qian

 

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China Arts & Entertainment

Behind the Short Feature Film of the Spring Festival Gala

The first-ever ‘mini film’ of the Spring Festival Gala struck a chord with viewers for its strong storytelling and authentic production.

Manya Koetse

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This precious and powerful short film by Zhang Dapeng has touched the hearts of Spring Festival Gala viewers. But there is more to the short film than meets the eye. Here’s the noteworthy story behind the 7-minute Spring Festival Mini Film.

On January 21, 2023, China’s Spring Festival Gala, hosted by China Media Group, kicked off the Year of the Rabbit. The annual show, which featured forty different acts and performances, lasted over four hours and attracted millions of viewers worldwide (see our liveblog here, and see a top 5 highlight of the show here).

Traditionally, the Spring Festival Gala always shows several short public service ad films in between the performances, but this year was the first time the Gala featured a “mini-film” or “micro film” (微电影).

Titled Me and My Spring Festival Night (“我和我的春晚”), the 7-minute film was praised among viewers. On Weibo, one hashtag dedicated to the short film received over nine million clicks (#我和我的春晚#).

The film was directed by the Beijing director Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏). Born in 1984, Zhang is a Beijing Film Academy graduate who previously attracted wide attention for directing the Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year movie and the brilliant ad campaign that came with it. Titled What Is Peppa, that short ad film featured a grandfather living in rural China who goes on a quest to find out what ‘Peppa’ is. The promotional video became an absolute viral hit back in 2019 (see/read more here).

Still from ‘What is Peppa.’ 2019.

This time, Zhang’s latest Chinese New Year film is about a hard-working former military man from China’s countryside named Zhang Jianguo (张建国), for whom coming on the show to play the trumpet has been a dream for many years. By featuring his story, the film takes us from the Chinese 1980s, 90s, 00s – as we see him change jobs, move around, and start a family – up to the present.

The main idea behind the film was to honor all the ordinary viewers who have written – and are still writing – to the Gala ever since it first aired in the early 1980s, and to tell a story inspired by these personal letters and ordinary viewers.

Short Summary of “Me and My Chunwan”

At the start of the film, we see Zhang Jianguo dusting off his military honorary awards (光荣军属), putting on his jacket, grabbing his thermos flask and trumpet, and setting out on a journey in the midst of winter.

Riding an electric tricycle in the icy cold, his driver (actor Huang Bo 黄渤) asks him where he is going. “Can you keep your mouth shut?” Zhang replies (“你嘴严实不严实”). “I can,” the driver says, and Zhang then says: “So can I.”

The voiceover narration, a first-person narrative by Zhang himself, explains that he has always been busy: “I never had time for the Spring Festival Gala. My Spring Festival fate is all because of something my captain said.”

The film jumps to a scene showing Zhang as a young military man during the Chinese New Year’s Eve, working outside while people are watching the Spring Festival Gala on a small black and white television inside. As his commander (played by Wu Jing 吴京) hands him his trumpet, he says: “Go and play your trumpet on the television.”

“If the leader asks me to go on the Spring Festival Gala, it’s a task I must complete,” the voice-over says.

But in the military scene itself, duty calls and Zhang has to blow the trumpet to announce dinner time.

In the years that follow, Zhang is always busy during the Spring Festival Gala. Working in the factory, getting married, working on a train, farming cattle, taking care of his family, and always cooking. His trumpet is still there with him, to announce dinner time or hanging on the wall as a memory of times past.

As the years pass by, Zhang realizes that he has gradually forgotten about his commander’s words. Time moves fast. First, he had a son, then his son grew taller than himself, and then his son had his own son. “And I still had never been to the Spring Festival Gala.”

With his captain’s words back on his mind, Zhang, now an older man, sets out on his journey without telling anyone. By foot, by electric tricycle, by bus, and by train, Zhang travels all the way to the famous Beijing Studio 1 to perform at the Spring Festival Gala after being “too busy” for forty years.

Backstage at the Spring Festival Gala, Zhang sits down with famous Chinese Spring Festival Gala performers (Ma Li 马丽 and Shen Teng 沈腾). While unpacking his lunchbox, he tells them he was finally not too busy to come on the show: “I wrote a letter and here I am.” “It’s that simple?” Ma Li wonders.

The producer then rushes to come and get Zhang, who bravely walks towards the stage with his old little trumpet.

A female voice-over then reads out a message, while we see various scenes throughout the years showing Zhang – from young to old – writing letters to CCTV from wherever he is.

The female narrator says: “Dear Uncle Zhang, we’ve received your letter regarding your hopes to realize your cherished stage dream. In this age of emailing, and knowing that you’ve been writing us for 39 years, we’re moved and feel guilty. Our reply may be late, but not our sincerity..

Meanwhile, we see a flashback to a mailman pulling up to old Zhang’s home (the mailman is the actor Wang Baoqiang), and the old Zhang finally receives that much-anticipated letter from CCTV at his remote rural home.

The female narrator continues: “This year, we proudly invite you to be a guest at the Spring Festival Gala and to “ring the dinner bell” [play the sound announcing dinner]. Sincerely, the Spring Festival Director Committee.

In the final shot, we see Zhang blowing the trumpet at the Gala, with flashbacks showing him blowing that trumpet in all those decades before. He has finally made it to the big stage.

A Noteworthy Story

While Me and My Spring Festival Night received a lot of praise on Chinese social media, the story behind the film was not immediately clear to many viewers celebrating the Chinese New Year, but it was explained in several articles and interviews with director Zhang Dapeng.

During the live-televised Spring Festival Gala itself, the airing of Me and My Spring Festival Night was directly followed up by a shot featuring a person (a veteran) in the audience standing up and actually playing the trumpet.

Directly after, the song “Goodmorning Sunshine” began, representing multiple people from all kinds of professions and social groups. About one minute into the song, the camera turns to another audience member: the person who plays ‘Uncle Zhang’ in the mini-film. Later in the song, we can see he is wiping away tears, visibly moved.

Why was he so moved? The older man in the audience, the main ‘Uncle Zhang’ actor in the film, is Jin Changyong (金长勇), and he actually is not a professional actor.

Somewhat similar to the character Zhang Jianguo, Jin Changyong or “Uncle Jin” (金叔) is a hardworking veteran from Hebei’s Huailai County in Zhangjiakou.

Jin Changyong is a 63-year-old farmer who is also active at the Hebei Tianmo Film and TV Park doing security and logistics-related jobs. He served in the army for four years from the age of 19, as, among others, a military chef.

Director Zhang Dapdeng came across ‘Uncle Jin’ one day while shooting another film at the studio. While Jin was busy doing kitchen work, director Zhang saw him and, as he later recounts, was struck by his face that showed he had “lived through many changes” (“这种饱经沧桑的脸”).

Zhang later invited Uncle Jin to star in the movie, and he also made sure Jin’s own story played a role in the script.

Director Zhang Dapeng, image via CCTV.

This makes this short movie all the more special, something which has since been discussed on Chinese social media (#春晚微电影的主演是普通农民#).

The surprising twist in the story is how Zhang Jianguo tells other people he has just always been “too busy” to attend the Gala, while he had in fact already written to the show for 39 years with the hope of one day being invited.

Another noteworthy aspect of the film is how Zhang Dapeng chose to cast some of China’s most celebrated actors as supporting roles to lift up the main character and actor, Jin, who was inexperienced and learnt from his fellow players.

In an interview, Jin expressed that the entire experience of playing in this short film left his overcome with emotion. After the filming had ended, he told reporters that he had sleepless nights because he had not received an actual invitation to the Spring Festival Gala yet, something which he so very much hoped for. Just one week before the show, that invitation finally came.

The fact that Jin, in a way, played a man like himself in the short movie has added to the film’s popularity.

“I was sincerely moved by this film,” one commenter wrote, with others saying: “This was the best program I’ve seen on the Gala over the past decade.”

While some people also remarked that the short film seemed to have been influenced by The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, others praised it for its originality.

“This was just the best part of the night,” several commenters said: “It made me cry.”

“Zhang Pengda – a name to remember,” others wrote.

You can watch the short film on Youtube here.

By Manya Koetse 

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