The World of Chinese




Frozen landscapes, down-on-their-luck workers, desolate factory towns: These are recognizab­le tropes from movies, books, and art set in China’s Northeast, which has gained an outsized influence on the arts despite its small population and relatively short history. What made this former industrial cradle such fertile ground for creativity?

In 2019, a chance encounter in a dance hall spawned a song viewed by billions. That year singer-songwriter Liu Shuang met an elderly man in China’s northernmo­st city, Mohe, and decided to write a song based on the man’s tragic story: losing his wife in a fire in the 1980s, and returning alone to the old haunt where they used to dance together.

But Liu never expected “Mohe Ballroom” would go viral. With 2 billion views on Douyin (the Chinese version for Tiktok) as of November 2021, the song became the latest icon of China’s “Northeaste­rn Renaissanc­e (东北文艺复兴),” a loose genre of literature, music, film, and TV shows set in China’s three northeaste­rn provinces—liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjia­ng—collective­ly known as “Dongbei.”

The phrase was etched into the popular imaginatio­n in 2019, when Jilin-born singer Dong Baoshi used it on a comedy show to poke fun at the success of his song “Wild Wolf Disco.” In the following years, the “Northeast Renaissanc­e” label has been applied to almost every successful work about Dongbei.

In some ways, the works categorize­d under the Northeast Renaissanc­e are very different: from the gritty

2014 crime film Black Coal, Thin

Ice, which explores a series of grisly murders, to the light-hearted TV series Country Love (2006), describing trifling matters in rural life. But there are some shared elements: freezing temperatur­es; abandoned industrial plants and factory towns; and an atmosphere of despair and stagnation, stemming from the job losses due to deindustri­alization in the 1990s and the subsequent rise in crime, violence, and alcoholism.

These seem to have formed a fixed set of archetypes for all Northeaste­rn narratives, whether they are played straight as in the noir-ish Black Coal; for irony, as in comedies like Country Love; or even for nostalgia like in “Mohe Ballroom” or the film Manchurian Tiger (2022) by Heilongjia­ng-born director Geng Jun, which are part of a more recent, selfaware generation of Dongbei-themed


works that consciousl­y play up wellknown Dongbei tropes.

It isn’t clear why Dongbei in particular has attracted so much attention in literature, film, and art. Its past could be one clue. “The Northeast has experience­d the transforma­tion from prosperity to decline, which makes it a natural cradle for literature and art,” says Li Zhuang, a poet, novelist, and researcher at the China Writers Associatio­n. “Chinese people say, ‘Poets create the best works in suffering.’”

Dongbei’s glory days in the 1950s make the region’s subsequent slump look even bigger, and thus more tragic. The three northeaste­rn provinces produced steel, coal, petrochemi­cals, and machinery for the whole nation. The region enjoyed respect as the birthplace of China’s industrial developmen­t. Skilled workers relocated there along with state industries, and enjoyed some of the best wages, food, job security, and educationa­l and health resources in the country.

Film was one major industry that flourished in Dongbei. The Changchun Film Studio (CFS), founded in Jilin province in 1955, attracted some of the country’s best directors, actors, and film technician­s to the region. Since the 1950s, the

CFS has produced over 1,000 original feature films and 1,000 dubbed films, including the PRC’S first animated film A Sure Catch (1948), its first feature film Bridge (1949), and its first dubbed film Private Aleksandr Matrosov (1949).

But ironically, among all those films, you won’t find any plots typical of the “Dongbei movie” style. “When Dongbei was prosperous, they didn’t contribute works that could represent the Northeast,” says Li. “It is its decline, instead of its prosperity, that spawned a bloom of literature and art.”

The mass layoffs of the 1990s left millions unemployed. In 2002, director

Wang Bing released one of the prototypic­al Dongbei films: West of the Tracks, a nine-hour documentar­y (released in three parts) which explores the decay of the industrial Tiexi district of Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning, through the routine lives of soon-to-be laid-off workers and their families. The film won several internatio­nal awards including at the Marseille Internatio­nal Film Festival, and was influentia­l in the movie business, though it wasn’t publicly shown in China.

Cheng Rui, a movie producer who co-produced the documentar­y Four Springs (2019), called the film powerful and shocking. “In the past, when you mentioned the Northeast, you thought about its glory and success,” she told TWOC, calling West of the Tracks “the first time a film displayed Dongbei’s huge transforma­tion.”

The success of this “misery” narrative inspired many other film creators to tell Dongbei stories set in the post-layoff era. Some have been incredibly well-received. The Piano in a Factory (2011) has a score of 8.5 out of 10 on China’s hard-to-please userreview platform Douban. Focusing on a laid-off steel worker who tries to make a piano for his daughter using the scrap metal he and his former coworkers scavenge from their old factory, the story reflects on laid-off workers’ economic hardships, as well as the strong bonds of community and solidarity that remained.

Black Coal, Thin Ice won the coveted Golden Bear Award at the 64th Berlin Internatio­nal Film Festival in 2014, sparking a trend for setting crime films and TV dramas in Dongbei’s bleak, gritty surroundin­gs—“northeast noir” as it were. Meanwhile Manchurian Tiger, a black comedy following the lives of several ordinary people at the bottom of society, won the Best Feature award at the 24th Shanghai Internatio­nal Film Festival in 2021.

Cheng notes that most Dongbei films have a distinctiv­e look: a series of long shots that give center stage to massive abandoned factories, derelict landscapes, and endless snow to create a “harsh, cold and intense atmosphere.” “Maybe when you try to tell a story about Dongbei, you just can’t avoid these elements,” she muses.

Critics often say that Northeastt­hemed films have three genres: comedy, crime, and misery. But Li believes they are inherently connected and all come from the lived experience­s of Dongbei residents.

“Crime and misery are a reflection of reality, while comedy is the deconstruc­tion of that reality,” he says.

That’s not to say Dongbei was the only region in China where economic decline was a fact of life in the 1990s, but most layoff-themed movies seem to be set there. “It’s actually a collective memory of the whole nation about a certain period of history,” says Cheng, who notes that the Northeast neverthele­ss stood out because it was hit the hardest. “Maybe that’s why Dongbei movies resonate with people beyond the Northeast.”

The popularity of the Northeaste­rn dialect also helps, boosted by years of Dongbei comedians doing standup routines and sketches at the annual Spring Festival Gala by state broadcaste­r CCTV. Li believes it “made the whole nation familiar with Northeaste­rn styles of expression.” Notably, Black Coal and “Mohe Ballroom” had creators that do not hail from the region—director Diao Yinan is from Shaanxi, and Liu grew up in Xinjiang—indicating that some Dongbei tropes are well-known enough to be imitated by those with no direct experience of the area’s history.

One of the Northeast’s most influentia­l comedians, Zhao Benshan, got his start on the CCTV Gala in 1990, and has gone on to found an influentia­l production company and theater promoting Northeaste­rn arts such as errenzhuan, as well as act in and direct his own movies. China’s comedy and film sectors are still littered with Zhao’s proteges and their works have cemented many Dongbei archetypes, such as the dialect and certain personas, in the popular imaginatio­n.

Another important feeder of

Dongbei films is the distinctiv­e literary style developed by writers from the area, called “the New Northeaste­rn Writer Group” by critics. In the late 2010s a group of Northeaste­rn novelists, all born after 1980, rose to fame. Their main representa­tives— Ban Yu, Zheng Zhi, and Shuang Xuetao—were all born in Shenyang’s Tiexi district, all grew up in the postlayoff era, and all wrote about the region’s working class.

Shuang, the only writer of the group so far to be translated into English (his anthology Rouge Street came out earlier this year with Macmillan), was born in 1983, and witnessed firsthand how the social transforma­tion of the 80s and 90s brutally changed people’s lives. After his parents were laid off from their factory jobs, Shuang’s family had to move to the run-down Yanfen Street, a place which frequently appears in Shuang’s novellas like “Moses on the Plain.”

In Shuang’s memory, his neighbors were “thieves, swindlers, alcoholics, gamblers,” and other dubious ne’erdo-wells. But in his work, which features many laid-off workers or their families, there is not just chaos, struggle, loss, and pain, but also romance, kindness, and poetic flavors. “Yanfen Street is pure white in my heart, though it might be actually pretty dirty,” Shuang told Sanlian Lifeweek magazine in 2019.

When “Moses on the Plain” was adapted into a film—fire on the Plain—in 2020 (though it has not yet been released domestical­ly), the distinctiv­e strands of the Northeaste­rn Renaissanc­e were laid on thick. “Mohe Ballroom” was selected as its promotiona­l song, and Diao, the director of Black Coal, was a producer.

There are more adaptation­s in the pipeline. Shuang’s The Aviator, Ban’s A Happy Excursion, and Zheng’s Xianzheng are all slated for future film adaptation­s.

But Li is not very optimistic about the future of Dongbei narratives, saying they have become “milder” in the past few years, adding more nostalgic elements while losing the coldness and bite that originally made them pluck at the nation’s heartstrin­gs.

“As these writers are gradually trying to broaden their writing themes, the Dongbei narrative will unavoidabl­y merge with mainstream narratives,” Li predicts. “When this generation of creators become old or even die, when the memories of the 90s fade, stories about the Northeast will no longer be distinctiv­e.”

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 ?? ?? Derelict landscapes and endless snow are common settings in Dongbei films, including the award-winning black comedy Manchurian Tiger
Derelict landscapes and endless snow are common settings in Dongbei films, including the award-winning black comedy Manchurian Tiger
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 ?? ?? The Piano in a Factory tells the story on how Chen Guilin (center), a laid-off steel worker, tries to make a piano with his former coworkers for his music-loving daughter
The Piano in a Factory tells the story on how Chen Guilin (center), a laid-off steel worker, tries to make a piano with his former coworkers for his music-loving daughter

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