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An unexpected hit, period drama The Age of Awakening is winning over millions of young fans for its complex and relatable portrayals of the Party’s founders

By Yi Ziyi , Chen Liyuan Updated Oct.1

Stills from The Age of Awakening

Longhua Martyrs Cemetery in Shanghai is seeing more visitors than usual. It was apparent on the drizzly morning of July 4, as people came to pay their respects to the more than 1,600 Communist martyrs laid to rest there, purged by the Kuomingtang government from 1927 to 1937.  

The grave of Chen Yannian catches the eye. He was a young revolutionary and early leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC) who was executed on July 4, 1927 at the age of 29. 
Hundreds of bouquets and thousands of letters and cards adorn the graves of Chen Yannian and his younger brother Chen Qiaonian, who was killed in 1927, and Zhao Shiyan, who was killed at 26 in 1927.  

“Your name is ‘Yannian,’ which [in Chinese] means ‘longevity,’ but you died at such a young age. You sacrificed your youth for the longevity of a new country,” reads one letter to Chen Yannian.  

Zou Qiang, the cemetery’s director, told Modern Express that more than one million visitors from across the country visited from January to mid-June, more than last year’s total visitors.  

This recent outpouring in part is inspired by The Age of Awakening, a period TV drama that revolves around the CPC’s founding from 1915 to 1921.  

The series, whose release coincides with the CPC’s 100th anniversary, went viral since its February 1 premiere on China Central Television (CCTV). It received rave reviews on Douban, China’s leading media review website, scoring 9.3/10 based on more than 333,500 user ratings, an unusually high score for a domestic TV production.  

On June 11, the show received eight nominations at the 27th Shanghai Magnolia Awards, one of the three major awards for China’s TV industry (along with Golden Eagle Awards and the Flying Apsaras Awards), taking home Best Director (Zhang Yongxin), Best Original Screenplay (Long Pingping) and Best Actor (Yu Hewei).  

Earning acclaim for its attention to detail, complex characters and innovative narration, the drama won millions of fans among Chinese millennials and Gen Zers, groups previously thought to be indifferent toward “red-themed” dramas – shows narrating the founding of the CPC – that are more historical fiction than fact.  

A Rose on a Grave 
“How I wish I could stretch my arms to hold you tight and tell you how beautiful the country you dreamed to build is,” Huo Dongjin, a 20-year-old student from Shanghai University, posted to her WeChat Moments after she visited the cemetery on July 5.  

She brought chrysanthemums to lay at the graves of the Chen brothers, and a single rose for Zhao Shiyan. “Zhao Shiyan was more romantic, so I brought a rose for him,” Huo told NewsChina. Deeply touched by The Age of Awakening, she volunteers as a guide at the cemetery.  

Huo said that along with the many flowers, letters and cards placed at the graves, there were also origami cranes, candy and bags of fermented soy peanuts – Chen Yannian’s favorite snack. 

The Age of Awakening centers on three major events in modern China: the New Cultural Movement (1915-1923), the May Fourth Movement (1919) and the CPC founding (1921). The show focuses on Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu, early CPC founders who promoted the New Cultural Movement, while providing a panorama of intellectuals, writers and Communist revolutionaries such as Hu Shih, Lu Xun, Chen Duxiu’s two sons Yannian and Qiaonian, and Mao Zedong. 
The New Cultural Movement saw the arrival of Western ideas such as democracy, anarchism and Marxism. The drama explores the struggles of youth exploring new cultures and political ideologies to help a country still mired in feudalism and torn apart by warlords. They are depicted as antiheroes. Flawed and lost, they often hit roadblocks and fail. However, faith in their ideals drives them on.  

In the show, when Youth magazine – which played a vital role in the New Cultural Movement – started in 1915, founder Chen Duxiu was 36. He is among the show’s oldest characters. Li Dazhao was only 26, Hu Shih 24, Mao Zedong 22, and the Chen brothers were teenagers – all similarly aged to the show’s main audience.  

“There are no flawless characters in this show. It realistically portrays a group of intrepid youth constantly adrift in the dark, but still driven by their passion to forge the right path to save China. This is where the show moves me the most,” Lei Ming, a 23-year-old IT engineer from Beijing, told NewsChina.  

Greatness Among Us 
Zhang Yongxin, the show’s director, told NewsChina the greatest challenges for the show’s creators was to maintain the balance between historical accuracy while portraying the characters’ personalities.  

“Before these great figures engraved their names in history, they were ordinary people. They were like everyone else. So we tried our best to portray the characters more vividly, making them more human instead of just names in textbooks,” Zhang said.  

Li Dazhao, who introduced Marxism to China, is portrayed as loving but flawed. “In a limited dramatic space, we tried to explore how he thinks and behaves as an ordinary husband and a flawed father. It’s this texture that draws the audience closer. These realistic details help the audience better understand why and how he made his choices. He was a real man made of flesh and blood, not a symbol or a concept in a textbook,” Zhang said.  

The show portrays Hu Shih, an important intellectual and leader of China’s New Culture Movement, not only as a charismatic professor but also a henpecked husband. Chen Duxiu, the major leader of the New Cultural Movement and one of the founders of CPC, is an ordinary father frustrated by his relationship with his sons.  

Many viewers praised the show for its imaginative depictions of Lu Xun, a leading figure in Chinese modern literature revered as the voice of a nation’s conscience, by blending historical events with plot points from the writer’s fiction.  

“Since we were dealing with historical figures who were extremely sophisticated and complicated, such as Lu Xun, our production team went to great lengths to explore an innovative and appropriate narrative to give contemporary audience a deeper understanding of and also take stronger interest in these characters,” Zhang said.  

The show introduces Lu during a public beheading of young revolutionaries. The scene draws inspiration from the writer’s satirical essay “Medicine” (1922), a fictional story about a rumor that buns soaked in the blood of revolutionary martyrs could cure any ailment.  

The drama pays homage to Lu’s essay by mixing his fiction into the plot: Lu sits outsides a teahouse with a newspaper and silently observes as onlookers rush to collect the blood of the beheaded revolutionaries.  

“Lu’s first scene reveals what the writer strove to convey throughout his career in a few minutes,” Douban user “Valda’s Balloon” commented.  

Long Pingping, the show’s screenwriter, is a CPC history scholar known for his work on period dramas Nos Années Françaises (2004) and Deng Xiaoping in Big Changes (2014). Before starting on The Age of Awakening, Long conducted exhaustive research on more than 100 historical figures.  

“I took pains to find source materials on the Chen brothers. They were just teenagers at the time,” Long said in an interview with CCTV in July. “So I resorted to living history – I consulted with many experts in CPC history. I also retraced the steps of the Chen brothers and visited all the places they’d been,” he said.  

Winning Young Hearts 
According to data from video-sharing platform Youku, nearly 60 percent of the show’s viewers are 35 and under, while most real-time comments (bullet comments) were posted by viewers under 30. Millennials and Gen Zers make up the majority of the online community surrounding the show.  

“I always thought younger viewers never really disliked red-themed films and dramas. They just hated those hollow and cheesy shows that are coarsely made and have unrealistic narratives. Young viewers are particularly savvy and have strict aesthetic standards. If they find the characters unconvincing, they’ll turn their back on the show,” Zhang Yongxin said.  

“The only thing we could do was tell the story in a simple and honest way that the audience could relate to. We hoped that through the show, our audience could experience the real texture of history,” he said.  

While not completely historically accurate, the show is a far cry from some of the implausible storylines found in red-themed dramas – particularly those focused on the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945). Filled with fabrication and cartoonlike violence, patriotic shows can teeter on the absurd. In one notoriously kitschexample from Let’s Fight the Japanese (2014), a married couple held captive kill themselves while taking out their Japanese guards by detonating a grenade – hidden in the wife’s vagina. Scenes like these often make the rounds on social media as fodder for ridicule to be enjoyed ironically.  

In her essay “How The Age of Awakening Conquered Gen Z,” Zhao Luping, an associate professor of communications at Huadong Normal University in Shanghai, analyzes the show’s success.  

“The show breaks from stereotypical propaganda films and TV series, which are usually too serious, stoic and boring with trite plots. It does away with the exaggerated, over-sensational and fabricated narrative prevalent in many television shows dealing with modern Chinese history. The success of the show lies in its faithfulness to history and its precise grasp of the cultural and aesthetic tastes of contemporary Chinese youth,” Zhao wrote.  

As China’s economy slows, there is a growing pessimism among the country’s youth about the future. However, many young viewers said the characters’ idealism provide a source of positivity and inspiration. The scenes where Kuomintang officers execute the Chen brothers moved many young viewers. Before his execution, 26-year-old Chen Qiaonian says, “I hope future generations can enjoy the happiness that we’ve been struggling for.”  

The scene spoke to 26-year-old Xiao Xu, who works at an ad agency in Shenzhen. “He sacrificed his life at my age for the country and its people. I am so moved by his courage and faithfulness to his ideals. The show cheered me up quite a lot. Compared to the sacrifice of these idealistic revolutionaries, our complaints about life and work stress seem so trivial – after all, we only shed sweat, but they shed blood,” Xiao told NewsChina.  

Zhang is pleased with the reception. “The most impressive comment I read online was from a young person who asked ‘is there a sequel?’ and another responded: ‘The happy and peaceful life you are living today is the show’s sequel,’” Zhang said.