TV

Going Down the Rabbit Hole of Insane Chinese World War II Dramas

From exploding buns to pussy grenades, these Chinese TV shows can get seriously wild. They make for great memes but the reason for their popularity actually goes pretty deep.
April 14, 2020, 10:39am
weird world war ii dramas china
(L) Screenshot of Undercover Team Behind Enemy Lines from Bilibili. (R) Screenshot of  Let’s Fight the Japanese from YouTube.

Imagine if Saving Private Ryan and Desperate Housewives made a low-budget communist baby. OK, now make that two times trashier. Introducing “divine anti-Japanese dramas” — a popular genre of Chinese TV shows that is every bit as outlandish as it sounds. These are the golden meme machines you've been sleeping on.

In Undercover Team Behind Enemy Lines, a 2011 show set in World War II, a man shows off his homemade bao buns that double as grenades. He takes a bite off the pillowy baked good right before throwing it to a field and causing an explosion.

In Let’s Fight the Japanese (2014), a woman hides a grenade in her vagina, and her husband later retrieves it by reaching into her pants in front of watchful Japanese officers. Then, the couple detonates the bomb, sacrificing themselves and killing the officers in the process. Of course, only after engaging in cringey dirty talk first.

In Gunslinger (2012), a Chinese sniper manages to fire bullets that could swerve, simply by flicking his wrist very rapidly, a feat that, according to his impressed superior, turns out to be a long-lost shooting technique.

In Forever Designation (2011), a Chinese soldier throws a grenade skyward and successfully obliterates a fighter jet.

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You get the picture.

Unsurprisingly, these dramas quickly go viral on Chinese social media, with netizens revelling in the campiness of it all. But there are also those who watch them unironically. Fans are usually older generations from lower income brackets who love violence in their soap operas.

Zi Yang, a senior analyst at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), explained: “[The] clever combination of slapstick, shock humour, and sex comedy plays very well with blue collar humour.”

“The setting of the shows are in the World War II era, and we’ve been taught that the Japanese are the bad guys. That’s why it’s entertaining to watch, since the bad guys get what they deserve,” Wang, a 51-year-old Chinese viewer who describes himself as a “casual fan” of anti-Japanese dramas, told VICE. “I mean, obviously, they are quite fake. But it’s nice to watch them like superhero films.”

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly divine anti-Japanese dramas became a thing — China has been making overtly patriotic war movies and shows for decades — but the grandfather of them all is Anti-Japanese Paladins. Aired in 2011, the series gave Chinese viewers unprecedented material like a Chinese kungfu master ripping a Japanese soldier apart with his bare hands.

Skip to 15:44 for the infamous scene, but let’s be honest, the entire episode is a meme goldmine.

Perhaps this gave writers the green light to surpass logical boundaries. Or maybe producers saw the demand for campy war shows among Chinese viewers. Either way, after Anti-Japanese Paladins came a whole wave of divine anti-Japanese dramas, each more absurd than the last.

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But their wacky appeal isn’t the only reason divine anti-Japanese dramas are everywhere.

As it turns out, the popularity of these shows relates to deeper, darker socio-political issues — Chinese nationalism, China’s enduring animosity with Japan, and the complexity of Chinese state censorship.

Evidently, these war dramas are a propaganda agent to instill patriotism among its viewers.

“Media exists for regime stability,” said RSIS Assistant Professor Lee Jonghyuk.

“Rather than having artistic, sophisticated, and satirical dramas, the government would like to broadcast simplistic and ridiculous ones.”

So, you know, whatever’s easiest to get the message across. Even if that message isn’t historically accurate.

Shows like Counterfeit Hero (2014) portray the prowess of China's Eighth Route Army against Japanese forces, but history tells a slightly different story.

“It was actually the previous Nationalist (Kuomintang or KMT) government that did the bulk of the fighting,” said James Char, Associate Research Fellow at RSIS, “In fact, the Japanese invasion saved the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from being annihilated by the KMT.”

After being embroiled in a decade of civil war, Chinese communist and nationalist forces agreed to a ceasefire in 1937 and collaborated to fight Japanese invaders during World War II. Unsurprisingly, the CCP, which was almost extinct by 1934, wasn’t all that involved in fighting the Japanese. Out of 1,117 engagements between Chinese and Japanese forces, the CCP was only involved in one. And out of an estimated 40,000 skirmishes during the war, the CCP was there for 200 of them.

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Besides promoting patriotism, there’s another reason for vilifying the Japanese.

“Traditionally, the authoritarian CCP regime has always turned to its narrative of blaming foriegn entities for its domestic problems,” said Char.

And given the longstanding Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute, Japan makes for an easy target.

Setting a show in World War II also has practical incentives for producers.

According to Lee, the Chinese government is very cautious about authorising dramas set in the present, since the challenges faced by characters in the story could insinuate poor governance under the CCP. On the other hand, stories related to Sino-Japanese war history or Chinese communist history are a safe bet and will likely be approved.

Now, media companies are milking all they can out of the hackneyed World War II genre. The escalating absurdity and public mockery of divine anti-Japanese dramas have forced the Chinese government to confront the monster it created. In recent years, Chinese state media has published multiple tirades against these divine dramas.

“Stop making divine dramas at the expense of war history,” preached an opinion piece in the state-owned People’s Daily. It seems like divine anti-Japanese dramas, once a staple of state-sanctioned entertainment, has lost its favour with the authorities.

Since then, anti-Japanese dramas seem to have calmed down a little. Aggressively ludicrous sequences are harder to come by, but this isn’t to say the genre has completely gone away. They’re just better disguised.

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Still from the 2019 TV series 'Amazing Journey of the National Treasures.' The drama is premised on the historical Chinese operation to relocate Chinese artifacts during the Sino-Japanese war. Image from Weibo.

Just last year, the TV show Amazing Journey of the National Treasures was widely bashed as a quasi-divine anti-Japanese drama. What was supposed to be a dramatic retelling of an epic Chinese war operation was criticised for indulging in one too many corny teen drama subplots like a dreamy love confession through fireworks and an amnesiac Japanese girl falling in forbidden love with a Chinese soldier.

The ultimate irony is this: divine anti-Japanese dramas are simultaneously serious and unserious about the Chinese experience of World War II. While they reek of overt patriotism, their risible execution totally discredits them as an earnest examination of war.

But they sure make for good memes.

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