Worth a Thousand Words
A TV series on reform and opening up awakens nostalgia and admiration
By Li Fangfang  ·  2019-01-23  ·   Source: NO. 4 JANUARY 24, 2019
A poster of Like a Flowing River shows the three protagonists (from left to right) Lei Dongbao, Song Yunhui and Yang Xun (COURTESY PHOTO)

In the winter of 1977, more than 5 million Chinese youngsters took the nationwide college entrance exam that resumed after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) which is regarded by many as the harbinger of reform and opening up. Kong Sheng was one of them. But he failed the test and could not go to college. In the following 40 years, he tried different jobs and finally became a famous director.

The aspirations, joy, sorrow and changes he and millions of others underwent during the four decades of reform and opening up have become the basis of a period drama, Like a Flowing River, directed by Kong that aired on Beijing TV and Dragon TV, with the first part concluding in January. For those who want to know about the economic and social changes in China's development but do not have enough time to travel or read extensively, the 47-episode series presents the grand topic through the lens of individual stories that awaken nostalgia among the audience.

"Our generation still has a clear memory of that time. So we filmed the story with high standards and deep respect," Kong told Beijing Morning Post.

In 2018, there were a lot of TV programs screened with the same theme, paying tribute to the achievements. Still Like a Flowing River stands out, receiving praise from viewers in their 60s as well as 20s with an 8.9 rating on, China's online database of film and TV program reviews. The rating surpasses that of Story of Yanxi Palace, a series on royal life in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) described as the most googled show in the first half of 2018, which scored 7.2. Like a Flowing River outperformed it though it doesn't have the extravagant costumes and accessories, dramatic plots and stunning cast.

As of early January, Like a Flowing River had been surfed more than 3 billion times and had at least 8 million viewer comments online.

Song Yunping, sister of Song Yunhui in Like a Flowing River, is regarded as one of the best representatives of Chinese women, combining gentleness with inner strength (COURTESY PHOTO)

A mirror of history

Adapted from A'nai's novel River of Time, the series revolves around three Chinese entrepreneurs who explore the changes and opportunities brought on by economic reforms in the first decade after reform and opening up started in 1978.

Song Yunhui, born in 1959, is one of the three protagonists. Highly intelligent and industrious, he grabs the chance to take the college entrance exam in 1978 and becomes a qualified technician and reformer in a state-owned enterprise (SOE). As he builds his career as its lead technician, the enterprise is overhauled.

"Just like Song, I worked on the farm and raised pigs before I went to college. I am 60 now, but [this TV show] took me back to 40 years ago," commented a reviewer, Happyeveryday, online. "I had thought a TV series [on a subject] like this would be boring, but it surprisingly made me laugh and cry."

In the 1980s, a college student was a rarity in China, while an SOE manager was highly respected. Song's personal growth exemplifies how the old and new schools of thought in an enterprise clash over their interests and how a newcomer seizes the opportunity to become a leader.

"My parents are Song's contemporaries," a surfer, Ruoshui, posted on "They cherished the opportunity to go to college. And they always told me that I must go to college. I didn't understand them then, but gradually, I have started to understand them."

Song's brother-in-law Lei Dongbao has a completely different story. Raised in a poor family in a village, he didn't receive much education. During economic reform, he becomes a village head, a trailblazer who boosts the collective economy and is devoted to public duty. Lei turns poverty into prosperity.

The third protagonist, Yang Xun, chooses a different path of development. Yang gives up his high school education as a teenager to support his family. His dream is not only to earn money but also to win society's respect. He runs his own small business, seeks business opportunities and eventually becomes a successful entrepreneur. Yang eventually realizes that the core of a private business is integrity and brand strength.

Following the end of the "cultural revolution," the economy was on the verge of collapse and the nation in urgent need of rebuilding. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping underlined the need for reform, which provided opportunities for people like Song, Lei and Yang.

The three protagonists represent three of China's economic models: the state economy, collective economy and private economy. The reforms undertaken by Lei and Song, and Yang's achievements are the pilots of the national policies.

While embarking on new experiments, the pioneers of reform and opening up usually faced suspicion and even attacks, along with power struggles. However, many of the trials they undertake with determination prove to be right and are supported by the government. The main reason for this is that their individual aspirations also represent the common desire of the whole nation.

"The environment of quick changes and growth provides Song many choices, from which the audience can see the complications in people's personalities," said Qi Wei, an associate professor of filmology at Shanghai University.

Universal appeal

According to Kong, the original target audience was supposed to be the older generations and he hoped they would bring in younger viewers. The young and popular actors in the cast were also a hook to attract more young viewers.

However, to his surprise, the TV show not only evoked nostalgia in the older generations but also empathy in young people for their parents and grandparents. It was common to see two or three generations sitting down together to watch the series.

"I'm 21 years old, far away from that period of time. My grandfather always told me his stories with a lot of passion. He passed away years ago, but I can understand him better now after I watched this TV show," said another reviewer, Linyyy.

"I have seen many TV series on reform and opening up. Most of them are very dry and full of slogans that had lost touch with reality. But Like a Flowing River brought a lump to my throat," said a reviewer, Painter Liangxiu, on Douban.

The epic TV series also shows how different generations of Chinese treat their family members, friends and colleagues and how that changed during the decades of fast growth.

Another reviewer, Li Xingwen, said Like a Flowing River offered rich details about society back then. "The viewers can see the bumpy road of the country's development as well as the contradiction between industrial progress and office politics," Li said.

Another reason the series was so attractive was the way it illustrated sensitive topics, said Yu Fei, a scriptwriter. "There is still space to tell stories about sensitive topics," Yu said. "You need to make some adjustments to tell such stories."

Hou Hongliang, the producer of the show, said when his 20-year-old son watched the first episode, the young man was skeptical and told his father, "Is anyone interested in this? My classmates and I are not interested in topics like this at all."

But as his father reviewed the series at home and his son saw more, he began to sit down with his father to watch the show.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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