Popular TV series helps soldiers win back the hearts of the masses
It has no big stars or pretty heroines, but over the past few months word of mouth about the unheralded military-themed drama Soldiers' Sortie has made the 30-part series a primetime hit on the mainland.
The series revolves around the lives of a group of People's Liberation Army soldiers and talks about their struggles, faith and devotions. Most of the actors and producers have served in the military.
Mainland media have ranked it the best show of this year and fans have established online forums with millions of posts dedicated to it. China Central Television is even using clips from the drama to make its military recruitment films.
Besides making the stars household names overnight, Soldiers' Sortie has also boosted patriotic zeal and endeared PLA soldiers to the public. PLA watchers say the drama's success could greatly help rehabilitate the army's reputation, which has taken a hit in recent years.
Until recently, PLA generals and soldiers had been idolised on the mainland. Millions of people looked up with reverent awe at the war heroes and model soldiers. The army is the cornerstone of Communist Party rule and single-handedly brought the party to power. Almost all founding fathers of the People's Republic served in the PLA. Decades of hardline propaganda elevated its social status to an unprecedented height.
With the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, the PLA became known as the state's great wall of iron and steel, the defender of socialism and the defender of the public interest.
'The PLA cemented its eminent status in society during the wars from the 1950s to the 1970s [in Korea and Vietnam],' said Andrew Yang Nien-dzu from the Taipei-based Council of Advanced Policy Studies. 'Mainland people really admired soldiers at that time.'
But attitudes have rapidly changed since the 1980s, especially after the bloody crackdown of the student demonstration in 1989 - an event in which the army played a pivotal role. It was also blamed for many other smaller crackdowns over the years.
'Those crackdowns on unarmed civilians damaged their reputation a lot,' Dr Yang said. 'And the impression will last a long time and will not be easy to fix.'
The political and social status of PLA soldiers has been in steady decline ever since. A long stretch of peace and the rapid commercialisation of society saw the flight of talent away from the army, Dr Yang said.
'Warriors do not have as bright an aura in peace time as they do in war,' he said. 'Mainland society's desire for wealth and economic development means that most well-educated youth would rather work for foreign and private enterprises in cities than join the poorly paid army.'
Dr Yang also attributes the PLA's fading reputation to the army's numerous privileges, which have led to many corruption scandals. Before 1998, the PLA was involved in a vast web of state-owned companies ranging from karaoke bars to industrial and production companies, partly as a method of offsetting budgetary shortfalls. Ultimately, the authorities ordered the military out of business in 1998 to stem the increasing bribery, smuggling and inefficiency in the army.
According to Dr Yang, Soldiers' Sortie is just what the doctor ordered.
'The success of Soldiers' Sortie is no doubt what they need, winning the favour of the public and raising the morale of the troops,' he said.
As a military-themed TV drama, its impact was unprecedented and its success was in its grass-roots focus, Ma Dingsheng , a Chinese military analyst in Hong Kong, said.
'There are dozens of novels, movies and TV programmes praising the PLA every year,' he said. 'Most of them focus on images of perfect heroes who sacrifice everything for the party and the country.
'But these ideal models can't attract the audiences any more.'
He said Soldiers' Sortie was a successful packaging of the PLA image, showing that the army's propaganda skills were maturing.
'The story is not about a perfect PLA communist like before,' he said. 'It's about how an ordinary and naive recruit from a rural village struggles to be the ace of a special force.
'The series includes many elements to satisfy the audience's curiosity about the modern army, like recruitment, anti-terrorism exercises and special forces.
'It inspires rural or even urban young people to think that the PLA could be the place where they could fulfil their dreams of excellence.'
Millions of mainland viewers are hooked on the series and wait for each episode to learn the fate of the several PLA soldiers in the drama, who have strong but distinct characters. There is the nervous but persistent recruit, the uncouth yet sincere veteran and the proud but humane commander.
'All my girlfriends like the show, largely because the soldiers in the series are really manly. It's hard to find these characters in men around me. I think girls, like me at least, imagine them as the perfect type,' Shenzhen clerk Wang Ying said.
Sales manager Zhang Xufei said he was interested in how the characters met the challenges of today's army.
'The series is not about how the soldiers sacrifice themselves or how smart and brave they are,' Mr Zhang said. 'The soldiers have their own shortcomings and struggle to survive in the army.
'We live in an age of fast economic growth, with a prevailing mood of anxiety. How can we prevent our minds from becoming materialistic? These PLA soldiers show us what a really meaningful life is.'
Many young Netizens say the drama has influenced their career plans.
'Some of my friends, including me, want to join the army after watching Soldiers' Sortie,' high school student Bao Hong wrote online. 'The soldiers are so ordinary. But they all have good minds.
'The army looks like the place we can fulfil our dreams and prove our value.'
The producers and actors are now working on a second season and looking forward to even greater popularity.
But the series has not been without its critics, who say it does not present what life is really like in the army. Mr Ma says viewers should not see the drama as the reality of the PLA.
'We admit there is some kind of improvement now that the media can show some shortfalls of the army,' Mr Ma said.
'All military-themed shows in the past were not allowed to do anything but praise the army.'
Peng Zuoxue , a PLA soldier in his 40s, agrees.
'The show is for those white-collar workers and students who have never been in the army,' he said. 'The hierarchical system remains strong in the army, along with the violence and corruption problems.'