A stage, massive in scope, stretches across an even larger space. The lights dim. Suddenly, music starts, and a spotlight shines over a group of girls all dressed in pink, who begin singing and dancing in unison. The camera pans out, illuminating the rest of the space. There isn’t just one stage but multiple, each with their own group of girls.
This scene, depicted in the all-girls Chinese survival show Produce 101 (2018), is only one example of the premise of many survival shows that have come to dominate the Chinese entertainment scene. Adapted and under license from South Korean television music channel Mnet, Produce 101 set the stage (literally) for the genre that has taken the Chinese idol industry by storm. From the all-boys Idol Producer (2018) of iQiyi to Mango TV’s Sisters Who Make Waves (2020), which stars 30 female performers over the age of 30, the survival show has become a fundamental genre in Chinese TV.
The widespread appeal of the Chinese survival show, according to What’s On Weibo writer Yin Lin Tan, can be contextualized within the larger growth of idol culture in China, as well as the narrative differences between the Korean versions and the Chinese productions. Shows of the latter, for one, are often said by netizens to be more personable than their Korean counterparts, which have historically been associated with “evil editing” and “producer bias.”
Within the segments that are chosen to be included in each Chinese survival show, the audience gets a taste of the trainees’ “real” personalities. While variety shows in China are often implicitly scripted, there is considerably less drama and more simple joking around in the Chinese versions of these Korean survival shows, something that is seen to give these shows a more relatable atmosphere.
It is no surprise then that many of these shows have been marketed as platforms to seek groups representing China as a whole, as Produce 101’s Rocket Girls were labeled akin to the “nation’s No. 1 girl group” when they were first formed. Each show’s theme song is similar, deriving itself from the classic “pick me” phrase and clearly expressing that it is the audience’s job to “pick” their choice for who debuts.
On a structural and narrative level, Produce 101 calls upon national audience participation on an explicit basis. The lyrics of the show’s theme song, roughly translated, include “the more you love me, the cuter I am” and “please give me a stage.”
Such rhetoric draws the audience into the show’s very framework, encouraging them to view their selection of idols as representing the nation’s pick. This song, which plays sporadically throughout the show, reminds the audience that each girl on stage is pursuing a dream. As such, it is in the audience’s best interest to directly assist these girls in achieving it.
Other shows, like the more recent all-girls Youth With You (2020), engage with this idea more thematically. Its theme song “Yes! Ok” is more of an ode to the pursuit of dreams. Each participant calls for the audience to “chase [my dream] with me” as well as “the harder we work, the closer we’ll get [to my dream].”
In addition to Youth With You’s inclusion of BLACKPINK’s Lisa as a judge and dance mentor, this theme of stars who have reached success abroad coming back to mentor trainees is prevalent. As such, it reflects the marketability of a globalized idol economy. Produce Camp’s mentors, for example, include former K-Pop boy band EXO members Lu Han and Huang Zitao, as well as former f(x) member Victoria Song.
The popular discourse of these shows, in which an audience is told to help these trainees reach their ultimate goal of debuting, gives these shows a noble purpose. In this regard, Chinese survival shows can be said to define the national idol industry. More and more stars are rising to fame through their participation on such shows, such as 19-year-old Chen Linong from Taiwan, whose second-place win on Idol Producer earned him the recognition needed to pursue a career in mainland China.
Moreover, many of these trainees who do not debut during the show are not particularly at a disadvantage, given that their exposure enables them to receive plenty of endorsement deals and variety show appearances afterwards. For instance, Li Zixuan of Produce 101 finished twelfth place on the show, just shy of debut in the 11-member Rocket Girls, but this has not limited her popularity. The 25-year-old has had an abundance of television appearances, guest starring on Hunan TV’s Back to Field and the well-known variety show Day Day Up multiple times.
As an avid viewer of Chinese survival shows that have aired in the past and present, I can say that on a personal level, their appeal comes from both their “interactive” nature and the way that idol trainees are seen as reflections of our own choices. The way that these shows are structured, in which the rankings of trainees depend on their appeal to audiences, adds a certain kind of relevance. The audience is told, both explicitly and implicitly, that we matter. We are important individuals who have a role to play in helping these trainees achieve their dreams.
The hui guo rou, or 回鍋肉 (twice-cooked pork), term is an especially significant trope when it comes to survival shows. Usually intended to mean someone who participates in multiple survival shows after being unsuccessful during a previous competition(s), the term has adopted a generally negative connotation. Yet it has also become emblematic of the persistence in chasing dreams.
KUN, or Cai Xukun as he is more commonly known in China, is one of China’s top idols who got his start on the South Korean-Chinese survival show Super Idol in 2015. After finishing in the top 15, KUN chose to participate in Season 2 of the show, debuting as a member of boy group SWIN-S.
His debut only marked the beginning of his rise in the Chinese idol industry. It was the following that KUN had attained over the past years in Super Idol that quickly enabled him to gain popularity as a contestant on 2018’s Idol Producer. And it was this previous experience in survival shows that contextualized KUN’s meteoric ascent to stardom as the first place all throughout Idol Producer, eventually supporting the solid backing that would further expand his solo career.
Such instances reflect the duality of the hui guo rou, in which one can be seen as both a “failure” and a product of perseverance. Perhaps the appeal of the hui guo rou, demonstrated in both votes and rankings, can be explained by what they represent for our own selves. We root for these trainees because they have experienced failure and because we relate to what it feels like to be sidelined. We acknowledge that hard work may not always pay off in the short-term, but that it is a stepping stone to success in the future. And we watch these shows with urgency, despite knowing that there will always be more shows and endless trainees wanting to chase their dreams, because in that moment, we view the trainee’s dream as reflective of our own pursuits in life.
While this is only one of the reasons that can account for the genre’s popularity, the Chinese survival show has engaged a large global audience. Its prominence does not come without flaws. “Sisters Who Make Waves” was marketed as a “feminist” show for only featuring middle-aged celebrities and yet subsequently criticized for its conformity to the male gaze. In addition, the popularity-based structure of many, if not all survival shows, means that individuals without the skills necessary to debut have the possibility of being ranked higher than those who have been training for years.
Despite the shortcomings of the Chinese idol survival show, it’s clear that it is only a phenomenon that will continue to grow over the next few years. The unifying theme of each and every one of these shows — chasing one’s dream — is not a new concept; in fact, it is very much a cliché. But its universality also ensures its timelessness for its audience. And with viewers in pursuit of our own goals in life, the Chinese survival show transcends mere entertainment. It attains a unique quality of relevance, one that will ensure its audience remains attentive so long as there are more songs to be sung, more trainees to be trained, and more dreams to be achieved.
This article reflects the opinion of the author.