A still from the popular series Song of Youth featuring actress Bai Lu and actor Wang Yizhe, whose characters develop a bittersweet romance. [Photo provided to China Daily]
The young man picks his spot carefully on a riverbank in a bustling town at night. He takes up position beside a white-cloth screen strategically placed in front of the light from a kerosene lamp. With his fingers deftly manipulating two puppets to "perform", a centuries-old romance is brought to life, gathering an enthusiastic audience.
This scene launches Song of Youth, a new fictional drama set in dynastic China.
With lavish costumes and exquisite props as well as period architecture, the series has been well-received overseas, exemplified by its 9.2 points out of 10 on the US video streaming site Rakuten Viki.
Li Qian, distribution director with Huanyu Entertainment which produces the series, notes that Song of Youth has also been broadcast in Southeast Asia and North America since late July.
"Many foreign viewers are pushing us to upload the latest episodes with English subtitles as soon as possible. For us, it's great encouragement," says Li.
Latest available figures from the National Radio and Television Administration, the country's top regulator of the sector, show that TV dramas account for around 70 percent of Chinese television programs screened abroad. Currently, domestic dramas have been distributed to more than 200 countries and regions.
Analyzing this momentum, Li says that she believes the popularity of Song of Youth has benefited from the rapid development of the country's sizable TV drama sector, which has made a number of costume dramas that foreign audiences favor. With ample investment, these dramas were able to create top-quality productions with exquisitely tailored garments, eye-catching props and intricate makeup and effects.
Although such tales are interwoven with a complex historical background that may not be so familiar to people in the West, the protagonists and the situations they face have a universal appeal, Li adds.
For instance, Lin Shaochun, the heroine in Song of Youth, is depicted as a gritty and brave woman with versatile talents. Once she had a comfortable life as the daughter of a rich official, but experiences a fall from grace after her father is wrongly accused of corruption.
Lin uses a number of innovative methods－including disguising herself as a man to sit an exam vital for promotion and get established in the business community－in her bid to clear her father's name. It's not all hard work, however, as she finds time for a passionate romance as well.
The drama was first conceived in late 2019, and started shooting in April last year after a three-month postponement caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, recalls executive producer Li Xiuzhen.
During the preparation period, over a course of three months, Song Xiaotao, the drama's fashion director, says a total of around 2,000 costumes were tailored, with the embroidery technique employed on major characters' dresses inspired from guxiu, or Gu's Embroidery (the embroidery invented by the Gu family). This is a style of decorative needlework cleverly blending painting and embroidery. The designs draw inspiration from paintings dating back to the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties.
"The embroidery was very popular in affluent and noble families during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). After a great deal of research, we used computers to draw the painted parts, which enables the details of flowers and birds to be more vivid and exquisite on camera," Song explains.
Like an "exhibition" to showcase ancient fashion from over 500 years ago, the costume and prop designers dive into antique collections and paintings, seeking inspiration from women's hairstyles to jewelry patterns and ceremonial attire.
"Compared to the prevailing taste of intricate and colorful patterns of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the fashion aesthetics in the Ming Dynasty were simpler but more elegant," Song says.
With a preparation time lasting over six months, the series was filmed using around 300 sets, including two soundstages, each covering an area of more than 5,000 square meters.
With a wide range of inspiration from ancient cultures and fashions, its costumes and props have won widespread praise, a clear recognition of the progress made by the domestic TV drama sector, according to some observers.