Why is China’s Northeast such a fertile setting for film, music, and literature?
In 2019, a chance encounter in a dance hall spawned a song viewed by billions. That year singer-songwriter Liu Shuang met an elderly man in China’s northernmost city, Mohe, and decided to write a song based on the man’s tragic story: losing his wife in a fire in the 1980s, and returning alone to the old haunt where they used to dance together.
But Liu never expected “Mohe Ballroom” would go viral. With 2 billion views on Douyin (the Chinese version for TikTok) as of November 2021, the song became the latest icon of China’s “Northeastern Renaissance (东北文艺复兴),” a loose genre of literature, music, film, and TV shows set in China’s three northeastern provinces—Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang—collectively known as “Dongbei.”
The phrase was etched into the popular imagination in 2019, when Jilin-born singer Dong Baoshi used it on a comedy show to poke fun at the success of his song “Wild Wolf Disco.” In the following years, the “Northeast Renaissance” label has been applied to almost every successful work about Dongbei.
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Rustbelt Renaissance: China’s Post-Industrial Northeast Rises Again in Film is a story from our issue, “Public Affairs.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.