A More Communist Squid Game: China’s Age of Awakening

IS
4 min readOct 31, 2021

America is in the mood for class struggle. Although the corporate media has been desperate, as usual, for Americans to focus on Anything But Class, the George Floyd Uprising in 2020 and The Great Resignation in 2021 both show that, after a decades-long neoliberal slumber, the working class titan in this country is finally waking up.

It should come as little surprise, then, that American workers have likewise grown interested in films and TV shows like Us and Parasite as well as massive hits like The White Lotus or Squid Game, all of which have an anti-capitalist message. But while these blockbusters may expose the problems with capitalism, they almost never propose any kind of solution. Workers in these fantasy realms struggle against the rich but rarely if ever actually organize in order to defeat them.

Indeed, the last major productions I can think of which depicted a revolutionary or post-revolutionary world are the liberal epics Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. Both of these were made almost sixty years ago and generally conclude that revolution is pointless and that communism, monarchism, and fascism are all indistinguishable. This may be an inspiring message for American liberals — lazy and ignorant thanks to their expropriated wealth — but for the Global 99% the hopelessness here can be difficult to enjoy; it’s akin to watching an 18th century play celebrating the glories of French feudalism. A great movie like The Motorcycle Diaries suffers from a similar problem: we see a young Che Guevara identifying issues with capitalism, but we never get to the moment on the beach in Cuba where the young doctor drops his medical kit and picks up his rifle to fight the fascist, Washington-backed Batista regime.

Even in a show like Squid Game, workers struggle blindly, almost anarchically against their exploiters, with almost everyone involved dying horrific deaths. The show’s anti-capitalist message also seems muddled, at times, as when a police officer rescues a homeless person — which was probably the most unbelievable moment in the entire series. (While the American police are infamous for murdering several people every day for years on end, the general sentiment in South Korea is that the police don’t do anything.) In The White Lotus, similarly individualistic and disorganized worker struggles lead nowhere. The American ruling class seems to believe that it’s unrealistic to depict workers organizing, winning, and changing the world. We can see superheroes repeatedly destroying American cities with laser breath and Jedi Knights using their psychokinetic powers to levitate fruit, but a successful communist revolution? No one would ever believe it! Nothing has ever changed! Everything everywhere has always been exactly the same since the dawn of time!

Enter China. The favorite bugbear of American liberals recently released a TV show which seems specifically designed to drive them out of their minds. Age of Awakening takes place in China during the 1910s and 1920s, a period when China was divided by warlords, corrupt (but elected) government officials, and powerful foreign empires. The show begins with Yuan Shikai, then-president of the Republic of China, agreeing to surrender a vast portion of Chinese territory to the Japanese. This action so enrages the Chinese people that many are forced to conclude that electoralism by itself is pointless and that revolution is the only way to modernize the country. Although this period may seem totally unknown to an American audience, the situation is not (on the face of it) so different from America today, with vast multinational conglomerates taking the place of empires, billionaires who have begun deploying their own private armies taking the place of warlords, and a government run entirely by corrupt dotards who cheat repeatedly in elections.

The show’s main characters, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, are early Chinese revolutionaries whom Americans have never heard of and whom we have therefore not been taught to despise. We follow them in Age of Awakening as they begin organizing the Communist Party of China, which itself starts with a handful of intellectuals meeting in a literary salon and agreeing to publish a magazine. They have little idea that within ten or twenty years the Party — which begins with selling pamphlets on street corners — will be fielding an army of millions of soldiers who will quite literally drive their class enemies into the sea.

Entertaining and full of surprises, Age of Awakening can at the same time be difficult to follow and overtly sentimental. It is nonetheless one of the few productions I can think of, off the top of my head — aside from early Soviet films like Ten Days That Shook The World or Strike — which goes a step beyond “capitalism bad.” No one in any of these shows or movies actually utters the word “capitalism” — which would make it clear that we are struggling against a temporary mode of production rather than the permanent unstoppable god fervently worshipped by liberals called Human Nature — but the difference with Age of Awakening is that workers have at least begun to figure out what the problem is and are uniting against it.

The first few episodes of Age of Awakening are available with English subtitles on YouTube; the series is being translated by a team of volunteers. Highly recommended.

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IS

I'm a Marxist worker, activist, and writer in Maine.