Chinese people love watching TV just like everyone else, and they talk about it with a passion whenever a hit show sweeps the country. Let’s take a look at the most common types of shows you’ll see on a Chinese TV channel on a day-to-day basis.
1. The Concubine Fights / Gōng Dòu Jù / 宫斗剧
Chinese gongdou dramas have long lasting popularity across the nation, beloved by women of all ages, urban and rural. These dramas depict the complicated relationships in the Hòu Gōng (后宫) of Emperors past, where his many wives and mother lived in the palace. The stories are made up of these royal women, mostly about their fight for the emperor’s attention and against each other.
If you are not sure what to talk about with your Chinese girl-friends, just ask if they have watched the latest trending gongdou drama. This is sure to jump-start the conversation (though this might not be the most useful tip for chatting with men). The plots and lines of dialogue in these dramas also often turn into popular slang Chinese netizens use in daily conversations.
Here are a few must-watch gongdou dramas:
- Nation’s favorite:《甄嬛传》(Zhēn Huán Zhuàn/The Legend of Zhen Huan)
- Trending now:《武媚娘传奇》(Wǔ Mèi Niáng Chuán Qí/The Empress of China)
- Cantonese classic:《金枝欲孽》(Jīn Zhī Yù Niè/War and Beauty)
2. The Anti-Japanese War Shows / Kàng Rì Jù / 抗日剧
Statistics showed that there were more than 200 anti-Japanese TV series made in the year of 2012 alone. Political correct and the easy to get past censors, shows of this genre have been mass produced and circulated. Mocking Japanese soldiers has become the backbone of every kangri drama. The Japanese soldiers are always portrayed as evil, creepy and disgusting creatures; insiders have said that the creepier these figures are, the better.
The ridiculous kangri shows have definitely backfired, as Chinese audience have been dismissing the bogus plots. The government also criticized the shows being low-quality and misleading and claimed to censor exaggerated and soap opera-like productions.
3. The Idols Drama / Ǒu Xiàng Jù / 偶像剧
The plots are predictable; a tall, rich and handsome young man, a.k.a. Prince Charming, falls in love with a average-looking girl with a humble background, a.k.a. Cinderella, because of her innocent, simple and kind personality. It’s a no-brainer that these idol dramas capture the hearts of females everywhere.
Sound familiar? This type of drama could be easily compared to the Twilight Saga and Fifty Shades of Grey (without the supernatural or BDSM elements). Interestingly, Chinese female audiences are most obsessed with Korean and Taiwanese idol dramas because these two countries have a knack for the ‘pretty boy’ style.
- All-time classic: 《流星花园》(Liú Xīng Huā Yuán/The Meteor Garden)
- Latest hit: 《来自星星的你》(Lái Zì Xīng Xīng De Nǐ/ Man From Stars)
- Editorial pick: 《下一站幸福》(Xià Yī Zhàn Xìng Fú/Autumn’s Concerto)
4. Time Travel Series / Chuān Yuè Jù / 穿越剧
Although time travelling isn’t a stand-alone genre, many dramas use this plot to sell the show. Because ancient China and modern China are basically two different worlds, time travel between these two sides never gets old. The most commonly seen stories are as follows: a modern Chinese woman accidentally travels back in time to ancient China and gets involved with a legendary hero. So the time travelling Chinese dramas you come across are often another variation of gongdou or gǔ zhuāng (古装, ancient Chinese) dramas. Occasionally, the theme is reversed with ancient characters time-traveling to modern China.
Some well-known time-traveling dramas:
- Back to Qing Dynasty:《步步惊心》(Bù Bù Jīng Xīn/Startling by Each Step)
- Back to Qin Dynasty: 《寻秦记》(Xún Qín Jì/A step Into The Past)
Wǔ Xiá is a stand-alone and widely popular fiction genre. Every Chinese person must know at least one wuxia novel, movie or drama. The stories are filled with peculiar and fascinating martial arts fights, weapons and figures. Wǔ, or 武, stands for martial arts, and xiá, or 侠, stands for hero. These dramas are usually based on existing wuxia novels by a few well-know Chinese writers, such as Jin Yong (金庸). If gongdou is meant for a female audience, wuxia is definitely Chinese guys’ favorite. This genre glorifies strong male fighters and often includes fairy-like female kungfu masters.
Must-watch Kung-fu dramas:
- 《神雕侠侣》2006 and 2014 version, (Shén Diāo Xiá Lǔ/The Return of the Condor Heroes）
- 《天龙八部》2003 version (Tiān Lóng Bā Bù/天龙八部)
6. Family Ethics Dramas / Jiā Tíng Lún Lǐ Jù / 家庭伦理(婆媳)剧
Similar to Modern Family, Full House, and other classic American family sitcoms, the lunli genre focuses on the family dynamics of modern Chinese families and the interactions between family members. As Chinese society is experiencing dramatic changes due to economic developments, Chinese families are forced to adapt to fast urbanization, national migration, one-child policy, and other social pressures (which may lead to issues like extramarital affairs and higher divorce rates, etc).
A common plot line is the conflict between mother-in-laws and wives. In many parts of China, it’s a tradition for the husband’s parents to live with the couple (in older times, Chinese households included at least three generations or sometimes four). Conflicts break out when there are multiple generations under one roof that sometimes don’t get along. These dramas are actually great entry points for understanding the daily life problems of ordinary Chinese.
To name a few:
- 《婚姻保卫战》(Hūn Yīn Bǎo Wèi Zhàn/The Battle to Protect Our Marriage)
- 《中国式离婚》(Zhōng Guó Shì Lí Hūn/Chinese Divorce)
7. Countryside Stories / Nóng Cūn Jù / 农村剧
Last but not least, let’s not forget China has been a largely rural country. A large number of shows, movies and novels documenting the change of rural life has emerged as China experiences reform and opening up. The transformations China’s countryside goes through provide a stable source of inspiration for literary creators. Like the lunli dramas, nongcun dramas present a more authentic look on Chinese life than gongdou or kangri shows.
- 《刘老根》（Liú Lǎo Gēn/Old Liu)
- 《乡村爱情》(Xiāng Cūn Ài Qíng / Village Love)
- 《老农民》(Lǎo Nóng Mín/Old Farmers)
Cecilia Miao is a growth strategist at ChineseSkill, a new Chinese study app committed to making Mandarin accessible through the basics, a Producer at Channel C , a YouTube Channel serving as a cultural bridge for Americans and Chinese students, and forever a TCK (third culture kid) and proud badger based in Beijing. Follow her on twitter (@miaosi51).
If you liked this post, check out our post on Documentaries in China!