Before Squid Game rocketed to No. 1 in 94 countries, with 142 million viewers and over 3 billion minutes watched, Story of Yanxi Palace was in 70 countries with 700 million viewers in a single day, reaching more than 15 billion views and becoming Google's most searched show in 2018, even though Google isn’t available in China.
Yet most Americans have never heard of it.
Propelled by Netflix’s push for global dominance, Americans are discovering a taste for international content. A whopping 97 percent of US Netflix subscribers watched non-English content last year. Interest in Korean dramas has doubled in the past two years, while anime increased 50 percent from 2019 to 2020. With Asia accounting for more than half of Netflix’s new subscriber base, expect more hits from South Korea and Japan.
But what about the second-largest entertainment creator from a market where Netflix doesn’t operate?
Can Chinese Entertainment Take Off?
Kuek Yu-Chuang, VP of International Business at iQiyi, China’s largest streaming platform, believes so. “Global demand signals became clear in 2018 with Yanxi, and sampling continues to grow.” In the last two years, more than half of US respondents tried Chinese shows per iQiyi’s recent survey. Monthly active users, viewing time, and Chinese content video views doubled in North America this year, according to statistics that iQiyi shared with WIRED.
“Chinese shows haven’t gotten the awareness or recommendation from Netflix’s 214 million members globally, which is why we haven’t seen the same breakout as with Korean or Japanese content,” says Julia Alexander, senior strategy analyst at Parrot Analytics.
Larry Namer, founder of E! Entertainment TV Networks and president of Metan Global Entertainment, expects China to have more global hits. “In some ways, there’s more room to take risks in China than in the US, despite the government. You’re restricted in some shows, but it’s wide open in others.”
How We Made This List
For this list, WIRED drew from US and Chinese reviews and input from Chinese television creators and marketers: Ting Chen, screenwriter; Zijin Chen, author and screenwriter; Frank Jiang, CEO of Shanghai Yingyuan Culture & Technology; Jun Ni, screenwriter and associate professor of Film and Television, The Central Academy of Drama; Rui Ma, CMO of New Studios Media Co; and Dai Ying, SVP and GM of Original Drama Division at iQiyi.
Recommendations are split: 60 percent modern, 15 percent period (1900-1990), and 25 percent historical dramas, based on the 2020 breakdown of 415 scripted web and TV C-dramas [LT3]. Our recommendations cover each genre and include individual, family, and societal stories, and we focused on shows that are available to audiences in the United States and Europe.
Without further ado, here is a C-drama Watch List of the most recommended shows from the past nine years.
Looking for Epic, High-Stakes Viewing?
This is a must-see. Subversive wuxia (ancient martial arts story) with a physically frail lead who has lost his martial arts ability. It's set in sixth-century China, and Mei Chang Su, a brilliant strategist, secretly helps Prince Jing, the unlikeliest son, battle for the throne to clear his family’s name. This is based on a novel by Hai Yan—one of China’s most popular authors—that isn’t widely available in English, like many of the source novels on this list. “The quintessential C-drama about honor, courage, and sacrifice,” says iQiyi’s Dai Ying, “that remains the second-highest-rated C-drama.” “Visually beautiful. Epic yet personal story about how we live, how we die, and what’s important,” says Liv Fowler, a writer and fan of the series.
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A political action thriller set in Chang’an, the Tang dynasty capital, and based on a book by China’s top modern novelist, Boyong Ma. Zhang Xiaojing and Li Bi work to prevent a terrorist attack on Chang’an in 24 hours. You can expect movie-level production values. “The story has James Bond-like plot twists and double-dealings combined with a morality play that appeals to Trekkies,” says Michael Martinez, a super moderator of the SF-Fandom Forums.
This is a clever one. Joy of Life is a sci-fi, historical martial arts drama that explores technology’s two-sided impact on society. It starts out funny (but not over the top) and shifts into drama after episode 13. It's based on Mao Ni’s novel. Zhang Qin, a current college student, is reborn as Fan Xian in Southern Chin, retaining his knowledge and modern outlook of living for today. As the Minister of Revenue’s adopted son, Fan Xian must survive consistent assassination attempts as he avoids taking over the family business: Overseer of the Royal Treasury.
Craving Justice or Psychological Crime-Suspense?
Interested in politics or the inner workings of Chinese politics, in particular? Sometimes called China’s House of Cards minus the production values and budget, this series is based on Meisen Zhou’s web novel. In it, Liangping Hou hunts down corrupt government officials as internal party factions struggle for power. The series was so popular it broke 10-year domestic drama records.
If psychological crime focused on current issues is your cup of tea, check out two of the highest-rated suspense dramas by China’s top crime suspense writer, Zijin Chen.
A body dumped at a busy subway station leads to an old case and a seven-year search for justice in The Long Night. After accidentally filming a murder, three troubled teens blackmail the murderer for cash in The Bad Kids. The latter highlights the issue of children left to raise themselves.
Want Something Lighter or Teen-Friendly?
A charmer that’ll make you laugh and cry. This one is based on Yin Gong Lu’s work, and we follow three families with high schoolers preparing to take the gaokao, China’s grueling college entrance exams. This series explores education, parental expectations, and mental health and features a well-rounded cast with nuanced performances. “This story’s for anyone who’s a parent or been a teen,” says Frank Jiang. “[It] covers the love, conflicts, anxieties, and joys between parents and teens.”
With You is a sweet, funny coming-of-age drama adapted from Ba Yue Chang An’s book. Watch flawed leads Geng Geng, an awkward student, her seatmate, Yu Huai, a top student, and their crew grow in high school and beyond. Well-rounded characters deal with realistic issues, and the drama is a critical and audience favorite, despite its rushed ending. “At heart, this is a story about how we gradually, inch by inch, find the best of who we are, no matter our challenges,” says Frank Jiang.
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This series has it all: a river god/mystic detective, a shaman, a forensic scientist, and zombies. It’s an unusual historical-mystery-horror-fantasy show with Chinese folklore set in 1920s Tianjin. It's based on best-selling author Bachang Tianxia’s work. Guo Deyou, who recovers corpses from the local river, teams up with friends to solve a murder case, leading to both another case that’s 20 years old and a cult. For fans, the episode recaps are in traditional Chinese story-telling style 说书, and the series features great special effects and has earned directing awards, despite its web drama budget.
Need to Process Family Relationships?
Love-hate your family? All Is Well is based on the novel by Ah Nai. The Su family struggles to cope with their father and deal with each other after their mother’s death. The series explores gender discrimination, parental caretaking, and what it means to be a family. It has also sparked heated discussions about female expectations and familial abuse. “This set a new bar for all future family dramas in every aspect. And it highlights real social issues, creating ongoing discussions,” says Jun Ni.
In the Mood for Love and Romance?
The Untamed is a Xianxia (immortal hero Chinese fantasy) romance-mystery that’s a global phenomenon. Based on Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s novel, the series features well-rounded characters and a nonlinear plot with lots of subtext. “Romantic with a capital R that’s rare to find in other media,” says Natasha Simonova, a fan of the series and teaching fellow at Oxford. Fans are so enthusiastic about recommending the show that it’s been called “The Untamed Pyramid Scheme.” Wei Wu Xian is resurrected 16 years after his death. He and his soulmate cultivator, Lan Wang Ji, solve different mysteries, including who’s responsible for Wu Xian’s original demise. Justice, loyalty, sacrifice, and most of all a slow burn, this love story has women and men squealing.
This Taiwanese series blends time travel, romance, and mystery and manages to be smart, whimsical, and poignant. Twenty-seven-year-old Huang Yu-Hsuan still misses her boyfriend Wang Quan-Sheng, who disappeared two years ago. One day, she wakes up in the hospital with Quan-Sheng but is trapped in 17-year-old Yun-Ru’s body. And it turns out Quan-Sheng isn’t her boyfriend but is instead Zi-Wei, Yun-Ru’s classmate. Can she save Yun-Ru? Will love endure? “A simple story that engages viewers’ minds,” says Rui Ma. “Strikes just the right balance between realism and fantasy, which is hard.”
RPG-Style Story to Solve Rural Poverty?
An unflinching story about impoverished villagers in Xihaigu (one of the poorest and driest areas in China) and their fight for survival. We follow Ma Defu as he tries to convince the village to grow mushrooms, find a market, develop a water solution, secure investment, and find other employment for the villagers. The series features a tight story and a well-rounded cast. “Creative storytelling using a web novel, RPG (role-playing game) structure for serious, historical content,” says Rui Ma, “creates an unexpected, runaway hit for young, urban audiences.”
Strong Women Succeeding Against the System?
This series is a female-focused drama set in Shanghai that looks at who we are and who we want to become as we transition from our twenties to our thirties. Wang Manni is single and about to become “leftover” (a Chinese term used for unmarried women after 28-30.) Zhong Xiaoqin’s “perfect” marriage gets destroyed, and Gu Jia’s upper-middle-class life as a stay-at-home mom is no fairy tale. “The show’s success significantly increased the number of female-driven stories being made,” says Jun Ni.
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This incredible series is a modern Cinderella rags-to-riches story set in the Qing era, with a strong female lead who’s not waiting on her prince. Wei Yingluo enters the palace as a maid to avenge her sister’s death. Through her scheming and ruthlessness, she rises to the level of imperial concubine. Yingluo’s struggle to survive in the palace resonated with viewers navigating today’s cut-throat, male-dominated workplace. Luscious and authentic visuals.
For more series and movies you might like, check out iQiyi, Tencent, Youku, and Viki.If you want reviews of Chinese TV shows and movies, look at AvenueX, Cdramawiki, Douban, and MyDramaList. For award-winning shorts and films, try Chinese in Entertainment.
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