Chinese TV series increasingly popular in overseas markets

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/27 18:18:40

Promotional material for Story of Yanxi Palace Photo: IC

Promotional material for The Legend of Fuyao Photo: IC

House of Cards, Westworld, Game of Thrones - these are popular serial shows that have huge fanbases and numerous internet forums dedicated to picking every scene apart in search of some hidden clue. You might think that naturally these would be some of the most searched TV series on Google, but actually the most googled TV show in the world this year was a Chinese period drama: Story of Yanxi Palace.  

Premiering on July 19, the 70-episode series about a concubine rising through the ranks of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) court has been a huge success for Chinese streaming platform iQiyi, where it has racked up more than 15 billion views.   

According to an article from the South China Morning Post, the show has received a warm welcome from viewers in more than 70 countries and regions, making it the most wide-spread Chinese drama in the world. The show's massive popularity has attracted the attention of HBO as well.

Engaging story

As a TV drama, plot is its strongest weapon.

"Almost every single cast member had such a deep plot behind them, and such fluidity to the story… This does not fall into the clichés of a period drama at all… [the stories] were all very well detailed and contrived," commented netizen russellcheww on film and TV site IMDb.

Yanxi tells a gripping story set during the Qianlong (1736-1796) period of the Qing Dynasty. The heroine Wei Yingluo, a humble but smart girl, chooses to become a maid in the royal palace in order to uncover the truth behind her older sister's death. Aided and mentored by the kind Empress Fuca, Wei becomes a well-educated maid with steadfast integrity, and is finally promoted to Imperial Noble Consort, a rank second only to Empress.

The genre of gongdou ju, or palace scheming drama, is an extremely crowded and competitive one in China, so how did Yanxi manage to become such a hit in China and the rest of the world?

According to an article from the BBC, one reason is that the drama "catches up with a trend of feminist shows."

The article notes that the protagonist Wei is different from the depiction on TV of most traditional Chinese female roles, who are often required to be "tolerant, submissive and fragile." Instead, she is determined, adaptable, resilient and even rebellious.

BBC also pointed out that Wei is a woman of Chinese Han ethnicity who enters into a royal court ruled by Chinese Manchurians and yet still achieves success, which depicts the individual drive and struggles of women in China.

High-quality production

From My Fair Princess to The Legend of Zhen Huan and on to The Empress of China, it seems that unconventional female characters have actually always existed in Chinese TV dramas. So what else has made Yanxi stand out for audiences in the Chinese and global markets?

Except the theme and plot, it is worth noting that overseas viewers of Yanxi have been particularly impressed by the show's costume and set design. On TV series website MyDramaList, netizen Viciani commented that the production of Yanxi is extremely brilliant and "all the costumes and scenery were aesthetically pleasing."

In an interview with Chinese news site The Paper, Yang Le, the CEO of Yanxi producer Huanyu Entertainment, said the studio focused more effort on getting the details of history right rather than spending money on big name stars.

According to the Paper interview, during the 2017 Cannes International Market of Communications Programs, Yang displayed a collection of the exquisite costumes and props used in Yanxi. The exhibit drew a lot of attention from people at the event, some of whom mistakenly thought they were relics brought from the Forbidden City.

After the event, Yang came to firmly believe that traditional Chinese elements are the reason foreign viewers tune in to Chinese TV dramas.

International market push

According to the People's Daily, markets overseas are becoming more and more willing to give Chinese dramas opportunities to shine as audiences outside China are eager to learn more about the country and its history by watching Chinese dramas.

In November 2017, streaming giant Netflix has acquired Chinese modern detective web series Day and Night. According to Chinese streaming company Tencent Video, broadcasters from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Pakistan showed great interest in Chinese period drama The Legend of Fuyao after the show debuted in China in June. With a rating of 8.4/10 on MyDramaList, another Chinese drama, Bloody Romance, became a great hit with international viewers as well. The show airs abroad in 13 countries and regions via Youku and Dramafever and has been a huge commercial success.

According to regional search data about Yanxi on Google Trends, besides Hong Kong, Yanxi is mainly popular in Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, which are culturally regarded as part of the "Sinosphere," due to their historical bonds with China and large populations of overseas Chinese.

Although Chinese dramas have made great strides going abroad, there are still a large number of overseas markets that remain to be explored, especially in Western countries.

"Foreign audiences are very interested in Chinese culture. We should go out and embrace them more and understand their needs" said Yang.

Newspaper headline: Dramatic shift

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