The TV Dramas that Changed China

The Legend of Zhen Huan |© Beijing Television Art Centre
The Legend of Zhen Huan |© Beijing Television Art Centre
Photo of Yuan Ren
22 March 2017

What becomes of a nation obsessed with flying princesses and singing snakes? We look at China through the lens of TV dramas, focusing on the hottest box sets to own in mandarin.

We all know that TV shapes a generation more than any school classroom. In China, the nation first got obsessed with TV dramas in the late 80s and by the next decade, period dramas had made folklore, magic and witchcraft a staple of the urban Chinese family. Princes and princesses flying around in imperial palaces became the norm – on TV. Millenial shows shifted towards realism as viewers identified with themes of love, marriage, and family in a fast modernising world. Fast forward a decade and all the cool kids are back into Sci-Fi: time-travel and Korean aliens eating fried chicken and beer are all the rage. Here are nine of the most influential television shows that depict China’s cultural shifts, presented in chronological order.

Ke Wang (1990)

Ke Wang means ‘pining for’, and the title to an emotional drama considered a ‘pivotal’ point in Chinese TV history. It was defining for a generation and was a sensation upon release, achieving an audience rating of 90.78% (that means nearly 91% of China’s TV-owning population watched the show). It’s also one of the last dramas concerned with examining the social impact of the Cultural Revolution – a time when society turned on traditional values – and its tragic consequences.

A betrothed couple is broken up when the fiance is sent to mandatory re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution. A camp that combined physical labour and Communist ideology in order to correct ‘incorrect’ political thoughts of its inmates. The separated couple’s out-of-wedlock child is cared for and brought up by a relative, but when the Cultural Revolution finally comes to an end, and everyone is reinstated, the past comes back to cause emotional havoc.

Investiture of the Gods (1990)

The fox spirit, a popular figure in Chinese folklore, is often portrayed as evil in the disguise of a beautiful woman, whose body it inhabits. Entering the palace as a new concubine, a fox spirit has inhabits the body of a beautiful virgin, manifesting into a femme-fatale who bewitches the King and sabotages his empire, eventually leading to the overthrowing of the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC) and the rise of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). Investiture of the Gods was revelational partly due to its semi-naked characters, often clad in animal furs.

Investiture of the Gods | © China Teleplay Production Center Co., Ltd.

Beijinger in New York (1991)

In the late 80s, China began to open up to the West and economic reforms were in progress with the hopes of forming a more ‘capitalist’ model. US pop culture was flooding into the country, and many young people were travelling to North America for work and study. In Beijinger in New York, a musician (played by the famous Chinese actor Jiang Wen) and his wife – both native Beijingers – arrive in New York and discover what life is really like in the Big Apple as outsiders with a young child. Their distinctive ‘Beijinger characteristics’, pride, confidence and fearlessness, are tested. As money runs out, an accomplished musician has to wash dishes at a Chinese takeaway to make ends meet. It’s a story of cultural clashes, betrayal and temptation told through two generations of Chinese immigrants. Is love enough to survive the harsh reality of the American Dream?

New Legend of Madame White Snake (1992)

While the fox spirit is very bad according to Chinese legend, the spirit of the white snake is pure and kind. In this popular musical period drama New Legend of Madame White Snake, a young boy saves a white snake from a snake catcher and she vows to repay him for saving her life.

New Legend of Madame White Snake (1992) | © Taiwan Television Enterprise

A thousand years later, the white snake spirit has transformed into a beautiful woman and tracks down the reincarnation of her saviour, now a man called Xu Xian (who is played by a woman). They get married and have a child, but eventually, Xu Xian finds out about his wife’s identity and is scared to death – literally. With the help of potions and magic, Xu is revived and remains committed to her, but she, unfortunately, gets imprisoned in a pagoda for 20 years. Various trials and tribulations are surmounted and the pair are eventually reunited. It just shows, love can overcome anything, even when it’s not all human.

Or perhaps romance just needs a great backdrop. With a view of the Western Lake in Hangzhou (see picture below) where the couple first met, anyone could get charmed by a snake.

West Lake, Hangzhou | © Shutterstock

Return of the Pearl Princess (1999)

Without a doubt the biggest show to hit ever China, Return of the Pearl Princess still holds the highest viewing numbers in Chinese television history. Importantly, it was the first time that TV saw a truly laugh-out-loud Chinese comedy. The show was so epic it propelled the three female leads: Vicki Zhao, Ruby Lin and China’s top paid actress Fan Bingbing to a lifetime of meteoric stardom. At the same time, it made the acting profession in the mainland glamorous (previously only Taiwanese and Hongkongese actors were considered cool) and caused applications to the country’s top drama explode as girls pursued their ‘princess’ dreams.

The show’s central protagonist, Little Swallow (Vicki Zhao), is a bit bonkers, if not utterly ridiculous. Smart and naive, the hyperactive Little Swallow becomes a princess by accident (it’s complicated..) and perpetually gets herself and her royal crew (including a prince and a few concubines) into trouble. Big trouble – such as treason. But in the world of imperial fancy dress, smuggling a Mongolian concubine out of the Forbidden City to her childhood sweetheart might just be a forgivable crime – on TV.

Meteor Garden (2001)

The closest Western equivalent to this classic schoolyard soap opera with a catchy theme song (see video below) is probably Saved by the Bell. A high school bully (who just happens to be a model in real-life) and his gang picks on a pretty but headstrong female classmate, played by the famous Taiwanese singer Barbie Shu, but two of them end up falling for her instead.

It’s a tale where the ‘plain’ leading lady is actually beautiful – a tale of pride and reluctant teenage love. Manga-style slapstick and corny lines make this the classic ‘idol’ drama from Taiwan, and boy band mania went into overdrive when the four ‘bullies’ from the show went on to form the pop band F4 and released a few pop albums. Meteor Garden will warm the cockles of your heart as you remember how big a deal holding hands once was and what young amore felt like.

Struggle (2007)

Many of the post-80s generation saw their own struggles in one of this show’s characters. Focusing on a group of Beijing youths who grew up in the capital at a transition between socialist and capitalist worlds, their confusion, coupled with the harsh realities of post-university, life brings a lot of struggles. A tale of modern Chinese society, privilege and identity, of boldness and self-pity, Struggle examines whether the world is (really) your oyster when nothing is really fair at all.

Struggle (2007) | © Beijing Xinbaoyuan Film & Television Investment Co., Ltd.

The Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

What happens when one powerful man has thousands of lovers? Well, that’s a bit unlikely, surely? No, not when we add the phrases ‘the emperor of China’ and ‘locked up in a harem known as the Forbidden City’ to the mix.

The Legend of Zhen Huan | © Beijing Television Art Centre

The Legend of Zhen Huan is a historical drama that follows 17-year-old Zhen Huan, a commoner chosen for a life in the palace. She is put through her paces by the conniving, malicious and backstabbing world of concubines, court ladies and the empress. Murders are no rare occurrence when thousands of women are vying for the same man – after Zhen miscarries from poisoning, she toughens up and transforms into a merciless villain, fighting for the affection of the emperor and eventually manipulating him to become empress herself.

My Love from the Star (2013)

This show didn’t quite change the nation, no. Nevertheless, it was no doubt instrumental in causing some weight gain in many otherwise slim Chinese women, establishing Korean TV as a favourite of young Chinese people and making fried chicken and beer (a Korean special) joints hot across China. Suddenly queuing outside these establishments became all the rage, as did posting pictures of fried chicken on Chinese social media. That much food jealousy – not cool.

My love from the Stars (2014) | © HB Entertainment

The plot is, as you would expect, out of this world: an alien gets trapped on planet earth in 1609 and misses the spacecraft back to his home planet – because of a girl he tries to save. As an alien, he of course has supernatural powers and is good looking (which goes without saying). Fast forward to the future and this non-aging, porcelain-faced young man finds a world of chaos and caprice in his new next-door neighbour, a beautiful and famous actress who doesn’t quite have a grip on life. Incidentally, she looks just like the girl in 1609. There’s a love triangle, murder investigation and the male protagonist’s struggle between his power and his feelings. And of course, lots of eating fried chicken with beer.

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