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Having personally always shied away from Chinese TV shows because I thought they all followed the same predictable patterns, I recently realized how wrong I was to assume this.
It’s clear from some contemporary TV shows in China that the format is often based on successful shows from the West, especially reality talent shows like The Voice (The Voice of China) and rom-coms such as Friends (iPartment). Many of my Chinese colleagues and friends have admitted their love and devotion to popular Western TV shows such as Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, The Big Bang Theory and more surprisingly, The Walking Dead. Since the first three can definitely be compared with many new, popular TV shows in China, this in turn must suggest that Westerners enjoy those shows might in turn enjoy their Chinese counterparts?! During my research of this post, I found plenty of blogs written by Westerners confessing their love for Asian TV shows. Granted many of these are fan-girls in love with romantic lead characters, but nonetheless they’re into Chinese TV shows and I’m certainly curious to know why!
Like music or books, I feel it’s important to enjoy what you’re experiencing in order to learn from it. Below are 10 Chinese TV shows to whet your appetite and start enjoying and using TV to develop your Mandarin listening skills!
1. 武媚娘传奇 (wǔ mèi niáng chuán qí) The Empress of China
Said to be one of the most expensive TV shows ever made in China, The Empress of China has caused controversy and interest within the last few months, not just because of that cleavage thing. The TV drama covers the life of China’s only female ruler, Wu ZeTian, a (sometimes) ruthless and (frequently) driven woman who eventually rose to power. Where Empress Wu is often viewed negatively, 武媚娘传奇 attempts to celebrate her amazing journey. This is a beautiful historical drama with an intriguing story. An obvious choice to improve your Chinese.
2. 步步惊心 (bù bù jīng xīn) Scarlet Heart
Scarlet Heart is based on a novel by 桐华 Tong Hua and has a little something for everyone, including time travel, romance and historical drama. The story tells of a young woman in the 21st century who has a near death experience transporting her back to the Qing Dynasty where she takes on the body of the daughter of a Manchu general. Although this season had a good reception and following, it’s sequel 步步惊情 did not. Interestingly enough, because of it’s fantasy nature, the version screened in mainland China had 100 minutes removed throughout the show.
3. 爱情公寓 (ài qíng gōng yù) iPartment
My Chinese colleague compared this show with US sitcom, Friends. Complete with canned laughter; it’s cheesy, predictable, and not unlike its Western counterpart, surprisingly lovable. Now onto it’s 4th Season, 爱情公寓 shows the lives of 7 20 somethings as they struggle with their daily lives. It also has similar conventions to that of a modern BBC sitcom like ‘Not Going Out’ or ‘Miranda’ due to exaggerated plot lines and its sketch show feel.
4. 千金女贼 (qiān jīn nǚ zéi) The Lady and the Liar
Following the trend of period dramas, The Lady and the Liar is set in 1930’s Shanghai. The story follows a young girl who loses her memory and has her identity stolen by another woman. It’s unrealistic and dramatic with a whole wad of cheesiness in there for good measure, but even the Western reviews are positive. (The fan-girl in me really wants to get into this!)
5. 我是歌手 (wǒ shì gē shǒu) I am a Singer
Many of you probably know about China’s love of KTV and entertainment shows and ‘I am a Singer’ is the newest of these shows to hit Chinese TV, but with a twist. Shows like this aren’t for everybody, but it’ll definitely test your Chinese listening skills with a dose of music included. You can check out our Written Chinese Music Vault to find music to learn Chinese with.
6. 最强大脑 (zuì qiáng dà nǎo) The Brain
The Brain is a reality game show where ordinary people compete to become named a ‘super brain’. With more complex language, this is probably for the more advanced Chinese learner, but this is also a pleasant change from the historical drama already plentiful on Chinese TV, not to mention a bit more challenging.
7. 奔跑吧兄弟 (bēn pǎo ba xiōng dì) Hurry Up, Brother
Hurry Up, Brother, as it is known in China, is based on the Korean variety show, Running Man and has been extremely successful since it’s premiere at the beginning of this year. With seven hosts competing against guests to complete missions and win the race. It’s a novelty show full of cheese, but amusing nonetheless. If you enjoy reality shows like The Voice of China, this is definitely a show to try your listening skills out on.
8. 何以笙箫默 (hé yǐ shēng xiāo mò) Silent Separation (My Sunshine)
My Sunshine is a new romantic drama based on two lovers who through a series of misunderstandings lose each other, and after reconnecting 7 years later rediscover their love for each other. Although aimed towards a younger audience, this has a huge fan base based on the ‘classic’ book of the same name. The show is not ‘made for the brain’ but for the heart.
9. 锦绣缘华丽冒险 (jǐn xiù yuán huá lì mào xiǎn) Cruel Romance
Cruel Romance is just as its title describes, a romantic story full of characters attempting to keep 2 lovers apart. Based on a novel, The Fate of Jinxiu (are you seeing a theme here?!), the story follows a young country girl who gets involved with the wrong crowd and is unable to escape to be with the man she loves.Although this follows the conventions of many other Chinese romance dramas, Cruel Romance has a wide fan base both in China and in the West.
10. 神雕侠侣 (shén diāo xiá lǚ) The Condor Heroes
The Condor Heroes is a typical romance-martial arts period drama based on a series of novels. 神雕侠侣, like many similar dramas has a large following apparently due to it’s faithfulness to the original text (and nothing to do with attractive cast members). There are plenty of episodes practice your listening skills with, but if you just want to experience a Chinese drama, there are subtitled episodes in English too.
If you have any other TV shows that you would like to share with us please leave them in the comments section below!