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Chinese dramas a hit with online viewers

January 31, 2018

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A SCENE from the Chinese drama series Princess Agents, which set a record for YouTube views at nearly three billion.—China Daily
A SCENE from the Chinese drama series Princess Agents, which set a record for YouTube views at nearly three billion.—China Daily

BEIJING: Ode to Joy, a television drama series cantered on the lives of five women in contemporary Shanghai, was an eye-opener for Dmitry Ivanov.

“Understanding Chinese women isn’t easy. Ode to Joy has helped, giving me an insight into issues that young people, especially women, face in China,” said Ivanov, 27, who has a Chinese girlfriend.

The Russian software developer found the two-season, 97-episode drama so compelling that he watched it, complete with English subtitles, twice online.

Ivanov said he regards Chinese dramas more as cultural lessons than as entertainment. Next on his list is the 44-episode historical series Growling Tiger, Roaring Dragon, based on true stories of Sima Yi, a politician from the third century.

Ivanov’s enthusiasm is typical of a new wave behind the growing popularity of Chinese television productions in recent years.

On popular video sites like YouTube, Viki and DramaFever, hundreds of Chinese dramas with subtitles in foreign languages are attracting viewers whose comments range from admiration for the cast to discussion about plotlines.

China is one of the largest producers of television and online content, producing at least 400 dramas a year, with half of these being sold overseas, the Beijing news magazine Vista said.

In addition, at least 213 online series aired last year and five of these attracted more than four billion views, said a recent report by Chinese tech giant Tencent, proprietor of the social media app WeChat.

The state administration of press, publication, radio, film and television said that in China more than 1,600 domestic movies and television productions have been translated into 36 languages in recent years. These include English, French, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese, and they have reached more than 100 countries.

Overseas markets have become a pivotal part of Chinese producers’ business plans, as well as a significant platform to demonstrate the country’s soft power, industry analysts said.

China earned about US$100 million selling domestic screen productions overseas last year, said You Xiaogang, head of the Chinese Television Drama Production Industry Association. “That figure is the mere equivalent to the revenue of two popular TV series in China. That means there is still huge potential for Chinese dramas and movies overseas.”

You, himself a television drama producer, believes the expansion of Chinese imports will also bring opportunities in the age of the internet.

Video-streaming sites have much larger capacity and more options for viewers than television channels, which face one obvious hindrance: the clock.

Top streaming sites in the United States are now extremely interested in Chinese content and are in talks with Chinese companies about distribution deals, You said.

“With the rise of new media, new chances have sprung up, and this will reshape the overseas sales of videos produced in China.”

Global streaming giant Netflix recently made its first purchase of a Chinese internet drama, the online blockbuster Day and Night. The move is emblematic of the changes now underway.

Made and released by video-streaming service Youku, which is owned by Alibaba, the 32-episode detective drama follows the investigation of a grisly unsolved murder.

Since its online debut on Aug 30, 2017 it has been viewed more than 4.5bn times, Youku said. On China’s most popular review site, douban.com, the drama racked up a score of up to 9 out of 10, while the Amazon-affiliated IMDb gave it 8.9 points out of 10.

One critic on IMDb called it “the Asian version of Sherlock Holmes with shocking twists and turns”. “With a tense and an absorbing plot, along with the superb performances the actors give, this drama is certainly a pleasure to watch.”

Netflix plans to make the series available in its global market of 190-plus countries and regions.

Xu Zhimin, assistant president of Youku, said the purchase is “an uplifting signal” for Chinese content makers. “The quality of Chinese dramas has risen greatly over the past five years, and as a result they have won recognition in the international market.”

The bulk of those who watch Chinese online video services are young people, most of them aficionados of hit television dramas made in countries such as the US, the United Kingdom and South Korea, Xu said.

Demand by Chinese audiences for better quality productions has prompted content makers to act, including providing better storytelling and visual effects, while at the same time making productions more attractive to overseas audiences, he said.

This shift is taking place in genres of particular interest to foreign audiences.

Wei Lili, vice-president of Ciwen Media Group, said she has sensed the change over the past few decades. Beijing-based Ciwen has produced a number of dramas sold overseas.

Sales of Chinese dramas abroad go back to the 1980s, when household TV series like Journey to the West, a mythological tale about the Monkey King, were exported to Southeast Asia and Africa, she said.

In the early 2000s, martial arts dramas emerged as a major genre rated highly in China and elsewhere around the world, she said.

“The dramas adapted from bestselling novels by the prestigious wuxia authors Louis Cha and Gu Long were then greatly welcomed in Southeast Asia, whose culture and history are similar to China’s.”

For example, the Ciwen-produced martial arts dramas Legend of the Eagle Shooting Hero, The Proud Twins, Stories of the Wandering Hero and The Seven Swords were well received in Japan and South Korea.

As the Chinese economy has continued to boom over the past 10 years, more domestic series have been exported. Tales featuring modern China and the lifestyles of Chinese began to dominate ratings as foreign audiences wanted to know more about the changes that were unfolding in the country.

Happy Memories of the Ma’s, a 47-episode TV series chronicling the life of a Shanghai family between the 1970s and early 2000s, became the first Chinese series shown by Vietnam’s leading broadcasters and beat other local shows to top the country’s ratings when it was first aired in the Southeast Asian country.

When fantasy or historical dramas based on influential online novels become leading genres in China, they also gain popularity overseas.

After topping China’s TV screen ratings and being watched 2bn times online, the fantasy drama The Journey of Flower made a big impact in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.

Another online sensation has been Princess Agents, about a sixth-century female slave’s rise to become an influential military leader. It set a record for YouTube views at nearly 3bn, making it the most-watched Chinese TV drama internationally. — China Daily

Published in Dawn, January 31st, 2018