LIU Kang

Everyone likes a good story, and China’s TV viewers are no different. Dramatized retellings—with added embellishments—of the exploits of ancient officials and emperors, and fictionalized accounts of modern revolutionary heroes are among the most popular entertainment on Chinese TV. At the same time, reality-based programs, so popular in the United States, are also gaining an audience.

The most widely viewed television show in the world is the New Year’s extravaganza that China Central Television (CCTV) presents each year. But television dramas and Chinese equivalents of American Idol and other reality shows are also hugely popular.

Rise of Drama

Entertainment programs dominate Chinese television, but dramas have consistently garnered the highest share of ratings since 2000. In 2004 television dramas accounted for 29.4 percent of all program ratings, followed by news programs (16.8 percent), variety shows (7.9 percent), special features (7.7 percent), sports (7.0 percent), and films (5.6 percent). In 2004, 505 television dramas, with 12,265 episodes, were shown. In that same year, 156 channels operated by 33 city television stations aired 1,598 dramas totaling 183,123 episodes.

The average television drama in the early 2000s ran for twenty episodes. Since 2004, that figure has increased to twenty-six, with many dramas having as many as fifty to sixty episodes. Each episode runs about thirty-eight minutes. Among all types of TV programs, dramas have garnered the largest amount of television advertising revenue. In 2004 receipts from television dramas accounted for 44.1 percent of all television advertising revenue. In that year television advertising revenue amounted to over 150 billion yuan ($22 billion). By comparison, box office revenue for the Chinese film industry in 2004 was 360 million yuan ($53 million). This includes domestic revenue of 250 million yuan ($37 million)—of which 100 million yuan ($15 million) came from television broadcasting—and 110 million yuan ($16 million) in international revenue. The number of television dramas produced and broadcast and the advertising revenue generated indicate that television drama, not film, is the top form of entertainment in China.

Dramas’ Run

The first Chinese TV drama was a thirty-minute play called A Veggie Cake (Yikou cai bingzi ?????), the bitter story of a starving peasant family under the old regime. It was aired live on the Beijing television station on 15 June 1958. From 1958 to 1966, nearly two hundred single-episode dramas were performed and telecast live. Television drama production—along with much other TV productions—ceased during the Cultural Revolution and did not resume until 1978. In the early 1980s, Chinese television stations began to broadcast foreign television serials, or soap operas, from Japan and the United States. But domestic television drama arrived in 1990 with the fifty-episode Yearning (Kewang ??). Yearning entranced thousands of millions viewers with its melodramatic portrayal of the lives and struggles of ordinary citizens during the Cultural Revolution.

Popular Dramas

Modern television dramas not only amass the highest ratings but also covers a rich diversity of subject matter and genres. In 2004 the most popular genres were romance, domestic drama, martial arts, romantic and youth idol drama, crime, revolutionary drama, and history.

Drama genres can be classified in various ways. Romance, for example, can include fictional historical drama, the most popular genre. Within this genre themes from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) are extremely popular. Examples include Prime Minister Hunchback Liu (Zaixiang Liu luoguo ?????) (1996), the story of a legendary witty and honest Qing prime minister who fights imperial officialdom and corruption, and Iron-Toothed Ji Xiaolan (Tiechi tongya Ji Xiaolan ?????) (2001), a comic tale about a Qing scholar who bravely challenges the treachery of the emperor. Stories like these touch on popular sentiments against corruption and age-old expectations of honorable officials (qingguan ??). Also popular are romantic stories that place actual historical figures—such as Qing emperors, princes, and princesses—in totally fictional situations. One such romance, Princess Pearl Returned (Huanzhu gege ????) (1999), with its mischievous and rebellious teenage heroine, is enormously popular. Although taking place in the distant past, it reflects radically changed social stereotypes and expectations of modern Chinese girls.

Also popular are historical dramas about famous Chinese emperors that recapture China’s past imperial glory, such as The Great Han Emperor Wudi (Han wu dadi ????) (2004); Yongzheng Dynasty (Yongzheng wangchao ????) (1999); and Kangxi Dynasty (Kangxi diguo ????) (2003). Revolutionary dramas, such as Years of Burning Passions (Jiqing ranshao de shuiyue ???????) (2002), remind TV viewers of the revolutionary legacy that is part of modern history. Other popular subgenres include adaptations of Chinese classical novels—such as Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong lou meng ???) (1987), Journey to the West (Xi you ji ???) (1986), and Romance of Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi ????) (1995)—and adaptations of the popular martial arts novels of Jin Yong, such as Dragon’s Eight Tribes (Tianlong babu ????) (2004).

In recent years television dramas from Korea have become popular creating a Korean cultural boom among urban youth. This trend has caused some concern among officials of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television and among domestic television drama producers. China’s imports of television dramas have remained quite small (only about 5 percent of all dramas in 2004), but more cultural and media exchanges are likely to increase the import and export of television dramas.

Spring Festival Gala

One television program stands out among all the rest and attracts the largest audience in the world: the Spring Festival gala, or celebration show, produced by CCTV. The gala, which has been an annual event since 1983, is a spectacular variety show. It includes dance and musical performances, sketch comedy, and appearances by national celebrities and is broadcast live on Chinese New Year’s Eve from 8 p.m. till after midnight on New Year’s Day. The program boasts of ratings of more than 90 percent, or approximately 1 billion viewers. It is so popular that it has become a new custom of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Each year the gala’s producers try to work in new forms of popular culture to go along with traditional folk forms and Beijing Opera while satisfying the Chinese Communist Party’s demand to make the show a comprehensive representation of mainstream, official ideologies. But the most popular part of the show is the comic sketches, often mild satires of modern life. For example, in the 2009 show, Jiang Kun, a popular actor, made the audience laugh with his routine on China’s new look after thirty years of reform and opening up. “In the past,” he said during his skit, “we had no traffic jams and no highways. Now we have congestion everywhere, even though we have so many highways.”

Because of its large scale and the tremendous advertising revenue it generates, the gala is often troubled with scandals and power struggles. Zhao An, a former director of the gala, was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2004 for taking bribes. In recent years, criticism of CCTV’s monopoly on New Year’s television shows has increased, as the CCTV gala
now has to compete with a greater variety of entertainment forms, some of which were unavailable when it first started. However, as a cultural ritual with widespread appeal, the gala remains the highest rated television program in the world.

New Developments

Challenges to CCTV’s monopoly on reality programs have surged in recent years. Hunan Satellite TV has captured the hearts of young, especially teenage, viewers with its enormously successful program Super Girl (Chaojinusheng ????), which debuted in 2004. Modeled after American Idol, Super Girl is a blend of reality show, singing and dancing contest, and beauty pageant. Viewers can vote for contestants by cell phone (more than 300 million viewers cast their votes by cell phone in 2005), and thousands of millions of teenage girls and their families participate. A Super Girl craze swept China in 2005, ending in the selection of three winners. Two of the three—Li Yuchun, the first-place winner, and Zhou Bichang, the second-place winner—were widely regarded as amateurs with poor singing skills and music talent. But their alternative and often defiant and androgynous style attracted fans. As expected, mainstream and academic circles have criticized Super Girl for its vulgarity and bad-taste sensationalism and populism.

CCTV has refused to allow any of the Super Girl winners to appear on its programs. Nevertheless, because of the huge popularity and enormous profitability of the show, many local television stations have introduced copycat shows. In 2005 Dragon TV, the satellite TV channel of Shanghai Media Group, introduced My Hero (Hao nan’er ???), a male version of Super Boy, with only male contestants, and My Show (Wo xing wo Show ???), which included both male and female contestants. Since 2006, there has been fierce competition for music talent contest show. Even CCTV has introduced such programming But in 2007 the central government issued a series of directives to all TV stations to tone down such music contests and reality shows and to uphold high moral and educational standards. Consequently, Super Girl and its clones have lost much of their momentum.

The consistent high ratings of television dramas and the popularity of shows like Super Girl indicate that entertainment is playing a vibrant role in the Chinese television industry, with far-reaching implications for the future of Chinese mass media. Chinese television, despite being caught between political pressure from the Chinese Communist Party and market competition, has rapidly developed into a cultural indicator as well as a profitable industry.

Further Reading

Canaves, S., & Ye, J. (2009, January 29). Imitation is the sincerest form of rebellion in China. The Wall Street Journal, p. A1.

Liu Kang. (2008). Media boom and cyber culture: Television and the Internet in China. In K. Louie (Ed.), Cambridge companion to modern Chinese culture (pp. 318–338). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Ying Zhu. (2008). Television in post-reform China: Serial dramas, Confucian leadership and the global television market. London: Routledge.

Ying Zhu, Keane, M., & Ruoyun Bai (Eds.). (2009). TV drama in China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Zhang Mingyu. (Ed.). (2009). China’s Spring Festival annual TV gala mixes humor, history. Window of China. Retrieved February 18, 2009, from

Source: Kang, LIU. (2009). Television—Dramas and Reality Shows. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2217–2219. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Television—Dramas and Reality Shows (Diànshìjù yù zh?nrén jìshíxiù ?????????)|Diànshìjù yù zh?nrén jìshíxiù ????????? (Television—Dramas and Reality Shows)

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