Chinese television drama

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Television series distribution license title card in the Mainland China since 21 September 2022

Chinese television dramas (Chinese: 中国电视连续剧; pinyin: Zhōngguó diànshì liánxùjù), sometimes colloquially known as C-dramas, are television drama series originating from Mainland China or the Greater China region. China produces the most television drama episodes per year and has the largest number of domestic television viewers in the world.[1][2] It is also the second largest video streaming market in the world by revenue.[3] Popular drama series genres in Mainland China include fantasy romance, period costume, contemporary urban and thriller dramas.[4][5] Chinese television dramas are regularly broadcast throughout Asia; particularly in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.[6][7][8][9][10] These dramas are also subjected to stringent regulatory supervision from the Chinese government.[11]

History[edit]

The first Mainland China-produced television program, One Piece of Cake (Chinese: 一口菜饼子), was aired in 1958, after the launch of China's first television station, Beijing TV Station (later rebranded as China Central Television, or CCTV).[12][13]

Other provincial television channels were launched in the subsequent years, including Shanghai Television, Jiangsu Television, Guangdong Television and Hunan Television. From 1958 to 1966, 200 drama anthologies were broadcast, although ownership of television sets was not widespread.[14] During the cultural revolution from 1967 to 1976, the only entertainment allowed on Chinese television were eight revolutionary operas, three war movies and some song renditions. Fictional dramas returned in 1978 with San Jia Qin, the first mainland drama filmed on location.[15] Meanwhile across the straits in Taiwan, the first long-form Mandarin television series Jing Jing was aired in 1969 on China Television, and the 1970s saw more familial dramas with heavy political tones produced by the three Taiwanese terrestrial channels, as martial law continued to be in enforcement.[16]

In 1980, the first drama series Eighteen Years in Enemy Camp was aired on state-run CCTV. Domestic demand for programming increased as television viewers increased from 80 million in 1978 to 1.1 billion by 1986.[17] Besides importing foreign shows, China began to produce many costume drama series. Long-form TV adaptions of classic Chinese novels and folklore include Outlaws of the Marsh (1983), Ji Gong (1986), Dream of the Red Chamber (1987) and Journey to the West (1988).[14]

In 1987, the Republic of China (ROC) government lifted the travel ban to Mainland China, and in 1988, the People's Republic of China (PRC) government started courting ROC investments in the PRC with guarantees to safeguard their assets, visitation and legal rights. The Chinese state regulators introduced a permit system allowing for private and independent investors to co-produce television series with state-run media entities in the late 1980s as part of its market reforms.[14] The thawing of cross-straits relations resulted in a series of co-productions between the two regions in from the 1990s to 2000s.[18] Taiwanese romance novelist Chiung Yao and her team began working in mainland on several television series, either based on her novels or original screenplays. Period drama My Fair Princess (1998), a collaboration between Chiung's production company and Hunan Broadcasting System, was a success in both regions and widely sold in other Asian markets.[19]

The 1990s also marked the start of satellite broadcast of Chinese television networks and the rapid commercialization of television programming in the form of advertising.[20][14] China Central Television and other provincial channels like Zhejiang Television, Anhui Television, Jiangsu Television, Dragon TV and Hunan Television began expanding their satellite network coverage and diversifying programming offerings.[21] Family drama Ke Wang (1990), immigrant story A Native of Beijing in New York (1993), and sitcom I Love My Family were some of the contemporary dramas aired on prime-time television.[22] Fortress Besieged (1990), a period drama adapted from the satirical novel by Qian Zhongshu, was critically-acclaimed.[23][24] The first Mainland-produced idol romance drama Cherish Our Love Forever was also aired in 1998.[25]

Since the 1990s, historical serials have been the dominant genre on prime-time television. The trend peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with many palace (also known as "Qing") dramas shown on television.[26] Fictionalized drama series based on well-known ancient figures like Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1994) and The Legend of Liu Yong (1996) continued to draw strong ratings.[25] Investment groups like Hengdian Group expanded into movie and television production in the mid-1990s, building large filming sets for different dynastic (and Republic) periods.[27] Hengdian's large film set in eastern Zhejiang was said to have accommodated at least 70% of China's films and TV shows at one point.[28] Established Hong Kong television production companies like TVB also began producing dynastic period dramas such as A Step into the Past (2001) and War and Beauty (2004) in Mainland China due to the availability of such sets.[29][30]

After the turn of the millennium, Chinese historical fantasy romance dramas started gaining popularity, eventually overtaking the market share of adaptations of wuxia novels that were popular in the previous decades.[31] Seasoned Hong Kong director Lee Kwok-lap produced the hugely popular Chinese Paladin (2005), the television adaption of the first installment of the Sword and Fairy video game series, contributing to the popularity of xianxia and xuanhuan (fantasy) genres in the Mainland entertainment landscape.[32] As these fantasy shows are often not tied to a specific dynasty or era, scriptwriters and designers had more creative leeway in their production, often mixing elements of Chinese mythology with modern humor and romance elements that is noticeably different from the stoic, honorable themes in wuxia genres.[33][34]

Historical period dramas continued to be popular in the early 2010s. Imperial power struggle drama series with female leads set in the Qing dynasty such as Empresses in the Palace (2011), Scarlet Heart (2011) and Story of Yanxi Palace (2018) became an important side genre in mainland China,[35] although the genre has since come under regulatory criticism for its "extravagance and negative influence on society".[36]

A series of escalating protectionist measures were issued by the regulatory body in the mid-2010s. In 2014, the Chinese government announced that imported foreign films and TV series required publication licenses in order to be aired within China.[37] Korean dramas, then one of the most popular drama genres in China, as well as Korean-Chinese co-productions,[38] were banned from both broadcast and streaming services in 2016, following the THAAD missile deployment disagreement between China and South Korea.[39] Regulators also banned the broadcast of foreign television shows during prime-time slots and issued quotas on the number of imported content on streaming video platforms in 2018.[40][41] At the same time, streaming television took off in China as technology giants Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba invested more in their own Chinese productions under their respective streaming business units iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youku.[42][43] Traditional terrestrial broadcasters also started partnering with streamers to deal with declining TV viewership.[43] Since the mid-2010s, intellectual property (IP) adaptation rights of popular online novels, video games and comics were in huge demand as television adaptations of such works started becoming common,[44] examples of which include the adventure series The Lost Tomb (2015), as well as historical political dramas Nirvana in Fire (2015) and Joy of Life (2019). Between 2018 and 2019, 42 out of 100 of the top television series were adapted from web fiction.[45]

Since the 2000s, celebrity-driven television dramas have allocated a significant portion of their production budgets to actor salaries in order to attract viewership. Hong Kong television producer Gary Yeung Siu-hung noted in a 2006 interview that mainland actors may command salaries 2 to 5 times higher than their Hong Kong or Taiwanese counterparts with comparable popularity.[46] In 2016, Shanghai Media Group executive Wang Leiqing acknowledged that up to 76% of production costs could be attributed to actor pay. For example, the two lead actors of the 2016 series Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace (2016) reportedly received a combined total of over 150 million yuan for the 87-episode series.[47] In 2020, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) issued a notice stipulating that television actors' salaries must not surpass 40% of the total production cost. Furthermore, the pay for lead actor cannot exceed 70% of the total actors' salaries.[48]

By the early 2020s, streaming television services like iQiyi and Tencent Video had reached more than 100 million monthly paying subscribers with the market reaching saturation and fragmentation.[49][42] Monetization and profitability became paramount for the major tech-backed streamers as long-form videos is increasingly considered as part of their more mature business units. In early 2024, Tencent CEO Ma Huateng expressed the corporation's focus on premium flagship dramas, which he identified as The Long Season, Three-Body and Blossoms Shanghai, in order to build brand reputation and draw user subscriptions, instead of having many smaller productions which provided little commercial and brand value.[50] After the massive success of its 2023 criminal drama series The Knockout,[51] iQiyi leaders also stated their focus on quality content instead of celebrity star power in their drama series, with a focus on genre series and high investment epic drama series.[52]

Television productions also had to compete with short video and live-streaming social media like Bytedance's Douyin and Tencent's Kuaishou for user screen time.[42] Short web dramas, also known as mini-dramas or micro-dramas (Chinese: 微短剧), became increasingly popular on Douyin, Wechat and Kuaishou. According to iiMedia Research, revenue of Chinese mini dramas reached 37.39 billion yuan in 2023, an increase of 267.65% from the previous year.[53] Each episode of a mini series lasts from seconds to several minutes and are also subject to regulatory scrutiny of the NRTA.[54][55][56]

Characteristics[edit]

Other Chinese-language dramas such as Taiwanese dramas, Hong Kong dramas, and Singaporean dramas may sometimes be attributed as Chinese dramas, although each region has a distinctly different filming style, editing format and colloquial terms.

Long-form Chinese television series vary in quality, although since the mid to late 2010s, observers have noted a sharp increase in production values and script quality in some series.[57] Also, a number of Chinese television series used music from Hollywood movies as incidental music.[citation needed]

Many Chinese television series end each episode in a cliffhanger.[citation needed] The channel CCTV-8 airs TV series around the clock. Episodes usually begin with opening theme music over credits as well as an ending theme music with additional credits.[citation needed]

Genres[edit]

Chinese drama genres range from romance, comedy, horror, family drama, sports, thriller, wuxia, xianxia, nationalist, political or a mixture of these in the form of ancient, historical, Republican era or modern contemporary settings.

Since the 1990s, main melody (Chinese: 主旋律) or tribute dramas (Chinese: 献礼剧) with patriotic and propagandist undertones have become common, with more series commissioned by CCTV for major milestones of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).[58][59][60] These series are usually aired on free-to-air satellite channels CCTV-1 or CCTV-8. In 2018, the National Radio and Television Administration (or NRTA, previously known as the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television) came up with an overall planning guide to select 100 tribute dramas to be aired between 2018 and 2022, series under the selection should be guided by the Xi Jinping Thought, with storylines that are realistic, moralistic and promoting Chinese nationalism and Core Socialist Values.[61] In 2019, China banned historical dramas and idol dramas in the period leading up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. The state censorship regulator announced that television channels should only broadcast programs that focus "on different historical aspects that show the great struggle of the Chinese nation as its people have stood up and become richer and stronger".[62] Audience reaction to some of the government-approved shows are mixed, some examples of those with higher ratings and critical review include Perfect Youth (2018) and Like a Flowing River (2021).[63] Other popular commercial thrillers such as the 2017 hit series In the Name of the People, and the 2023 series The Knockout, focus on the heroic story of the protagonists fighting against corruption under the CCP's auspices.[64] These shows have become more sophisticated as the industry adopts more nuanced plots and higher production standards.[65]

Chinese television dramas such as Ashes of Love, Story of Yanxi Palace, Nirvana in Fire, The Journey of Flower, Eternal Love, The Princess Weiyoung, Love O2O, Empresses in the Palace, Scarlet Heart, The Mystic Nine and The Untamed have garnered billions of views among streaming websites, iQiyi, Youku and Tencent Video.[citation needed] Some dramas were remade in other languages, or were spun off into a sequel.

Censorship[edit]

Mainland produced dramas have also been the targets of censorship, either explicitly with directives from the National Radio and Television Administration,[11] or implicitly due to self-censorship from the production companies and streamers.[66]

Creatives are often required to adhere to explicit directives from the NRTA, in order to pass the government review process. In many cases, they have do so by "adopting a positive ending where the good triumphs over evils and making the protagonist a morally good person".[67] Shows are also censored after airing. In mid-2015, the Chinese regulators criticized several shows for promoting ‘Western lifestyles,’ cleavage, [68][69] smoking, drinking, adultery or themes such as time travel and reincarnation.[70] Period drama series such as Story of Yanxi Palace and Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace were pulled from streaming services after a direct reprimand from a party-aligned newspaper, the Beijing Daily, for not promoting socialist values, as they "propagated a luxurious and hedonistic lifestyle, encouraging admiration for imperial life and a glorification of emperors overshadowing the heroes of today".[71]

Politically-sensitive dramas such as Towards the Republic (2003) were either heavily censored or outright banned from reruns and on-demand streaming services, as they portrayed historical characters like Empress Cixi and Nationalist leaders in a sympathetic and complex manner, and political ideologies that are not aligned with the Communist Party movement.[72]

Some television dramas are also banned or heavily cut due to the behavior of their cast and crew. Celebrities that were blacklisted by the China Association of Performing Arts and other government bodies due to scandals involving tax evasion, sexual assault and unpatriotic behavior may have their scenes obfuscated, cut or have their entire filmography pulled from syndication and streaming services.[73][74]

In 2022, the NRTA called for an end to the wildly-popular dangai television genre, which consisted of television adaptations of gay-themed online novels; male actors were also discouraged from looking "effeminate".[75][76][77]

Dubbing[edit]

Chinese dramas are often dubbed by professional voice actors. This is due to the fact that almost all Mainland dramas are required to be aired using putonghua, the standard Mandarin dialect, and many Mandarin-speaking actors may have regional accents. To standardize the pronunciation throughout the production, voice actors trained in standard Mandarin are employed in post-production. Subpar filming conditions may also result in poor audio quality and ambient noises, which requires post-production editing. Voice acting is also sometimes used to improve an actor's otherwise poor performance. Censorship may also require changing some lines in post-production.[78]

It usually takes one month to do the dubbing for 30 to 40 episodes n post-production. Popular voice actors may dub several series a year and are well-known figures to fans.[79] There are actors who are usually not dubbed, including Hu Ge, Wang Kai, Jin Dong, Jiang Xin and Deng Chao.[80][81]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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