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Telly Addicts: 5 Popular Chinese Soap Operas

A couch potato can also be productive in language learning


Being a couch potato can finally be a good thing, at least for numerous young Chinese fans of American television shows (美剧迷 Měijù Mí). These eager viewers claim it’s a shortcut through excruciating reading comprehensions and vocabulary exercises to achieve English proficiency. In order to do so, they have bought “Friends” DVD box sets, and play episode after episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” on their iPhones. Whether it’s at home or on the subway, they are “studying” hard. In the same spirit, we have compiled a list of popular Chinese television shows for Chinese learners or prospective learners. At the same time being entertained with some Chinese drama, your Chinese proficiency may also be magically improved!

The Happy Life of Jintailang (《金太郎的幸福生活》Jīntàiláng De Xìngfú Shēnghuó), May, 2012
The theme of family has long been a beloved one among Chinese viewers. As a result, the eight to ten p.m. time slot is usually filled with all manner of family disputes:  tears and quarrels; misunderstandings between couples, parents and children, brothers and sisters and of course among the in-laws.

“The Happy Life of Jintailang” is the lasted version of all these things. It is a typical family comedy, or八点档 (Bādiǎn Dàng, eight o’clock slot show) depicting a newly-wed couple and the conflicts in their extended family.

One of the most memorable characters in the show is the husband “Jin Liang.” Trapped between his wife, mother-in-law and his own family, Jin Liang strives to be a peace-maker who wants everybody to be happy and satisfied. Many viewers can identify with his character because there are so many men like him in modern Chinese families; the group has even been given its own popular term “夹板男” (Jiábǎn Nán, men trapped in between). The traditional Jiábǎn Nán treats his wife with great tolerance, mother-in-law with flattery, his own father with support and himself with ruthlessness (对老婆“忍”, 对丈母娘“捧”,对老爸“撑”,对自己“狠” Duì lǎopó “rěn”, duì zhàngmǔniáng “pěng”, duì lǎo bà “chēng”, duì zìjǐ “hěn”). You might be able to imagine how much these men might suffer from day to day. But out of great love for their wives and families, they carry on anyway. Here is how Jin Liang describes his talents:

Jin Liang: I have such a brilliant mind, extraordinary peace-making ability and great negotiation skills, which is more than enough to work at the United Nations. If I were asked to deal with the Middle East, a single phone call would set everything straight. Coax and sweet talk on both sides, and they will never get into a fight.

Jīn Liàng: Jiù wǒ zhè nǎodai, wǒ zhè píng shìr nénglì, wǒ zhè tánpàn nénglì, dào Liánhéguó dōu fùyu, jiù Zhōngdōng nà shì yào gē wǒ, wǒ yī diànhuà qiāo guòqù, quán bǎipíngle. Liǎngbiān yī hǒng, liǎngbiān yī hūlu, quán dǎ bù qǐlái.


A conversation between the two love birds in the show goes like this:

Mi Xiaomi: You are only allowed to love me from now on, not anybody else.
Mǐ Xiǎomǐ: Nǐ yǐhòu zhǐ xǔ ài wǒ yí gè rén, bùxǔ ài biérén.

Jin Liang: Is there anybody else in the world?
Jīn Liàng: Zhè shìjiè shàng hái yǒu biérén ma?

Mi Xiaomi: You are not allowed to cast a single look at another woman.
Mǐ xiǎomǐ: Nǐ lián qítā nǚrén dōu bùnéng kàn yìyǎn.

Jin Liang: Forget about other women, I won’t even look at a hen, a female dog, or a female mosquito.
Jīn liàng: Nǐ bié shuō rénle, mǔ jī mǔgǒu mǔ wénzi, wǒ dōu bú huì kàn yìyǎn.

Life of Zhenhuan (《甄嬛传》Zhēn Huán Zhuàn), November, 2011
Women just love the life of Zhenhuan, a fictional story depicting a Qing Dynasty imperial concubine. With her unmatched beauty and wisdom, she defeated other concubines and even the empress to be the favorite of the emperor and the most powerful woman in the royal court. The show also represents a genre of Chinese TV shows, “宫廷感情斗争剧”(Gōngtíng Gǎnqíng Dòuzhēng Jù), of historical romance and scheming, along with struggles among women in the royal court. It is also known as “宫斗” for short.

A ratings-winner, the show attracted female fans across the country. The unique style of the conversations between these royal women was especially appealing to its fans- they even started to adapt their online conversations to imitate it, called the  “Zhenhuan Font” (甄嬛体 Zhēn Huán Tǐ). In a typical conversation, they would refer to each other as “小主” (Xiǎo Zhǔ, little master, used by the servants to refer to the royal concubines in the show), and words such as “方才”(fāng cái, just now), “想来”(xiǎng lái, it maybe assumed) and “极好” (jí hǎo, fabulous), all of which emulate the spoken language used over a hundred years ago. The statements used in this “Zhenhuan Font” are usually very indirect, with true meaning hiding in the flowery language. Here is an example created by the fans:

Just now, I saw a mathematical problem in an exercise book that was very unusual. I personally think that if you would  solve this problem, your familiarity of the formula will most likely be increased, which is very beneficial to your own math skills.

Fāngcái zài jīngliàn shàng kàn dào yīdào shùxué tí, chū fǎ jí shì guǐyì, sīxīn xiǎngzhe ruòshì zhè tí ràng nǐ lái zuò, dìng kě zēngjiā gōngshì shúliàn dù, duì nǐ de shùxué bìshì jíhǎo de.


But it really means: The problem is too hard for me. Why don’t you try it?

Starting by Each Step (《步步惊心》Bù Bù Jīng Xīn), December 2010-March 2011
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, this time-traveling (穿越 chuān yuè) romance is set in the Qing Dynasty(1636-1911). The female protagonist Zhang Xiao is a white-collar worker living in the 21st century. One day, she suffers a traffic accident that sends her back three hundred years to the reign of  Emperor Kangxi (康熙) in the Qing Dynasty. She finds herself trapped in the body of Ma’ertai Rouxi, a teenage daughter of a Manchu general. With her new name, Rouxi, she begins a new life. She starts off by falling for Prince Yinsi(胤禩), the emperor’s eighth son, and agrees to marry him if he gives up competing for the succession to the throne. Due to her knowledge of the Qing Dynasty, she is aware that Yinsi’s ambition will ultimately lead to his death in prison after the emperor’s fourth son, Prince Yinzhen(胤禛), becomes emperor. However, Yinsi refuses to give up his ambitions. After breaking up with Yinsi, she turns to the fourth prince Yinzhen—the man who would beat the other princes to the crown, and later become known as Emperor Yongzheng(雍正,1678-1735).

Chinese netizens use the phrase “nuexin” (虐心,heart-wrenching) to express their feelings after watching the story. An audience member commenting on Douban writes: “Although the plot is heart-wrenching, the story is very touching. So I can bear it!”

Thanks to popular time-travel shows and historical dramas such as this one, the phrase “穿越” has surpassed its basic meaning of “pass-through” or “traverse” to be shorthand for traveling over time and space.

Have you been time traveling?
Nǐ chuānyuèle ma?

Amazing Detective Di Renjie(神探狄仁杰 Shéntàn Dírénjié)Season 4 (2010)
This television series was first broadcast on CCTV-8 on August 2004, now in its fourth season with high audience ratings. It is a historical drama based on detective stories related to Di Renjie, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) magistrate and statesman. The main characters Di and his bodyguard Li Yuanfang(李元芳) continually battle with villains to create some thrilling TV. Owing to the TV show, the Yuan Fang font, (元芳体,Yuán fāng tǐ) became very popular on the Internet in one night alone in October 2012.

Yuán fāng, nǐ zěnme kàn?
Yuan fang, what do you think about it?

Beijing Youth (《北京青年》Běijīng Qīngnián) 2012
This TV series is a highly popular youth idol drama,  directed by Zhao Baoguang. Combined with “Struggle”(《奋斗》) and “Who really makes the decisions for one’s youth?” (《我的青春谁做主》),the three TV series are called the Youth Trilogy《青春三部曲》。

The producer Zhao BaoGang commented that: “Youth is a very transient dream, when we wake up it’s gone along with all the memories of it. Youth is not a station on a one-way train line. Throughout our life, we’ll always reflect on what it has given us and what is has taught us.”

The TV show reflects reality as it stars four cousins from the He family: He Dong, He Xi, He Nan and He Bei. With totally different characters and different ambitions, the four protagonists each experience different love stories and lives.

Phrases made popular by the show:

得瑟 (de sè, show off)
吃饱了撑的!(chī bǎole chēng de! don’t you have anything better to do?)
找回青春 (zhǎo huí qīngchūn, rejuvenate youth)
翻篇儿 (fān piānr, turn the page or turn over a new life)

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