The Zhu brothers, coal-blackened miners fromChina’s southernGuangxiProvince, trudged home from work. Their faces showed the weariness of a long day spent deep in the depths of a dangerous coal mine. All they wanted to do was get home.
The brothers, one by one, methodically washed the dark coal from their bodies and then gathered in the living room for tea. The eldest Zhu picked up a television remote and turned to aHong Kongchannel. The American sitcom “Friends” flashed on the screen. The family huddled around the television. This was their nightly routine.
I wonder if the creators of “Friends” know that they have a following in the hills of Guangxi.
Travel over 2,000 kilometers toChina’s northeastern city ofDalian, a scenic seaside city, and you will find a similar admiration for foreign TV shows. Chen Wenxu lives and works there, and he loves the American TV thriller “24,” or “24小时 (24 Xiǎoshí).” The series, now in its eighth, and final, season is about an American secret agent protecting the American government.
“I’ve almost watched every episode, I love it,” Chen said. “It is so exciting and intense. It really grabs my attention.”
No matter where you go in China, everyone—be they miners or white-collar workers—has a favorite American TV show.
Before the 1980s, the average Chinese had almost no contact with American television.
In the wake of Reform and Opening-up in 1979, “The Man from Atlantis” became the first American show to be broadcast on China’s national television. The sci-fi fantasy, starring Patrick Duffy, was only marginally successful inAmerica, but it was a massive hit here.
Zhan Ze, one of China’s most famous voice actors and a professor at the Communications University of China, recalled the debut of the show, whose title was translated to “The Man from the Bottom of the Atlantic” (《大西洋底来的人》 Dàxīyáng dǐ lái de rén).
“It was a science fiction show, so it was something completely new for Chinese audiences,” Zhan said. “Besides that, the stars of the show were so beautiful. After Chinese people saw them wearing sunglasses and playing Frisbee, they started to do that too.”
Soon after the success of “The Man from Atlantis,” another American show, “Garrison’s Gorillas” (《加里森敢死队》 Jiālǐ sēn gǎnsǐduì) was also broadcast and quickly developed a cult following of its own in China.
“The funniest thing about ‘Garrison’s Gorillas’ was that the Shanghai Public Security Bureau gave it a Security Award,” Zhan remembered. “Every night that it aired, the crime rate nationwide went down significantly. It was so popular even the criminals stayed home to watch it.”
In the following years, more American TV shows were released on Chinese television. Chinese exposure to American and Western shows, however, remained limited. That was until the Internet hit China.
Just like everywhere else in the world, the Internet has completely transformed the way the Chinese access information and entertainment. Today if Chinese people want to watch an American TV show, all they have to do is access one of the many websites, such as Youku, Tudou or PPS, that offer free streaming video. With just a few clicks, a Chinese viewer has the whole world of American entertainment at their fingertips.
American TV shows also have a practical use: learning English. As anyone that has been to China knows, English is big here. It is a required course in compulsory education; most cities are crowded with private English training centers. But language courses can be dry and stilted, they offer little practical knowledge about English usage to students. So many instead turn to the national favorites, “Friends,” “Sex and the City” (《欲望都市》 Yùwàng dūshì) and “Heroes” (《英雄》 Yīngxióng), to learn vernacular and slang, to learn the way people actually speak.
If you have the chance to browse through the foreign language section of any Chinese bookstore, you will come across packaged learning programs with titles like “Learn English with ‘Desperate Housewives!'” Desperate Housewives, in Chinese, is “绝望主妇 (Juéwàng zhǔfù).”
I met one young Chinese woman whose English was perfect. “Where did you study overseas?” I asked her.
“No, I didn’t study overseas,” she said. “I just watched ‘Friends.'”
In China, the show is actually known by several names, but—contrary to this article’s headline—none of them are the literally-translated as “Pengyou.” Instead “老友记” (Lǎoyoujì, Old Friends) and “六人行” (Liùrénxíng, “Six People Walking Together”) are the most popular titles.
Even if they’re not interested in learning English, many Chinese are still curious about American television.
“You know, I’ve been watching Chinese shows since I was a kid, so it’s always the same old thing. American TV shows are something new, something different,” Chen Wenxu said.
“Besides, a lot of them have hot actresses,” he added.
Attractive characters are definitely part of American TV’s appeal. Ask any Chinese woman what she thinks of the TV series “Prison Break” (《越狱》 Yuèyù), a huge hit here, and invariably you hear: “Michael is so handsome!”
Michael, played by actor Wentworth Miller, is the star of the show. University students, hoping to cash in on Miller’s popularity, decided to shave their heads, imitating his style. Sporting their new look, these young bachelors were confident that they wouldn’t stay single for long.
American TV shows are not advertised here nor tailored to Chinese audiences. Yet, week after week, from isolated mountains to burgeoning cities, Chinese tune in for the latest episodes of a TV show filmed on the other side of the world, featuring actors from another culture, speaking a different completely language from their own.
Whether it’s because of the attractive foreign actors, interest in American culture, or the desire to have more native-sounding English, it’s clear: American TV is huge in China.
It is a sometimes bewildering cultural phenomenon, born out of a potent mix of curiosity and practicality. That’s exactly why it is here to stay.
Additional research by Huang Yuanjing.
The movies have long been hits overseas—Zhang Yimou, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee are all global household names. But Chinese TV has yet to make a splash in the West. When China’s not watching “Friends” or “Heroes,” here are five of the local shows the sets are probably tuned in to. – Kate Budd
My Chief and My Regiment (《我的团长我的团》 Wǒde Tuánzhǎng Wǒde Tuán)
Based on the popular novel by Lan Xiaolong, this military drama follows the plight of soldiers duringChina’s resistance againstJapanin 1942. Many of the cast and crew are familiar uniformed sights—they were also involved in the hit historical drama “Soldiers’ Sortie.”
Lurk (《潜伏》 Qiánfú)
This spy drama was named “best series” last year, and stars Sun Honglei as a Communist agent working in a secret spy organization. It’s full of action and is a hit with viewers, young and old.
My Own Swordsman (《武林外传》 Wǔlín Wàizhuàn)
Also known as “Missionof the Warriors,” this martial-arts adventure is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Gu Long. It might deviate from the original text every now and then, but it maintains the vibrant cast of characters.
Autumn’s Concerto (《下一站，幸福》 Xià yí Zhàn, Xìngfú)
This Taiwanese drama has received high ratings for its tales of troubled romance, as it follows the relationship between a law student and a bento box vendor. Full of tragedy and romance, the series has won scores of awards, and spawned a number of other popular spin-offs.
Dwelling Narrowness (《蜗居》 Wōjū)
Literally meaning “a nutshell of a house,” this popular series follows two sisters who are struggling to buy houses inShanghai, and how the pursuit enslaves them both financially and mentally. Adapted from Liu Liu’s novel, it strikes a familiar chord with the white-collar workers across the country.
- Sorry, I can’t go. My favorite show is on tonight.
- Now you can vegetate and learn a new language!