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Top 10 Overview of China’s Most Popular TV Dramas February 2019

The top scoring TV dramas in China of this moment, winter 2018/2019.

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From beautiful costume series to suspenseful war-themed productions – these are the most popular TV dramas in China this season, an overview by What’s on Weibo.

For newer articles on Chinese TV dramas, please check our overview here!

China has one of the most booming TV drama industries in the world, with dozens of new dramas being released every month, drawing in millions of viewers through the country’s most popular online video streaming platforms.

We’ve compiled a top ten of the most popular Chinese TV dramas of this moment, based on the current popular charts of the leading websites in Chinese online video, including Tencent Video, iQiyi, Sohu, Youku, LeTV, 360kan, Sogou Video, along with Baidu’s and Weibo’s popular TV drama charts.

Please note that this list has been compiled by combining the top-ranking lists of this moment. And we have chosen to exclude popular drama series that already made it in our previous top-ten lists (here, here, here), despite their ongoing popularity.

Most of these series are available for viewing online, some also with English subtitles. If you need a VPN to circumvent any geo restrictions, we recommend either NordVPN or ExpressVPN to do so. Note: also see our Top 30 of all-time classic Chinese TV Dramas here!

Here we go:

 

#10 Mystery of Antiques 古董局中局

China Mainland

Chinese title: Gǔdǒng jú zhōng jú 古董局中局
Genre: Suspense, Mystery
Directed by: Wu Bai (五百) aka Guo Shubo (郭书博), Yu Qing (余庆)
Episodes: 36, December 2018, Tencent Video

Mystery of Antiques is an adaption of the like-named novel by award-winning novelist Ma Boyan (马伯庸). The main character in the drama series is played by Xia Yu (夏雨), who previously won awards for acting at various film festivals from Venice to Beijing, and from Taiwan to Singapore.

The series currently ranks fourth on Baidu’s most popular drama list, and seventh on the 360kan most popular series rankings.

The drama tells the story of the ordinary small antique shop owner, Xu Yuan (Xia Yu), who comes from a family of antique traders. One day, a visitor coming to the shop brings Xu into a conspiracy that goes beyond his wildest dreams and links him to a legendary treasure. It is the start of a dangerous and tumultuous journey, in which Xu does all he can to clear his family’s name and change his fate.

On Weibo, the official account of the series has over 20.000 followers.

The show, in Chinese, is available on QQ.

 

#9 Forty Years We Walked 我们的四十年

China Mainland

Chinese title: Wǒmen de sìshí nián 我们的西十年
Genre: Coming of age
Directed by: Wang Zi (王梓)
Episodes: 60, November 2018, Jiangsu TV, iQiyi, Tencent Video, Sogou Video, Mango TV, LeTV, Fun TV, PP TV, Youku

This coming of age story, featuring beautiful images of Beijing, is directed by Hunan-born filmmaker Wang Zi. Wang was born in 1986 and started his career as an actor in 2008. Some say that this series is very much based on Wang’s own experiences in his journey to becoming a director.

The series is currently the second most popular series on Sogou Video.

Forty Years We Walked tells the life story of Feng Dou, who falls in love with television and film from the first time he ever sees a TV at his friend’s house. In middle school, he becomes well-known together with his friend for collecting old tv-parts and building “new” televisions from them. Feng continues to pursue his passion for tv, setting up several businesses. However, as he Feng gets older, he starts to question his purpose in life until he realizes what it is he was always intended to do.

On Weibo, the official account of the series is currently nearing 20.000 followers.

The show is available on AsiaTVSub here or on Youtube here with Chinese subtitles.

 

#8 Well Intended Love 奈何BOSS要娶我

China Mainland

Chinese title: Nàihé BOSS yào qǔ wǒ (奈何BOSS要娶我)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed by: Wu Qiang (吴强)
Episodes: 20, January 2019, Sohu Video TV, Mango TV

Well Intended Love, that features the youngest cast within this overview, including Xu Kaiwei (徐开骋, 1990) and Simona Wang (王双, 1991), tells the love story between a wealthy man and mostly unknown young actress. The series is currently the most popular drama series on Sohu Video.

The series revolves around undiscovered actress Xia Lin who is suffering from leukemia. To afford a surgery that can save her life, she gets involved with the wealthy CEO Ling Yizhou. At the same time, Xia continues to pursue her career as an actress. Ling and Xia eventually get married and live a happy life together in secrecy until Ling finds out that Xia has a hidden agenda.

On Weibo, the official account of the series has over 190.000 followers.

See the complete series including English and Chinese subtitles on YouTube here.

 

#7 The Legend of Hao Lan 皓镧传

China Mainland

Chinese title: Hào lán chuán  皓镧传
Genre: Costume Drama, War, Romance, Historical Fiction
Directed by: Li Dachao (李达超)
Episodes: 62, January 2019, iQiyi

The historical drama The Legend of Hao Lan, starring Wu Jinyan (吴谨言), Mao Zijin (茅子俊), and Nie Yuan (聂远), chronicles the rise of Li Hao Lan to become the Empress Dowager of the Qin dynasty, after a long drawn battle between Zhao and Qin, towards the end of the Warring States period (475–221 BC).

The series is currently ranked third most popular series on 360kan and fourth most popular on iQiyi. Viewers of the latter evaluate the series with an average of 7.0.

Its popularity shows that historical drama is still very much booming in China’s drama industry. Recently, state media critique on period costume dramas that focus on conflicts in the imperial court became a hot topic on Chinese social media. The criticism singled out Yanxi Palace in particular, a show that was then canceled on TV for its “negative impacts,” signaling heightened censorship on Chinese costume dramas.

For now, however, The Legend of Hao Lan is going strong – and it stars the same main characters (Wu Jinyan and Nie Yuan). It depicts the story of the brave woman Li Hao Lan, daughter of Imperial censor Li He of Zhao state, who gets framed by her stepmother and is sold as a slave to Lu Buwei. Lu later presents her as a gift to Sun Yiren, a Qin royal that resides in Zhao as a hostage. As Li and Lu arrive in the royal Zhao palace, they unite and start their battle for power.

On Weibo, the official account of the series has over 40.000 followers.

See the complete series including Chinese subtitles here. Also available on Viki (incl. English subtitles).

 

#6 Candle in the Tomb: The Wrath of Time 鬼吹灯之怒晴湘西

China Mainland

Chinese title: Guǐ chuīdēng zhī nù qíng xiāngxī (鬼吹灯之怒晴湘西)
Genre: Adventure, Suspense
Directed by: Fei Zhengxiang (费振翔), supervised by Guan Hu (管虎)
Episodes: 21, January 2019, Tencent Video

The Wrath of Time is the third season in the fictional Candle in the Tomb series, an adaption from the novels by Zhang Muye. The series chronicles the adventures of a gang of tomb raiders as they excavate the truth behind a mysterious curse. Previous seasons were Candle in the Tomb: Mu Ye Gui Shi (鬼吹灯之牧野诡事) and Candle in the Tomb: The Weasel Grave (鬼吹灯之黄皮子坟). Despite this series being the third season, it’s not really necessary to see the first series to understand the third season.

The series, starring Pan Yueming (潘粤明), Gao Weiguang (高伟光), and Xin Yulei, currently ranks third most popular drama series on Tencent Video scoring a 9.3, and fourth most popular serie on 360kan.

This third season of the Candle in the Tomb series is set in a time when the warlords are fighting for power and bring disaster upon the people. With the purpose of finding the ancient tombs from the Yuan dynasty, tomb raider Chen Yulou and warlord Luo Laowai embark on a journey to the Xiangxi Mountains. On their way, they meet Zhe Gushao, who is set on finding a pearl that will end the spell upon his clan. Despite the mutual suspicion of each other’s motives, Chen and Zhe rely on each other to get to their destination.

The third season does not have an official account on Weibo, however that the series is quite popular can be seen from the hashtag “Candle in the Tomb: The Wrath of Time” (#鬼吹灯之怒晴湘西#) which already got over 690 million views, and received more than 2.3 million comments on Weibo.

See the complete series including English and Chinese subtitles here.

 

#5 Behind the Scenes 幕后之王

China Mainland

Chinese title: Mùhòu zhī wáng (Mùhòu zhī wáng)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed by: Li Jun (李骏)
Episodes: 42, January 2019, Youku TV, Dragon TV, Beijing TV

Behind the Scenes, starring Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨) and Luo Jin (罗晋), is currently ranking second place on Weibo’s top ten most popular TV dramas, and third on Youku’s top 10 TV drama series.

The series revolves around ambitious student Bu Xiaogu and the famous producer Chun Yuqiao. Bu is thrilled when she is given the opportunity to work with the man she greatly admires. But she quickly discovers that he is nothing like she imagined. With her hopes and dreams shattered, Bu gets involved in an accident. Chun unexpectedly takes on the sole responsibility for the accident, setting off a special relationship between the two.

On Weibo, the official account of the series has over 80.000 followers

See the complete series including Chinese subtitles here.

 

#4 Spy Hunter 天衣无缝

China Mainland

Chinese title: Tiānyīwúfèng (天衣无缝)
Genre: Action, Detective
Directed by: Li Lu (李路)
Episodes: 48, January 2019, Zhejiang TV, Jiangsu TV, Tencent Video, Youku, iQiyi, Mango TV

Spy Hunter, starring Lu Yi (陆毅) as one of the main characters, currently ranks second most popular drama series on both 360kan and iQiyi.

This fictional story takes place in the spring of 1931 when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China is establishing logistic bases in several big cities. Two Special service teams try to establish a new secret underground route and depot. But one day, their secret base in Tianjin is exposed, and the life of agent Wan is sacrificed. In the name of justice, Wan’s brother goes looking for the truth behind his brother’s death.

On Weibo, the official account of the series has approximately 50.000 followers.

See the complete series including English and Chinese subtitles here.

 

#3 I Will Never Let You Go 小女花不弃

China Mainland

Chinese title: Xiǎonǚ huā bu qì (小女花不弃)
Genre: Costume Drama, Fantasy, Adventure
Directed by: Cha Chuanyi (查传谊)
Episodes: 51, January 2019, iQiyi, Tencent Video, Youku, PPTV

I’ll Never Let You Go is an adaptation of the like-named novel by Zhuang Zhuang (桩桩). The series stars many famous actors including Ariel Lin (林依晨), Lin Bohong (林柏宏), and Zhang Binbin aka Vin (张彬彬).

On Tencent Video the series currently occupies second place in their most popular drama series hotlist, scoring an average of 8.2. And also on Weibo, Youku, and 360kan, the series holds a position in the top five.

I’ll Never Let You Go is a coming-of-age story revolving around a young with a unique gift, who wanders the world alone after her entire family was killed to protect the girl’s special gift. One day, the girl meets a courageous masked man who saves her life, after which they fall in love. But everything turned around when the girl discovers who the man she loves really is.

On Weibo, the verified Weibo page of the series has over 4.6 million followers, making it the most popular series on Weibo of this list.

See the complete series with Chinese subtitles here. Also available on Viki (including English subtitles).

 

#2 Anti-Japanese 荡寇


China Mainland

Chinese title: Dàng kòu 荡寇
Genre: Drama, War, History
Directed by: Jiao Xiaoyu (焦晓雨)
Episodes: 60, November 2016, Guizhou TV, iQiyi, Sohu TV, PP TV, Youku

This TV drama, that has the remarkable English title ‘Anti-Japanese‘ (the original Chinese title roughly translates as ‘sweeping away the enemy’) was first aired by Hunan TV in November of 2016. Since then, it was broadcasted by at least eight different television stations and platforms.

The most recent rebroadcast started on January 19, 2019, and the numbers show that people still can’t get enough of the drama. On iQiyi, the series currently ranks first place, and on Sohu and LeTV the series ranks second and fourth place respectively.

The TV drama is set at the start of the War of Resistance again Japan (1937-1945). When an intelligence team of the Communist Party finds out about a box with classified information regarding the development chemical and biological weapons that is sent out by the Japanese army, Yang Erhu is sent to stop their evil plans and to protect his country.

See the complete series including Chinese subtitles here.

 

#1 The Story Of Minglan 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦


China Mainland

Chinese title: Zhī fǒu zhī fǒu yīng shì lǜféi hóng shòu (知否知否应是绿肥红瘦)
Genre: Historical fiction, Family, Politics
Directed by: Zhang Kaizhou (张开宙)
Episodes: 73, December 2018, iQiyi, Tencent Video, Youku, Youtube, Hunan TV

The fictional Story of Minglan, starring Zhao Liying (赵丽颖) and William Feng (冯绍峰) as main characters, is an adapted screenplay a novel by Chinese author Zheng Yi (郑怡) aka Guanxin Zeluan (关心则乱).

The series currently dominates the drama top charts, occupying the first place on Tencent Video, Youku, Baidu, Weibo, Sogou Video and 360kan.

The story of Minglan tells the coming of age story of an intelligent concubine daughter that has to grow up dealing with her unkind stepmother, an indifferent father, and unreasonable sisters.

Minglan learns to hide her skills and true intentions in order to survive until she meets Gu Tingyu, and the two fall in love. After Gu becomes a powerful official, and the two get married, Minglan rises to prominence.

On Weibo, the official account of the series has nearly 1.7 million followers.

See the complete series including Engish and Chinese subtitles here.

By Gabi Verberg

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

Gabi Verberg is a Business graduate from the University of Amsterdam who has worked and studied in Shanghai and Beijing. She now lives in Amsterdam and works as a part-time translator, with a particular interest in Chinese modern culture and politics.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Pieter

    May 30, 2019 at 11:01 am

    Typo: Chinese title: Wǒmen de sìshí nián 我们的西十年

  2. kc

    September 21, 2019 at 5:10 pm

    great list thanks

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China Arts & Entertainment

Top 10 Overview of China’s Most Popular TV Dramas May 2021

These are the best Chinese TV dramas of the moment.

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Scene from 'Court Lady' (number 8 on the list). Image via huaren.us.

Time to binge-watch. These are some of the most popular TV dramas in China that are trending this 2021 season. An overview by What’s on Weibo.

It has been some time since we have made our last overview of popular Chinese TV dramas to watch this season. It’s high time to give an update on the latest popular TV dramas in China, especially because they recently often become trending topics on social media.

In a year in which China is focusing on its space program and is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, it is noteworthy that several TV dramas have come out themed around the military and historical topics that are being pushed in recent propaganda efforts.

We compiled a shortlist of China’s top TV dramas based on recent top lists of the leading search and online video platforms, from Baidu to iQiyi and 360kan. This is not an official list, since various platforms have their own hot lists that differ based on the site. We have compiled a top ten based on a combination of the current trending lists, with these ten shows popping up in the top ten lists across various top-ranking charts.

You can find most of the dramas with English subtitles available on YouTube or elsewhere – if so, we have included a link. These are the 10 shows that are trending around Chinese social media in May of 2021!

 

10. The Glory of Youth (号手就位 Hào shǒu jiù wèi)

  • Date: Premiered in April of 2021 on Zhejiang Satellite TV
  • Genre: Military Drama (49 episodes)
  • Directed by: Li Lu (李路) and Zhang Hanbing (张寒冰)
  • Screenplay by: Ying Liangpang (应良鹏), Feng Jie (丰杰), Zu Ruomeng (祖若蒙), Xue Tianzhe (薛天智). Adapted from the novel Getting Enlisted Upon Graduation (毕业了当兵去) by Feng Jie.
  • Produced by: Propaganda Bureau of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Xi’an Qujiang Film and Television Company
  • About: The Glory of Youth is also known under the English title of The Trumpeter in Position. This drama tells the story of four college students joining China’s PLA Rocket Force. It is the first Chinese drama to focus on the Rocket Force.
  • Context: This TV series premiered in the same month when a key module of China’s new permanent space station was launched, with Chinese (popular) media increasingly focusing on China’s ambitious space programme.
  • Trending: The drama’s premiere was held in Beijing on April 9, with nearly 200 officers and soldiers from the PLARF (People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force) attending the event.
  • Link: TLYY (no English subtitles)

 

 

9. Word of Honor (山河令 Shānhélìng)

  • Date: Premiered in February 22 of 2021
  • Genre: Wuxia / Martial arts (36 episodes)
  • Directed by: Cheng Zhichao (成志超), Ma Huagan (马华干), Li Hongyu (李宏宇)
  • Screenplay by: Xiao Chu (小初), adapted from the danmei wuxia novel Tian Ya Ke (Faraway Wanderers) by Priest.
  • Produced by: Ciwen Media, Youku
  • About: Word of Honor tells the story of Zhou Zishu (played by Zhang Zhehan 张哲瀚), the leader of the emperor’s special “Window of Heaven” organization who leaves his post to pursue freedom. In doing so, he unwittingly gets involved with the martial world and the Ghost Valley master Wen Kexing (played by Gong Jun 龚俊), who wanders the world, always looking for a fight.
  • Context:Word of Honor belongs to the danmei genre. Danmei (耽美) and ‘BL’ (for ‘Boys’ Love’) are umbrella terms for contents of ‘bromance’ or male-male homoerotic fiction (read more here). The Chinese web novel author ‘Priest,’ whose work this TV drama is based on, is among one of the most successful authors within the online BL fiction genre in China.
  • Trending: Gong Jun and Zhang Zhehan are super popular as a ‘couple’ among fans of ‘CP’ in Chinese drama. The practice of imagining a relationship between two characters is known as ‘CP,’ an abbreviation for “coupling” or “character pairing.”
  • Link: Viki (with English subtitles), also coming to Netflix!

 

 

8. Court Lady (骊歌行 Lígē xíng)

  • Date: Premiered April 15 of 2021
  • Genre: Costume, drama (55 episodes)
  • Directed by: Wang Xiaoming (王晓明), Bai Yunmo (白云默), Shen Zhaoqing (申兆清)
  • Screenplay by: Feng Nong (风弄)
  • Produced by: Dongyang Huanyu Film Culture Co.
  • About: Court Lady features actress Li Yitong (李一桐) and actor Xu Kai (许凯) as Fu Rou and Sheng Chumu. She is a merchant’s daughter, he is the son of the Duke of Lu. When Fu Rou becomes a court lady and Sheng joins the army, their love is put to the test. Their romantic story is set in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
  • Context: Over the past years, historical dramas in China faced difficulties due to tightening regulations on TV series distorting history and having a “bad influence on teens.” Dramas such as Court Lady but also The Long Ballad have been celebrated by state media for their “appealing storyline” and “positive messages” about China.
  • Trending: The drama’s costume design is praised for its accuracy and beauty. Over 3000 costumes were designed for this production.
  • Link: Viki (with English subtitles)

 

 

7. Octogenarian and The 90s (八零九零 Bā líng jiǔ líng)

  • Date: Premiered April 21 of 2021 on Hunan TV
  • Genre: City, Family Drama (39 episodes)
  • Directed by: Xu Jizhou (徐纪周) and Yi Jun (易军)
  • Screenplay by: Long Zhenyu (龙振宇), Zhu Junyi (朱俊懿), Wu Yu’er (邬雩儿)
  • Produced by: Zhejiang Huace Film & TV, Xiangxiang Shidai Entertainment, Beijing HualuBaina Film & TV Company, Haining Yueliang Kaihua, Beijing Leben
  • About: “Sunshine Home” is the nursing home founded by Grandma Lin, the grandmother of the carefree millennial girl Ye Xiaomei (played by Wu Qian 吴倩). Carefree, until her grandmother becomes terminally ill and hands the nursing home over to Ye, who learns more from the elderly in the home than she could have ever imagined.
  • Context: As China is dealing with a rapidly ageing population, there is an increased media focus on the lives and struggles of the elderly.
  • Trending: Although this show is among the most popular TV dramas in China at the moment, it has also received criticism for being too superficial.
  • Link: YouTube (with English subtitles)

 

 

6. Faith Makes Great (理想照耀中国 Lǐxiǎng Zhàoyào Zhōngguó)

  • Date: Premiered on May 5th of 2021
  • Genre: Period drama (40 episodes)
  • Directed by: Fu Dongyu (傅东育), who previously won an award for the drama Phurbu & Tenzin.
  • Screenplay by: Liang Zhenhua (梁振华)
  • Produced by: Hunan TV
  • About: Faith Makes Great is a Chinese TV series based on true stories that happened throughout hundred years of communism in China. The drama is an initiative of China’s State Administration of Radio and Television to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
  • Context: 2021 is the year the Chinese Communist Party turns 100. This is one of the TV dramas commemorating the founding of the Party.
  • Trending: One of the episodes of this series features the super popular Chinese celebrity Wang Yibo.
  • Link: YouTube (with English subtitles)

 

 

5. Douluo Continent (斗罗大陆 Dòuluō Dàlù)

  • Date: Premiered on February 5th of 2021
  • Genre: Fantasy / Adventure (40 episodes)
  • Directed by: Yang Zhenyu (杨振宇)
  • Screenplay by: Wang Juan (王倦)
  • Produced by: Tencent, New Classics Media, Xuanshi Tangmen, Dashenquan
  • About: Douluo Continent was adapted from a fantasy novel by the same name written by Tang Jia San Shao (唐家三少). It tells the story of Tang San, played by the ever-popular Chinese celebrity Xiao Zhan. Tang San lost his mother as a child and becomes friends with another orphan named Xiao Wu (Betty Wu) while he is in training to be a Spirit Master. With his rare talents, Tang overcomes many difficulties while growing older and embarking on his journey.
  • Trending: The producers of Douluo Continent issued an apology earlier this year for plagiarizing British TV series His Dark Materials and a role within the computer game League of Legends in the opening scene of the drama.
  • Link: YouTube (with English subtitles)

 

 

4. My Treasure (生活家 Shēnghuó Jiā)

  • Date: Premiered on May 13 of 2021
  • Genre: City Drama (35 episodes)
  • Directed by: Liu Haibo (刘海波), who also directed the 2019 show In the Name of the Law (and many others)
  • Screenplay by: Teng Yang (滕洋)
  • Produced by: iQiyi, Yuanshi Pictures, Tomorrow Film
  • About: My Treasure follows the life of fresh graduate Qiu Dongna (Vicky Chen) and the struggles she faces while starting up her career and dealing with the people thwarting her plans.
  • Context: Over recent years there has been a rise in Chinese TV dramas with a strong female leading role.
  • Trending: The main role of this show, Qiu Dongna (邱冬娜), has won the hearts of many netizens on Chinese social media.
  • Link: YouTube (with English subtitles)

 

 

3. Dancing in the Storm (风暴舞 Fēngbào Wǔ)

  • Date: Premiered April 25th of 2021
  • Genre: City, Spy drama (43 episodes)
  • Directed by: Liu Xin (刘新), who also directed the 2020 hit show Hunting (猎狐)
  • Screenplay by: An Zhiyong (安志勇) and Fu Li (傅莉)
  • Produced by: Ciwen Media, iQiyi, Manmei Film
  • About: Dancing in the Storm focuses on Clark Li Junjie (William Chan 陈伟霆) who works at an information security company where he accidentally discovers the company’s dangerous dealings with external parties. This discovery is the start of an investigation into a complicated web of intrigue.
  • Context: This show should not be confused with another one with a similar title, namely Storm Eye (暴风眼), which is also a 2021 drama. That Chinese ‘national security’ drama came under fire for “overly dramatic plotlines.”
  • Trending: The Weibo hashtag page of this drama (#风暴舞#) has by now received over 260 million views on Weibo.
  • Link: YouTube (no English subtitles)

 

 

2. Awakening Age (觉醒年代 Juéxǐng Niándài)

  • Date: Premiered in February of 2021 on CCTV
  • Genre: “Red drama”, Revolutionary historical drama (43 episodes)
  • Directed by: Zhang Yongxin (张永新)
  • Screenplay by: Long Pingping (龙平平)
  • Produced by: CCTV
  • About: Awakening Age tells the story of how the Party was founded, focusing on the events taking place in between 1916 and 1921.
  • Context: 2021 is the year the Chinese Communist Party turns 100. This is one of the TV dramas commemorating the founding of the Party.
  • Trending: Awakening Age has a hashtag page on Weibo (initiated by CCTV) that by now has received over 590 million views.
  • Link: YouTube (no English subtitles)

 

 

1. A Love for Dilemma (小舍得 Xiǎo Shědé)

  • Date: Produced in 2020 and premiered on iQiyi on April 11, 2021
  • Genre: Family drama (42 episodes)
  • Directed by: Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also directed hit show Nothing But Thirty (三十而已, 2020)
  • Screenplay by: Zhou Yifei (周艺飞)
  • Produced by: iQiyi and Linmon Pictures
  • About: This season’s super popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system. In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless. While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.
  • Context: One of the reasons this drama is so popular in China right now is because of its depiction of the competitive education system and parent-child relationships of ordinary Chinese families.
  • Trending: A Love for Dilemma ignited discussions on the term of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media (read more here), especially when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.
  • Link: iQiyi (including subtitles)

 

Wanna read more on Chinese tv dramas? Check our other articles here.

By Manya Koetse
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China Society

The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media

Nèijuǎn (involution) has become a commonly used term on Chinese social media, but what is it?

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Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited an ongoing debate about the problem of ‘involution’ in Chinese society today.

A scene from the Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited online discussions on the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution,” which was also a top buzzword in China in 2020.

A Love for Dilemma is a 2021 TV drama directed by Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also worked on other hit series including Nothing But Thirty. This season’s popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system.

In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless.

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.

The specific scene that has ignited current discussions is a dialogue between the husbands of the sisters, who sit outside to talk about the education system and how it sometimes feels like everyone is in a theatre watching a show together until one person stands up from their seat. This makes it necessary for other members of the audience to also stand up, until everybody is standing.

The dialogue continues, with the two talking about how it does not stop at the people standing up. Because then there are those who will take it a step further and will stand on their seats to rise above the others. And then there are even those who will grab a ladder to stand higher than the rest. But they are still watching the same show and their situation has actually not changed at all – except for the fact that everybody is now more uncomfortable than they were before.

Many netizens found it striking how this dialogue explains how the term ‘involution’ is used in China nowadays. After the show aired, the hashtag “How to commonly explain involution” (#如何通俗解释内卷#) became a trending topic in the week of April 19, receiving 260 million views in a few days.

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

As explained by Jialing Xie in this top buzzword article on What’s on Weibo, involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. Since recently, this word has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking.

The term ‘involution’ and how it is used today comes from a work by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz titled Agricultural Involution – The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963). In this work, Geertz explores the agricultural dynamics in Indonesia during the colonial period’s Cultivation System, where a radical economic dualism existed within the country: a foreign, Dutch economy and a native, Indonesian economy (p. 61-62).

Geertz describes how the Javanese faced a deepening demographic dilemma as they saw a rapidly growing population but a static economy, while the Dutch, who organized Javanese land and labor, were only growing in wealth (69-70). Agricultural involution is the “ultimately self-defeating process” that emerged in Indonesia when the ever-growing population was absorbed in high labor-intensive wet-rice cultivation without any changing patterns and without any progress (80-81).

When Geertz used the term ‘involution’ to describe the dynamics in Indonesia, he built on the work of another American anthropologist, namely Alexander Goldenweiser, who also used the term to describe “those culture patterns which, after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new pattern but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated” (Geertz 1963, 81).

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

The popular use of the Chinese translation of ‘involution’, nèijuǎn 内卷, started to receive attention in Chinese media in 2020. It is deviating from the original use of the term and is meant to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class.

As suggested in the article “‘Involution’: The Anxieties of Our Time Summed Up in One Word” by Zhou Minxi (CGTN), the popularity of the term comes from “a prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.”

China’s ever-growing middle class is now facing the question of how they and their children can remain in the middle class in a situation where everyone is continuously working harder and doing all they can to rise above the rest. Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, is quoted by Zhou:

The lower class still hopes to change their fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.”

The term ‘involution’ often comes up together with criticism on China’s ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). Although Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” the system is a controversial topic, with many condemning how Chinese (tech) companies are exploiting their employees, who are caught in a conundrum; they might lose their sanity working such long hours, and might lose their job and future career prospects if they refuse to do so.

But the term also comes up when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.

This image shows the “juan” 卷 character from ‘nei juan’ (involution) changing into a person on their bike with laptop. Image via http://www.bajieyou.com/new/431e6ef39aac4a6da232671122f66ff4

This discussion also came up with a now-famous image of a student riding his bike while also working on his laptop, using every moment to study. This was then also called “Tsinghua Inversion” (清华内卷), referring to one of China’s top universities, where competition is so vicious that students must double their efforts to catch up with others.

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

By mid-2020, ‘involution’ attracted the attention on Weibo when popular academic accounts started discussing the term. Recently, ‘involution’ is used so often on Chinese social media that it has already gone beyond its original context, leading to many people discussing its meaning.

“We are forced to work overtime and are unable to resist, and yet it seems that everyone is doing it out of free will,” one Weibo user says, with another person adding: “The abnormal state of inversion has already become our normal state.”

A popular legal blogger (@皇城根下刀笔吏) on Weibo writes:

It is an internal bottomless vicious cycle of competition. For example, everyone used to work eight hours per day, five days per week. Then one company comes up where people work twelve hours per day, six days per week. Then this company will have major competitive strength in the market economy. But the outcome is that other companies are also compelled to do the same in order to compete. As time goes by, all companies will shift to a twelve-hour workday, six days a week, and job applicants entering the market can’t find any eight-hour workday positions for five days a week anymore. So, if another company wants to beat its competitors, it will have to introduce a seven-day workweek. And then other companies will need to follow in order to make a living. That is involution.”

By now, there are various images and memes that have come to represent the meaning of ‘involution’ in present-day China, such as one cram school sign saying: “If you come we will train your kids, if you don’t come, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

“The society’s resources are in short supply and to obtain the limited supplies, people are all madly practicing their skills to obtain them – regardless if they need them or not,” another Weibo user says.

Most comments relating to the discussion of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media express a sense of fatigue with an ongoing rat-race in the education and employment market.

On the interest-based social networking platform Douban, there are even some support groups for people who feel stuck in ‘involution’ and are looking for a way out. The “Center for Victims of Involution” (内卷受害者收容中心) group has over 3000 members, with smaller groups such as “Let’s Escape Involution Together” (我们一起逃离内卷) having a few dozen participants.

The generation that is mostly affected by this sense of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the job market, but their chances of finding a job that suits their education and personal expectations are slim; many industries are recruiting fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the COVID19 pandemic. It leaves them facing a troubling Catch 22 situation: they will be stressed and pressured if they do not find that top job, but when they do, they are often also stressed and pressured.

It is a recurring topic on social media. Five years ago, a song by the Rainbow Chamber Singers (彩虹室内合唱团) titled “The Sofa Is So Far” immediately became a hit in China. Many young Chinese recognized themselves in the hardworking and tired people described in the lyrics, which started with: “My body feels empty / I am dog-tired / I don’t want work overtime.”

How to get away from the involution rat race is also a much-discussed topic on Weibo, where the hashtag page “How can young people resist involution” (#年轻人如何反内卷#) has received over 280 million views.

Some suggest the answer to ending the vicious cycle is to find a way to get rich fast, others suggest that not getting married and staying child-free is also a way to alleviate the pressure to participate in this zero-sum game.

Tech blogger Sensai (@森赛), who has over 2 million followers on Weibo, advises young people to find their true interest and to invest in it before the age of 30. Doing something that sparks joy, such as learning a new language or working on art, might start as a hobby but could turn into a valuable side business later, Sensai says.

For some, however, that goal seems unattainable. “I am already working 15 hours a day, how could I ever do that?!”

“This is just bringing us into a whole other level of involution,” others write.

In order to watch A Love for Dilemma (小舍得), the show that started so many of these discussions this month, you can go over to iQiyi or YouTube.

By Manya Koetse

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhou Minxi. 2020. “‘Involution’: The anxieties of our time summed up in one word.” CGTN, Dec 4 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-04/-Involution-The-anxieties-of-our-time-summed-up-in-one-word-VWNlDOVdjW/index.html [20.4.2021].

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