Top 30 Classic TV Dramas in China: The Best Chinese Series of All Time
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Chinese TV drama since the airing of the very first (one-episode) drama A Mouthful of Vegetable Pancakes (一口菜饼子) in 1958 – the same year in which the very first Chinese television station started broadcasting (Bai 2007, 77).
The drama, live broadcasted by Beijing Television, sent out a message of frugality, as one young girl warns her sister not to waste food by remembering her of their difficult past and brave mother, who died of hunger while even refusing to eat the last bit of food, a vegetable pancake.
Much has changed within those sixty years. After a time when the production of TV dramas practically came to a standstill during the Cultural Revolution, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a boom in the popularity of television dramas, along with a spike in households that owned their own TV. From 1980 to 1990, the number of household television sets in China increased from 5 to 160 million (Wang & Singhal 1992, 177).
Since the 1980s, mainland China has gone from a country where most television dramas were imported from outside the country, to one that has the most thriving domestic TV drama industry in the world.
Some TV dramas in this list have become classics through time, some are fairly new but have already become classics within their genre.
This list has been fully compiled by What’s on Weibo, based on popularity charts on Chinese search engine Sogou’s top tv drama listings of all time, together with ranking on Douban, a big Chinese social networking service and influential media review website, and also based on academic sources that note the importance of some of these TV classics.*[^1] We will list a recommendation list of relevant books at the end of this article.
Most of these series will have links redirecting to available versions on Youtube or elsewhere – unless written otherwise, they do not have English subtitles. Please share English subtitled versions in the comment section if you found them, we’ll add them to the list.
This article is focused on those classics that have been important for the TV drama industry and audiences of mainland China. Although several of them were produced in Hong Kong or Taiwan, the majority is from the PRC. These dramas are listed in chronological order of appearance, not listed based on rankings.
Here we go!
#1 The Bund / The Shanghai Bund (上海滩)
Produced in Hong Kong
Noteworthy: “The Godfather of the East”
This TV drama became such a sensation across China in 1980, that it also became known as the Chinese equivalent to the classic Godfather series.
Actors Angie Chiu and Chow Yun-Fat star in this Hong Kong drama, that is set in the underworld society of 1920s Shanghai, and revolves around the tumultuous love story between Feng Chengcheng and Xu Wenqiang.
The series has become such a classic that it still plays an important role in popular culture of China today, with newer films and TV dramas also being based on the original series (the 2007 mainland China TV series Shanghai Bund, for example, is a remake of the 1980 original). If you ever go to karaoke, you’re probably already familiar with the shows’ famous theme song ‘Seung Hoi Tan’ (上海滩) by Frances Yip (see here).
#2 Eighteen Years in the Enemy’s Camp (敌营十八年)
Genre: War Drama
Watch the first episode here on Youtube.
Noteworthy: “The first TV drama produced by CCTV”
Eighteen Years in the Enemy’s Camp is somewhat of a cult classic in China. Despite the fact that the TV drama itself was somewhat poorly produced, it still gets high ratings on sites such as QQ Video or Douban today.
At a time when the Chinese TV drama market was still dominated by imported television series (from Hong Kong, US, and other places), Eighteen Years in the Enemy’s Camp was the first drama series made by CCTV (Bai 2007, 80), directed by Wang Fulin (王扶林) and Du Yu (都郁).
The story revolves around the Communist Party member Jiang Bo (江波), who spends 18 years undercover in the “tiger’s den” (虎穴), the enemy’s camp, as a National Army officer, thwarting the Nationalists’ plans until the 1949 victory of the Communists.
Fun fact by Ruoyun Bai (see references): despite the fact that the entire show is about the Nationalists Army, not a single Nationalist Army uniform could be found for the cast. The uniforms that were used, were not up to par: the main character had to leave his coat’s collar unbuttoned because it was too tight, and always has his hat in his hands because it was actually too small to fit his head (2007, 80-81).
#3 Ji Gong (济公)
Directed by Zhang Ge (张戈)
All episodes can be watched here on YouTube.
Noteworthy: “Influenced by Charlie Chaplin”
This popular TV series is centered around Ji Gong, the folk hero and Chan Buddhist monk who lived in the Southern Song and, according to legend, had supernatural powers and spent his whole life helping the poor.
The main role is played by renowned Chinese artist and mime master You Benchang (游本昌). In an interview with CRI, the actor once said that he was heavily influenced by his idol Charlie Chaplin for this role, sometimes even imitating some of Chaplin’s gestures.
#4 Chronicles of The Shadow Swordsman (萍踪侠影)
Directed by: Wang Xinwei (王心慰)
Produced in Hong Kong
Episodes available on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “Perfect Chemistry between Leading Actors”
This classic TV drama features actors Damian Lau as Zhang Danfeng and Michelle Yim as Yun Lei, whom are often praised by drama lovers for their perfect chemistry in these series. Of the many adaptations there are of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel Chronicles of The Shadow Swordsman, many say this is their favorite.
#5 New Star (新星)
Directed by: Li Xin (李新)
Noteworthy: “A drama anyone over 50 will remember”
This CCTV mini-drama, based on the novel by Ke Yunlu (柯云路), tells the story of a young Party secretary fighting against corruption. Before Heaven Above (later in this list), it is thus one of the very first dramas to focus on corruption as a theme, and it also caused a buzz at the time for doing so – most people over 50 in China today will probably remember this TV series today.
#6 Journey to the West (西游记)
Episodes: 25 for season one, 16 episodes for season 2
Directed by Yang Jie (杨洁)
Watch on Youtube (with English subtitles!) here.
Noteworthy: “Shot with one camera”
This is an all-time favorite TV series in China that is still rated with a 9.5 on the TV drama database of search engine Sogou. It has been an instant classic from the moment it was first broadcasted by CCTV in October of 1986.
Journey to the West (Xīyóu jì 西游记), published in the 16th century (Ming dynasty), is one of the most important classical works in the history of Chinese literature, and tells the story of the long journey to India of the Tang Monk Xuánzàng, who is on a mission to obtain Buddhist sutras. He is joined by three disciples, the pig demon Zhū Bājiè, the river demon Shā Wùjìng, and Sūn Wùkōng, who is better known as the Monkey King in the West.
The Monkey in the series is played by Zhang Jinlai (章金莱), also known as Liu Xiao Ling Tong, who recently recalled in an CGTN article that: “it was 30 years ago and we’d got only one camera. We walked around China’s picturesque areas and took 17 years to make 41 episodes. 17 years equals Monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage for the Buddhist scriptures.”
#7 “The Dream of Red Chambers” (红楼梦)
Directed by: Wang Fulin (王扶林)
Watch with English subtitles on YouTube here.
Noteworthy: “The first entry of Chinese tv drama into the global market”
Even today, this CCTV TV series from 1987 is still rated as one of the best Chinese television series of all time on Sogou, where viewers rate it with a 9.6.
Like other series in this list, this is an adaptation from a classic literary work; Dream of the Red Chamber (Hónglóumèng), one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, which was written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century during the Qing.
In June of 1987, this TV drama became the first Chinese television series to be exported to Malaysia and West-Germany, making it “the first entry of Chinese tv drama into the global market” (Hong, 32).
#8 The Investiture of the Gods (封神榜)
Genre: Fantasy/Costume Drama
Directed by: Guo Xinling (郭信玲)
The first episode is available on YouTube here.
Noteworthy: “Based on the classical novel Fengshen Yanyi“
This TV series is based on the classical novel Fēngshén Yǎnyì (封神演義), also known as Investiture of the Gods or Creation of the Gods), written by Xu Zhonglin and Lu Xixing. Famous Chinese actor and painter Lan Tianye (蓝天野) was praised for his role as Jiang Ziya in this drama.
The (female) director Guo Xinling (1936-2012) was a Party member who worked on many televised works during her career.
Just as many others of the series in this list based on classic novels, there are remakes of these series in recent times.
#9 Yearnings / Kewang (渴望)
Genre: Family drama
Directed by Lu Xiaowei (鲁晓威) and Zhao Baoguang (赵宝刚).
Noteworthy: “China’s first soap opera – a national craze”
Yearnings is also known as China’s real first soap opera, which caused a sensation across the nation – sales of TV sets surged, and streets were empty when it aired.
The story’s time spans from the Cultural Revolution until the 1980s reform period. The series, set in Beijing, tells the story of working-class woman Liu Huifang and her unlikely marriage to the middle-class Wang Husheng, a university graduate who comes from a family of intellectuals. When Huifang finds an abandoned baby, she adopts it against the will of her husband.
As the first TV series that focused on the hopes and dreams of ordinary Chinese people, the success of Yearnings was unprecedented, and it formed the beginning of Chinese television drama as we know it today.
#10 River of Gratitude (江湖恩仇录)
Directed by: Mao Yuqin (毛玉勤)
Watch first episode on Youtube here
Noteworthy: “A true classic – it’s nostalgia!”
One of the main stars in this series is actress and producer Wenying Dongfang (东方闻樱), who also starred in A Dream in Red Mansion (1987).
By commenters on Douban, this series is described as a “cult classic.” Although some say the quality of the series, now, looking back, is somewhat substandard or silly, according to many, the nostalgia of seeing it in the early 1990s and being excited about it seems to play a major factor in why people still grade this one as a true classic – it’s nostalgia!
#11 Wan Chun (婉君)
Produced in Taiwan
Noteworthy: “The first Taiwanese TV series filmed in mainland China”
Wan Chun is a 1990 Taiwanese television series about a girl named Wan Chun and her three adoptive brothers, that is based on the 1964 novel “Wan-chun’s Three Loves” (追尋) by Taiwanese writer and producer Chiung Yao, and which is set in Republican era Beijing.
This is the first cross-strait co-production, as a Taiwanese TV series filmed in mainland China. Wan Chun was followed up by the 1990 Taiwanese television drama series Mute Wife based on Chiung Yao’s 1965 novelette of the same name.
#12 The Legend of Qianlong (戏说乾隆)
Genre: Imperial drama
Produced in Taiwan (Taiwan-mainland co-production)
Watch on Youtube here
Noteworthy: “The beginning of a genre”
In today’s TV drama environment of China, dramas that focus on life during the imperial era are ubiquitous, with titles from the Imperial Doctress to Story of Yanxi Palace being everywhere.
But when this drama aired in the early 1990s, it was something quite new. The Legend of Qianlong, also known with the English translation A Fanciful Account of Qianlong, tells the (fictional) stories of the Emperor Qianlong’s Tours of Southern China.
It was the beginning of a drama genre that turned out to be hugely popular, with many new television series focusing on emperors and empresses in their youth or their tumultuous lives during the height of their power (Barme 2012, 33). Perhaps, this 1991 series will always be a classic just because it was one of the first within its genre.
#13 The Legend of the White Snake (新白娘子传奇)
Produced in Taiwan
Noteworthy: “One of the most replayed TV series”
As many of the classics in this list, this hit TV series is also based on a folk legend, namely that of Madame White Snakee, a mythical snake-like spirit who strives to be human, which is a source for many major Chinese operas, films.
The 1992 TV series stars Angie Chiu and Cecilia Yip. In 2016, it was still one of the most replayed TV series. Even on IMDB, it is rated with an 8.2.
#14 Beijinger in New York (北京人在纽约)
Noteworthy: “The first Chinese-language TV show to be shot in the United States”
The TV series Beijinger in New York, also known as A Native of Beijing in New York, based on the novel by Glen Cao (Cao Guilin), was a hit when it was first broadcasted broadcast nightly on CCTV and watched by millions of Chinese.
The story follows the immigrant life of cello player and Beijinger Wang Qiming (王起明), who arrives in New York in 1980 together with his wife, and begins working as a dishwasher the next day.
The TV series marks a first in several aspects. It was the first Chinese-language TV show to be shot in the United States, but it was also the first time ever for the production of a Chinese TV drama that a bank loan was used in order to make it possible (Bai 2007, 83); in other words, it also marks the start of a more commercialized TV drama environment. FYI: the bank loan that was used was a total of US$1.3 million.
#15 I Love My Family (我爱我家)
Directed by Ying Da (英达) et al
First episodes on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “First Mandarin-language sitcom”
I Love My Family (Wǒ ài wǒjiā) is one of China’s first popular sitcoms, and the first Mandarin-language and multi-camera sitcom, that aired from 1993 to 1994. It has since been rerun on local channels countless of times.
One of the show’s central stars is Wen Xingyu (文兴宇), who was a popular comedian and director in mainland China.
At the time of I Love My Family, sitcoms were mostly characterized by their low production cost; three episodes were made within five working days (Di 2008, 122).
#16 Justice Pao (包青天)
Genre: Historical drama
Produced in Taiwan
Some episodes on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “From 15 to 236 episodes”
This series is themed around Bao Zheng (包拯), a government official who lived during China’s Song Dynasty, from 999 to 1062, and who was known for his extreme honesty and uprightness. Award-winning Taiwanese actor Jin Chao-chun (金超群) plays this role.
The series was originally scheduled for just 15 episodes, but was received so well when it aired on Chinese Television System, that it was eventually expanded to 236 episodes.
The story of Justice Bao is still a recurring topic in the popular culture of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. There was the 2008 Chinese series Justice Bao, and the 2010 New Justice Bao, that also starred Jin Chao-chun.
#17 Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义)
Noteworthy: “400,000 people involved in the production”
This is another classic TV series produced by the CCTV, and that is also adapted from a classical novel (same title, written by Luo Guanzhong). Its director, Wang Fulin (王扶林), also directed the CCTV’s first TV drama Eighteen Years in the Enemy’s Camp, and A Dream of Red Mansions.
The production of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is especially noteworthy because the productions costs broke all kinds of records at the time; the production of the 84 one-hour episodes took four years, total costs were over 170 million RMB (±US$25 million), and around 400,000 people were involved – the larghest number of people involved in a production in the history of Chinese television. THe show has been watched by some 1,2 billion people around the world (Hongb 2007, 127).
#18 Heaven’s Above (苍天在上)
Genre: Corruption drama (or ‘anti-corruption drama’ 反腐剧)
Directed by: Zhou Huan (周寰)
Noteworthy: “First drama about high-level official corruption”
In late 1995, the CCTV drama Heaven Above (Cāngtiān zài shàng) debuted on Chinese TV as the first TV series about high-level official corruption in the PRC.
It would certainly not be the last, as ‘corruption dramas’ became wildly popular – it is the entire focus of the 2014 book Staging Corruption by scholar Ruoyun Bai.
#19 Foreign Babes in Beijing (洋妞在北京)
Genre: Urban drama
Noteworthy: “Foreign women in Chinese dramas”
Foreign Babes in Beijing (Yáng niū zài Běijīng) was one of the new kinds of dramas that featured foreigners in China. This series focues on two Chinese men and two American women, of which one seduces one of the Chinese (married) men. The show was a big hit in the mid-1990s.
One of the show’s actresses, Rachel Dewoskin, later wrote the recommended book Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China about her experiences of playing in the show and her life in China at the time.
#20 My Dear Motherland (我亲爱的祖国)
Noteworthy: “Rated with a 9.1”
This 1999 series is still rated with a 9.1 on Douban today. The series tells the experiences and hardships of three generations of Chinese intellectuals during the tumultuous (war)history of China’s 20th century, starting during the May Fourth Movement in 1919.
Chen Jianbin (陈建斌) is one of the famous actors starring in this TV drama as Fang Xuetong.
#21 Yongzheng’s Dynasty (雍正王朝)
Noteworthy: “Qing drama as export product”
Yongzheng Dynasty is one of many so-called “Qing dramas” – TV dramas that focus on palace life during the 1644-1911 Qing Dynasty. According to scholar Zhu (2008), one of the reasons that dynasty dramas such as these became so enormously popular in mainland China is that (1) certain social and political issues can be discussed in the shape of stories and settings that are very much removed from modern-day China, allowing for more relaxed censorship policies on storylines and dialogues, and (2) that the reconstruction of “history” allows room for artistic interventions (22).
This epic TV drama was loosely based on historical events in the reigns of the Kangxi and Yongzheng Emperors, and became one of the most watched television series in mainland China of the 1990s. Also outside of China the show became very popular, making the so-called ‘Qing dramas’ an export product.
#22 Towards the Republic (走向共和)
Noteworthy: “59 hours of historical drama”
This is one of the most important TV series in this list. On Sogou ratings, Towards the Republic, which is also known as For the Sake of the Republic (Zǒuxiàng gònghé), is one of netizens’ top all-time favorite series, rated with a 9.7.
The CCTV TV drama tells the story of the historical events in China from 1890 to 1917 – the time during which the Qing Dynasty collapsed, and the Republic of China (1912-1949) was founded. Important historical events such as the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Hundred Days’ Reform (1898), the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and the Xinhai Revolution (1911) are all featured in this epic drama, that mainly focuses on the lives of Li Hongzhang (Chinese general in late Qing), Empress Dowager Cixi, Sun Yat-Sen, and Yuan Shikai.
The historical drama was not without controversy, and some parts of it have been censored in mainland China. The original series had 60 episodes, which was later brought down to 59. The TV drama has also been a fruitful topic for scholars for its representation of history. In the 2007 book Representing History in Chinese Media: The TV Drama Zou Xiang Gonghe (Towards the Republic) by Gotelind Mueller, the entire series is analyzed in how history is portrayed and narrated.
#23 Crimson Romance (血色浪漫)
Genre Youth drama
Directed by: Teng Wenji (滕文骥)
Watch on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “Romantizing the Cultural Revolution”
There are almost 40,000 netizens ranking this 2004 TV drama on Douban, where it scores a 8.7.
The TV drama, which is also known as Romantic Life in English, dramatizes memories of the Cultural Revolution, focusing on a group of friends, their hopes and dreams, and their romantic life. It is set in Beijing in the late period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
#24 Fu Gui (福贵)
Noteworthy: “Based on the novel To Live“
The drama is based on the 1993 novel by Yu Hua (余华) To Live (活着), which focuses on the struggles of the son of a wealthy land-owner, Xu Fugui, amidst the tumultuous times of the Chinese Revolution. The story became well-known by the movie of the same title by Zhang Yimou, which became an international success.
#25 Ming Dynasty in 1566 (大明王朝1566)
Genre: Historical drama
Directed by: Zhang Li (张黎)
Available with English subtitles on Youtube
Noteworthy: “Scoring a 9.7 on Douban, rated by 55,000 users”
Ming Dynasty in 1566 (Dàmíng wángcháo), starring Chinese actor Chen Baoguo (陈宝国), is a Chinese television series based on historical events during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (1507-1567) of the Ming dynasty. It was first broadcast on Hunan TV in China in 2007.
On Douban, more than 55000 people have reviewed this movie at time of writing, coming up with a score of 9.7, one of the highest in this list. The drama was also broadcasted in other countries, such as South Korea.
#26 Dwelling Narrowness (蜗居)
Genre: Urban Drama
Directed by: Teng Huatao (滕华涛)
Watch on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “Focusing on China’s urban real estate bubble”
Also known as Snail House, this TV drama was all the rage back in 2009 for its focus on the crazy housing market in urban China and the lives of ordinary Chinese who are struggling to survive in the city while living in small spaces. Dwelling Narrowness, based on a novel by the same name, tells the story of two sisters with very different lifestyles who are looking to find a home in Shanghai (or actually, the fictional city of Jiangzhou, that basically represents Shanghai), and improve their quality of life, each in their own way.
The real estate bubble is a major theme throughout these series, and the TV drama was much-discussed within the frame of Chinese urban dwellers becoming “house slaves” (房奴). In the year of its broadcast, Wall Street Journal featured an article dedicated to the series and the discussions it triggered online.
#27 The Red (红色)
Genre: War drama
Directed by Yang Lei (杨磊)
Noteworthy: “Patriotism as its key theme”
War drama The Red (Hóngsè) receives a 9.2 on Sogou, showing its success over the last four years.
Edward Zhang (Zhang Luyi 张鲁一) stars in this drama as an ordinary worker in Shanghai who gets caught up in underground circles at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and unexpectedly becomes part of a decisive moment in Chinese modern history. Perhaps unsurprinsginly, ‘Patriotism’ is a key theme throughout The Red.
#28 Moral Peanuts – Final Season (毛骗 终结篇)
Episodes: 10 (in this season)
Directed by: Li Hongchou (李洪绸)
Watch on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “A gang of friends who con people out of their money”
Moral Peanuts is a multiple season series (started in 2010), that follows a gang of five young friends who live together and earn their living in a fraudulent way. The series is characterized by its cliffhanger endings and its ‘grey’ portrayals of its characters.
#29 In the Name of the People (人民的名义)
Genre: Corruption drama
Directed by: Li Lu
Available with English subtitles here.
Noteworthy: “The Chinese ‘House of Cards'”
In the Name of the People is a 2017 highly popular Chinese TV drama series based on the web novel of the same name by Zhou Meisen (周梅森). Its plot revolves around a prosecutor’s efforts to unearth corruption in a present-day fictional Chinese city by the name of Jingzhou.
In 2017, this TV drama became a true craze on Chinese social media and received a lot of coverage in (international) media for being comparable to the American political drama House of Cards. The BBC described it as “the latest piece of propaganda aimed at portraying the government’s victory in its anti-corruption campaign.”
#30 White Deer Plain (白鹿原)
Genre: Contemporary historical drama
Directed by: Liu Jin (刘进)
WAtch with English subs at New Asian TV here.
Noteworthy: “The epic TV drama took nearly 17 years to prepare and produce “
This TV drama has consistently been ranking number one in Baidu’s and Weibo’s popular drama charts last year, and is now ranked with an 8.8 score on sites such as Douban. Although it is somewhat tricky to call such a present-day drama a ‘classic’, we’ll take the chance.
White Deer Plain is based on the award-winning Chinese literary classic by Chen Zhongshi (陈忠实) from 1993. The preparation and production of this series reportedly took a staggering 17 years and a budget of 230 million yuan (US$33.39 million).
The success of the novel this TV drama is based on, has previously been compared to that of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. White Deer Plain follows the stories of people from several generations living on the ‘White Deer Plain,’ or North China Plain in Shanxi province, during the first half of the 20th century. This tumultuous period sees the Republican Period, the Japanese invasion, and the early days of the People’s Republic of China. The series is great in providing insights into how people used to live, from dress to daily life matter. The scenery and sets are beautiful.
Some Book Recommendations Based on This List:
Want to know more? Check out our various Top 10s of popular Chinese TV Dramas from 2013 to present here.
*[^1](We kindly ask not to reproduce this list without permission – please link back if referring to it).
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Barmé, Geremie. 2012. “Red Allure and the Crimson Blindfold.” China Perspectives, 2012/2, 29-40.
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Wang, Min and Arvind Singhal. 1992. “Kewang, A Chinese Television Soap Opera With A Message.” Gazette 49: 177-192.
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