Before Squid Game rocketed to No. 1 in 94 countries, with 142 million viewers and over 3 billion minutes watched, Story of Yanxi Palace was in 70 countries with 700 million viewers in a single day, reaching more than 15 billion views and becoming Google’s most searched show in 2018, even though Google isn’t available in China.
Yet most Americans have never heard of it.
Propelled by Netflix’s push for global dominance, Americans are discovering a taste for international content. A whopping 97 percent of US Netflix subscribers watched non-English content last year. Interest in Korean dramas has doubled in the past two years, while anime increased 50 percent from 2019 to 2020. With Asia accounting for more than half of Netflix’s new subscriber base, expect more hits from South Korea and Japan.
But what about the second-largest entertainment creator from a market where Netflix doesn’t operate?
Can Chinese Entertainment Take Off?
Kuek Yu-Chuang, VP of International Business at iQiyi, China’s largest streaming platform, believes so. “Global demand signals became clear in 2018 with Yanxi, and sampling continues to grow.” In the last two years, more than half of US respondents tried Chinese shows per iQiyi’s recent survey. Monthly active users, viewing time, and Chinese content video views doubled in North America this year, according to statistics that iQiyi shared with WIRED.
“Chinese shows haven’t gotten the awareness or recommendation from Netflix’s 214 million members globally, which is why we haven’t seen the same breakout as with Korean or Japanese content,” says Julia Alexander, senior strategy analyst at Parrot Analytics.
Larry Namer, founder of E! Entertainment TV Networks and president of Metan Global Entertainment, expects China to have more global hits. “In some ways, there’s more room to take risks in China than in the US, despite the government. You’re restricted in some shows, but it’s wide open in others.”
How We Made This List
For this list, WIRED drew from US and Chinese reviews and input from Chinese television creators and marketers: Ting Chen, screenwriter; Zijin Chen, author and screenwriter; Frank Jiang, CEO of Shanghai Yingyuan Culture & Technology; Jun Ni, screenwriter and associate professor of Film and Television, The Central Academy of Drama; Rui Ma, CMO of New Studios Media Co; and Dai Ying, SVP and GM of Original Drama Division at iQiyi.
Recommendations are split: 60 percent modern, 15 percent period (1900-1990), and 25 percent historical dramas, based on the 2020 breakdown of 415 scripted web and TV C-dramas [LT3]. Our recommendations cover each genre and include individual, family, and societal stories, and we focused on shows that are available to audiences in the United States and Europe.
Without further ado, here is a C-drama Watch List of the most recommended shows from the past nine years.
Looking for Epic, High-Stakes Viewing?
Nirvana in Fire 琅琊榜
This is a must-see. Subversive wuxia (ancient martial arts story) with a physically frail lead who has lost his martial arts ability. It’s set in sixth-century China, and Mei Chang Su, a brilliant strategist, secretly helps Prince Jing, the unlikeliest son, battle for the throne to clear his family’s name. This is based on a novel by Hai Yan—one of China’s most popular authors—that isn’t widely available in English, like many of the source novels on this list. “The quintessential C-drama about honor, courage, and sacrifice,” says iQiyi’s Dai Ying, “that remains the second-highest-rated C-drama.” “Visually beautiful. Epic yet personal story about how we live, how we die, and what’s important,” says Liv Fowler, a writer and fan of the series.