In June 2023, the Chinese television industry entered summer along with high temperatures. At the beginning of the month, the first China Drama Conference was held in grand style. Meanwhile, after a year's hiatus, the Shanghai Television Festival reopened its doors.
The industry's exhibition & activities were among the first to resume, bringing back smiles on people's faces who had not seen each other for a long time. Production started slowly with only a few projects underway but picked up pace suddenly in May as 27 new productions began filming during that month alone - matching those from all three months of Q1.
The quality of dramas receiving high reviews has significantly improved compared to previous years. Outstanding works have found their recipe for success against short videos' challenges. In June, four historical drama series that had been quiet for many years successfully passed regulatory filing procedures and reignited dreams within this once glorious genre. At this moment, important changes are happening in creating Chinese dramas.
Insights from hit dramas
|Drama||Aired Date||Genres||Douban rating|
|The Long Season||April 22, 2023||Suspense||9.4|
|Three-Body||January 15, 2023||Sci-Fi||8.7|
|Meet Yourself||January 3, 2023||Romance||8.6|
|The Knockout||January 14, 2023||Crime||8.5|
|The Lord of Losers Season 2||April 29, 2023||Comedy||8.3|
|Nothing But You||March 27, 2023||Romance||8.2|
|Never Give Up||February 21, 2023||Comedy||8.1|
|Thirteen Years of Dust||April 06, 2023||Crime||8.1|
|The Blood of Youth||December 26, 2022||Martial Arts||8.1|
The above are the popular dramas that aired during the first five months of 2023, with most premiering in the first four months and one in late December last year.
Suspense and detective dramas are undoubtedly the gems on the crown. In the past three years, "The Long Season" has received high acclaim, while "The Knockout" is currently the only Chinese drama to exceed billions of views within near three years. Additionally, there's "Thirteen Years of Dust ", which was filmed in Chongqing - known as China's capital of suspense drama.
Apart from these dramas, there is also a distinct category of crime and suspenseful dramas such as "Homesick," which premiered at the end of last year. This year saw several other examples including “Why Try to Change Me Now,” “Echo” and “Who Is He”. These productions represent how long-form video content adapts to new market dynamics and aesthetic iterations reflecting some newer creative directions pursued by Chinese TV producers.
Romance life dramas occupy two seats among them: "Meet Yourself" brings warmth through healing elements while "Nothing But You" avoids deliberately over-the-top storylines. So far this year, female ensemble pieces focusing solely on hot topics have lost popularity with less focus being given to trending narratives around social media buzzwords or traditional family ethics that still manage decent ratings but little discussion value overall. As television stations struggle financially more than ever before due to increased competition from online streaming platforms, romance life dramas remain a primary option for audiences; however they too face multiple crises.
Great reviews for both "Meet Yourself" and “Nothing But You” indicate that calmness and heartfelt stories receive appreciation based on their quality alone. However, anxiety about generating hit shows torments every platform or production company because even if well-reviewed series gain critical recognition it does not necessarily convert into influence unless they become hits. The treatment of emotional values in these dramas often conflicts with the cost-cutting efforts and efficiency improvements required by the modern age making it difficult to reconcile the two.
Urban comedies occupy two seats. "The Lord of Losers Season 2" received overall better reviews than the first season, but it premiered during the rise of "The Long Season," which suppressed its influence. "Never Give Up" is a comic adaptation with a freer and more youthful tone that allows for improvisation and humorous exchanges.
Both shows are workplace comedies that criticize work pressure and exploitation from an employee's perspective, catering to younger audiences. However, these types of sitcoms face difficulty resonating with larger demographics like martial arts dramas or classics such as “I Love My Family” and “My Own Swordsman”, which remain national hits but also require patience for further development.
"The Blood of Youth" is a martial arts drama filled with juvenile sentiments. Martial arts dramas must be portrayed by real young actors who can carry out action stunts spectacularly; this show succeeds on both accounts.
However, situational comedy faces limitations when it comes to satirical commentary, while martial arts drama struggles due to stagnant action scenes since Hong Kong cinema redefined visual spectacles in the 1990s through directors including Tsui Hark, Yuen Woo-ping and Ching Siu-tung whose techniques have remained unparalleled today. Therefore, any revitalization of martial arts dramas requires conceptual breakthroughs and new masters in this genre.
Especially noteworthy is "Three-Body." This series came out under the premise that both the movie and animated versions failed, and opened under the pressure of high investment and big stars in the American version, and it was not easy to reap such a reputation and influence. It established a method using realism to film science fiction dramas while offering serious historical retrospection and current reflections alongside high-quality recreation of original material exceeding novel descriptions in character building.
Historical dramas comeback
Chinese traditional culture is rich and diverse, encompassing the virtues of humanity, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, trustworthiness, kindness, humility, respectfulness, and frugality. The essence of Confucianism, Legalism, Taoism Mohism as well as military strategy classics such as "Yin Yang," "Zong Heng," and expertise in medicine and agriculture can all be found within. Chinese civilization's unique beliefs and philosophical concepts alongside aesthetic taste also play a significant role.
Artistic creation strives to promote Chinese traditional culture by focusing on representative figures from this legacy in film or television productions. Four major historical dramas: “Feng He Jin Qi: Zhang Ju Zheng”, “Swords into Ploughshares”, “Zhu Ge Liang Zhuan” and “Tian Xia Da Tong” have been approved for production while "Zhang Qian" has already completed its official registration process with filming set to begin soon.
Historical dramas are one genre that can compete globally; China’s long history coupled with talented screenwriters familiar with it ensures many excellent works will continue to emerge. Classic examples include "Yong Zheng Dynasty", "Ming Dynasty in 1566", "Han Wu Da Di", "Kangxi Dynasty" and the first season of "The Qin Empire".
In the past three years, there have been relatively few historical dramas produced. The works of note are "Qin Dynasty Epic", "The Imperial Age" and "The Long River". While these productions cannot quite match the brilliance and depth of previous classics in terms of drama or contemplation, they each have new achievements and insights.
"Qin Dynasty Epic" has significantly improved battle scenes compared to earlier historical dramas. "The Imperial Age" attributes Zhu Yuanzhang’s murder of his loyal general to his belief that he would rather share the world with common people than with intellectuals. Meanwhile, according to “The Long River”, those who were successful at flood control throughout history are worth remembering as our nation’s backbone rather than emperors or generals.
These productions attempt various ways of writing history: some through palace struggles; others by exploring family ethics. These methods have received varying degrees of praise from audiences but also caused controversy. However, balancing historical authenticity with artistic reality remains an issue without any definitive answer. Experts lament that strictly following facts may not always please viewers while overly creative revisionism could lead down a path towards historical nihilism.
Another year and a half has passed. The four dramas that have successfully registered, along with the one approved for shooting, are mostly being managed by experienced production companies who are building strong front and back-end teams.
Productions such as "The Epic of Tang Dynasty", "Han Dynasty Epic" and "The Story of Wang Yang Ming" are also in the works at full speed. With good timing, location, and personnel all coming together, historical drama's springtime is just around the corner.
However, creating historical dramas has never been an easy task. Good productions dare to explore idealism alongside complex human nature; they can praise great achievements while also touching upon their darker aspects; they can restore history while also including fictional elements, all without fear of public criticism.
This depends on honest audiences and regulatory departments providing support every step of the way amidst a range of opinions in society’s discourse: normal controversies should be discussed within aesthetic parameters while excessive overgeneralization must be avoided.
It is time for historical dramas to rise up again, today's audience differs from past ones as does today's situation compared to yesterday's, it’s a distracted age, and immersion of drama is vital for success now.
Immersive in Chinese drama
For television dramas, the length of the script is fixed and cannot be changed once filming has begun. The director's main job is to translate the written word into visual art. In contrast, for films, while the original story remains important, how it’s structured and presented takes precedence; a director's role becomes decisive. However, in recent years this description has become somewhat inaccurate.
For series productions, particularly online suspense dramas, creativity encompasses more than just writing scripts. With 12 episodes as a standard length - longer than movies but shorter than TV series, these dramas are able to tell complex stories with precise audio-visual language. Directors are increasingly involved in script creation and have greater scope for on-site scheduling and post-editing too.
Take "The Long Season" as an example: its complex narrative style combined with high-density information output bears witness to Director Xin Shuang’s distinctive mark on screen artistry. In fact, after emerging works like "Day and Night", "Burning Ice", "Guardian", “Tientsin Mystic”, “The Bad Kids” and "The Long Night," this type of drama has developed into a new form of artistic expression that reflects each director’s unique vision such as Wang Wei, Lu Xing, Chen Yifu, Xin Shuang, Tian Li among others.
It is often said that long-form videos are powerless against short-form videos. However, there is now a countermeasure: immersion. Dramas with unique audio-visual language and nested narrative structures can resist the superficiality of short-form videos and retain viewers' attention.
Compared to short-form videos, dramas have the epic grandeur and impact of a novel, satisfying humanity's spiritual needs as advanced beings. While humans may always crave immediate pleasure, some yearn for profound empathy and continuous amazement.
Immersive viewing leads to effective contemplation. "The Long Season" portrays pain and sacrifice; "Keep moving forward without looking back" tugs at our heartstrings. "Who Is He" depicts hardcore detective work before the era of mobile phones and DNA testing: meticulous investigation leading to vital insights into human nature. “The Knockout” portrays complex political-business relationships amidst rapid development where justice triumphs over evil.
These productions offer delicate observations based on life experience while also featuring abstract thinking beyond reality, observation ensures texture while considering promotes enlightenment. Mindless soap operas are easily replaced; good dramas must possess intellectual charm.
Feng Xiaogang, Zhang Dalei, and Li Qiang are all renowned film directors and screenwriters who have contributed to drama production, they enjoy greater creative freedom compared to other creators. In the short term, artistic integrity may compromise commercial success; however in the long run it opens up new possibilities for commercial productions.
Director Zhang Yimou has also joined in with his announced participation in producing an e-sports drama series called "League of Legends". Three years ago, director Xu Hongyu produced a visually stunning yet emotionally compelling e-sports drama series called "Cross Fire". We eagerly anticipate what kind of artistic ingenuity Zhang Yimou will bring into "League of Legends".
In the past half year alone we've witnessed not only numerous high-quality Chinese dramas but also historical dramas making a comeback, reflecting some subtle yet significant changes within their guiding principles and resource allocation. Dramas cannot be as carefree as short-form videos; they must invest more heart and soul if they wish to maintain their place.
Indeed, audiences consisting primarily those who love costume drama or life form the foundation for dramas' viewership ratings while creating discussion threads respectively. However, at the forefronts these programs evolve into quality artistry that incorporates elements such as direction styles that embody deep thoughtfulness or immersive experiences evoking complex emotional states, ultimately becoming an expression of authorship through continuous self-improvement by artists themselves.