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VOL.7 November 2015
Winning Foreign Hearts
To woo viewers abroad, Chinese films and TV dramas need to be more contemporary and original
By Tang Yuankai

The premiere ceremony of the Swahili version of Chinese TV dramas Father's Wishes and Mother's Glorious Days is held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on October 16, 2013

Doudou (played by Hai Qing), leading female protagonist in A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era, and her husband Yu Wei in the popular family comedy

As China steps up exporting entertainment to the global market, Chinese TV dramas have seen more success in Africa than in any other region.

A family comedy, A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era, which tells the story of a newly married couple coping with meddling in-laws, became a hit in Tanzania after premiering there in 2013.

"When Tanzanians come across Chinese girls in the streets, they call them Doudou, after the woman protagonist in the drama," said Chinese actor Hai Qing, who played Doudou, describing the popularity of the series in Tanzania.

To capitalize on the comedy's success, the 2015 Beijing TV Dramas & Movies Broadcasting Exhibition, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September, screened eight Chinese TV dramas and nearly 20 films. These were also to be shown on television throughout the year. All of them had been dubbed in English, French and other African languages.

A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era was the first Chinese drama series to be dubbed in Swahili. Kenyan leading lady Josephine Moeni Waweru and actor Khamis Juma Swaleh lent their voices for the couple in the dubbed version while the other characters' dialogues were dubbed by Beijing-based China Radio International's Swahili-speaking staff.

"The drama reflects the daily lives of today's Chinese and tells the African audience about real China," drama director Liu Jiang said.

Previously, Chinese film and television offerings in East Africa were shown with the original soundtracks and Swahili subtitles. However, many viewers were unable to read them. Most families were viewing the series on small screens as TV sets had only just begun to gain traction in Tanzania.

Clue to success

To change perceptions about China abroad, Chinese dramas must first get exported and viewed. Production isn't a problem since China became the world's largest TV drama producer in 2010. In 2014, China produced 429 dramas with 15,983 episodes.

The number of countries and regions importing Chinese TV series expanded from 10 in the early 1990s to more than 100 last year. Still, not all of them were as well received as A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era.

Another success story was Tiger Mom Cat Dad. It could be seen in nine countries and regions, including the United States and Canada, from May. The story of the contrasting parenting styles of a strict mom and a relaxed dad was featured in a BBC article the same month.

BBC China's Vincent Ni explained why the drama was such a success, "It's been a long time since Chinese TV aired a drama that captured the two seemingly conflicting education philosophies so well. While closely following the drama, Chinese audiences also took to social media to discuss, share and voice their different opinions of the way to raise kids."

More than 20 Chinese films and TV dramas were broadcast in the UK on Propeller TV between September and October. Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and UK Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy Ed Vaizey unveiled the broadcasting plans at the China-UK Film and TV Conference in London on September 20. The event, hosted by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, was part of the 2015 China-UK Year of Cultural Exchange programs.

However, the large number of dramas exported doesn't necessarily translate into profit. In 2013, Chinese dramas made 105 million yuan ($16 million) abroad, while South Korean dramas made 955 million yuan ($150 million), according to Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily.

This March, the English version of the hit costume drama, Empresses in the Palace, also known as The Legend of Zhen Huan, was released on American streaming website Netflix with its 76 episodes compressed into six 90-minute ones. However, it was not as popular as it had been on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. One reason for the failure was the vast difference between Chinese and Western cultures. Another was the difficulty in translating Chinese into English.

"There is a lot in ancient Chinese culture that cannot be translated," said Zheng Xiaolong, director of the drama. "Many lines in The Legend of Zhen Huan have connotations that were lost in translation."

Currently, Chinese TV series are mainly exported to the Asia-Pacific region, particularly Southeast Asia, according to the Beijing-based International Copyright Exchange. Western markets are tapped far less, probably because of cultural differences.

When in Rome

When The Legend of Zhen Huan aired in Japan in 2013, it received over 1,400 likes on social networking websites. In the same period, American crime drama Breaking Bad got 4.9 million likes and American sitcom The Big Bang Theory 26 million likes.

Industry insiders say the lack of ingenuity in the plot and incompatibility with foreign viewers' tastes prevent Chinese films and TV series from swaying the mainstream market abroad. Of the China-made TV dramas released in foreign markets in the past 20 years, historical period dramas accounted for over 80 percent.

The Chinese TV series that have adapted to local audience preferences have proved to be the most popular abroad, said Guo Yanmin, Associate Professor at the Communication University of China, Beijing. Many Chinese TV series have similar plots and lack distinctive character.

"It's essential to improve the quality of our work," Director Zheng Xiaolong added, pointing out that "many dramas are crudely made, and even the Chinese don't want to watch them, not to mention overseas audiences."

Instead of period dramas, contemporary Chinese issues and stories about ordinary people in China would appeal more to foreign audiences, said Meng Jian, Professor at the Shanghai-based Fudan University's Journalism School.

Meng is not alone in his belief. AFKInsider, a website covering African news from a business perspective, quoted Paul Udoto, a Tanzanian, as saying, "I've been hearing about the achievements China has made and how huge the changes have been in the country over the past 30 years, and I've seen some pictures on the Internet. But the TV series which tell stories of ordinary people with normal street scenes in China are more vivid and convincing."





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