Ok, let’s be frank.
The production quality of Chinese TV shows is a far stretch from U.S. classics like “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones”.
Usually, watching just half an hour of Mandarin Chinese TV gives me more cringeworthy moments than half a year in real life. (Just recall the Chinese NYE Gala debacle with the ‘African’ lady. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s worth clicking here.)
So why am I still encouraging you to watch Chinese TV shows to learn Chinese?
Because, again, let’s not pretend otherwise, even the worst Chinese TV show is probably more entertaining than your standard Mandarin textbook.
But seriously, there are great reasons why with the right strategy, watching Chinese TV can really help you learn Chinese. The keyword here is strategy: If you just let some random Chinese TV show run in the background, you may actually save yourself the effort.
Why you should watch Chinese TV shows
I have mentioned it time and again: when it comes to learning any language, so much is determined by the amount of quality input you receive. That is why I have strongly advocated for extensive reading. And this is also the main reason why I am encouraging you to watch Chinese TV.
But there are also a number of factors that are unique to this method. The reasons why watching Chinese TV shows is especially useful include:
Chinese TV shows combine listening material with visuals
‘Now this is quite obvious’, you might say. And it is. But it is worth pointing out again: Having moving pictures accompany everything that is being said greatly enhances your chance of understanding. Heck, I could watch half of the TV shows available in silent mode and still get the gist of what is going on. The point is that the combination of visual and auditory senses allows you to access stuff that would otherwise be out of your reach. Also guessing from context is a great skill to have when you throw yourself into an immersive language setting, for example when you are studying, working or just travelling in China.
Watching Chinese TV shows gives you a taste of authentic Chinese in action
But not all of us are fortunate enough to live/study/work in China. If you are not, it is hard to come by authentic interactions in Chinese. What I am talking about are the nuances of the language, stuff like intonation and how the mood influences how native speakers talk. Or in what situations you use interjections, like 哇 (wa) or 噢 (o). Or what makes stuff humorous or funny in Chinese. But, these things are important if you want to get to conversational level Chinese. And TV shows help, tremendously.
Watching Chinese TV shows gives you insights into Chinese (pop-)culture
It’s one thing to read about culture in a book. It’s another thing to see it in action. In Chinese TV shows, you can see how actual people would go about their lives, the habits, rituals and beliefs they follow. What their struggles are. It’s often exaggerated (typical parent-children, urban-rural value conflict). But that just helps to make the impression more lasting.
Where do you find Chinese TV shows?
Not on TV!
(Ok, you actually might, but just as anywhere else, the internet is king.)
A lot of the shows are actually on YouTube or viki. But of course, there are also the homegrown Chinese portals, Youku and Tudou. The problem with these is that because the servers are located inside China, they can be streaming very, very slowly (and they have awfully long commercials). An alternative is the eDonkey/eMule network. You have to install a software to watch the shows, but on the other hand, you can download the shows easily and watch them even if you are on the go.
How do you watch TV to make the most for your Chinese learning?
Like I already said. You can watch Chinese TV shows and you can watch Chinese TV shows while actually learning Mandarin Chinese. Which one of these you are doing will depend on two things: Which Chinese TV shows you watch and how you watch these shows. Before we jump into recommendations for specific shows, here a few pieces of general advice for the how. They apply to anything you are watching. And in fact, they can make or break your experience learning Chinese through TV.
Research some basic info of the TV show
You are probably already doing this. After all, it’s pretty rare that we just randomly start a show without any background info about its genre, cast, etc. Having a basic knoawledge of the plot (no-spoilers obviously) will also help you to follow the storyline more easily. This way, you have more time to spend on mining vocab (see below). You will also just enjoy the show more.
For instance, one particular problem with Chinese TV series can be names. Especially in the beginning, unknown names can seriously destroy your understanding. But, simple googling and baidu-ing will solve this problem and allows you to focus on the important stuff. For, instance, if you have decided to go with the popular sitcom 家有儿女 (Home with Kids), English Wikipedia has all the information you need.
Mine for Chinese characters and words for further studying
One of the best things about learning Chinese through TV is this: Depending on the topic, there will always be a stack of vocab that will appear over and over again (read: natural repetition). You can amplify this effect by ‘mining’ these Chinese words and characters. What I mean by this is looking these words up in Pleco or notice them in a Google Sheet and then use this as a basis for further study. Zizzle App is an awesome tool for this kind of spaced repetition.
For more convenient vocab mining, check out this thread on Chinese Forums. They have vocab lists, plot summaries and even transcripts of the first episode of loads of Chinese TV shows. If the show is not included on Chinese Forums, you might need subtitles to identify the rights characters for what you hear. This brings us to the next point.
Do not use English subtitles. A lot of times, they are simply of low quality and do not accurately reflect what’s being said. Even if they are good, they can ruin your learning experience. They might divert your attention away from the show. And unless you have iron discipline you will not be able to resist reading them.
Chinese subtitles on the other hand can be extremely useful. They might improve your character recognition. But more importantly, they will help you to mine adequate vocabulary for later revision.
Again, this goes without saying. Even with a TV show in your native language, you will enjoy it more (that is, get more out of it) if you watch it consistently. Otherwise, you just have to ‘get into’ the plot and the characters again every time you watch. But, if you are using a TV show to learn Mandarin Chinese, you might not only have forgotten about the plot, but also about the most important vocab. Not a very efficient way to spend your time.
What Chinese TV shows to watch?
So, this is what you have been waiting for. We are finally getting to talk about what Chinese shows to watch. Again, there are some strategic choices.
For obvious reason, you should choose stuff that you actually might enjoy. Otherwise, you could simply stick to your (probably) boring textbook.
Next, it makes sense to think about the format and genre of the show. What I mean by this is that on average, certain formats and genres will be more difficult than others. For instance, news shows will be quite hard because TV anchors often talk fast and the topics are challenging. To help you, HackingChinese has created a useful guidance for the difficulty level of various Chinese TV show genres.
We will stick to TV series because that’s mostly what I watch and because there is a great variety of different styles and levels within these shows. Here are just some ideas to get you started and most of the below shows are either critically acclaimed or real commercial successes:
家有儿女 (Home with Kids)
Oldie but goldie. Omnipresent sitcom/drama about a patchwork family between two parents who are separated from their previous spouses and their children. The family has its stereotypical roles (i.e. the kid being an overachieving student at school) and their daily stories and encounters are easy to follow. Also, the conversation between the children uses rather simple language. Suitable for beginners.
欢乐颂 (Ode to Joy)
The Chinese answer to “Sex and the City”. The story is about five modern women who live together in the same floor in an apartment complex called "Ode to Joy" in Shanghai. This show will take you through the intricacies of modern Chinese dating (or you can read our blog article here). Again, lots of useful everyday vocab. Conversations are quite easy to follow and the acting is fun. Suitable for beginners.
痞子英雄 (Black & White)
Action packed police show with a somewhat exaggerated touch of humor. It’s probably not for you if you are looking for deep stories and emotions. On the other hand, this makes the show quite understandable even if you can’t follow the conversations. For those that prefer Taiwanese accent over Mainland accent. Suitable for beginners.
Another oldie. If you are a college/university student, this is the must-watch drama for you. This series traces the struggles of China's Post-80's generation (called 八零后 in Chinese) after graduation from college. The vocab and also speed of conversation is not always easy, but the show contains loads of useful everyday situations (just the first episode takes you to an internet café where electricity breaks down and a bar/restaurant fight with subsequent police interrogation ;-)). Suitable for intermediate learners.
人民的名义 (In the Name of the People)
Another recent show. China’s house of cards (or so they claim). The show tells the story of the fight of Chinese authorities against corruption. This is a big national topic in China. And in fact, the show is partly financed by the government. However, it is still reasonably entertaining. Obviously, the series contains lots of specialized vocab from the political/criminal enforcement field. Suitable for intermediate learners.
蜗居 (Dwelling Narrowness)
When a TV drama gets officially censored, you know that you should watch it. Rumor has it that the series depicts too many socially sensitive issues, such as the growing (un-)affordability of housing in Chinese big cities, the widening wealth gap and corruption. That would obviously go against the mainstream story of the rebirth of the “Chinese Dream”. Others suspect that the show is too explicit. Whatever the reason, it’s worth watching. The language is mostly everyday situations and yes, the main characters talk about sex which is unusual for a Mainland show. Suitable for intermediate learners.
琅琊榜 (Nirvana in Fire)
Critically acclaimed and a commercial success. Nirvana in Fire is a visually stunning historical drama set in sixth century China. It follows the political intrigues at the imperial court and beyond. The storyline is complex and the character’s sometimes drift off into ancient-style Chinese. This makes the show something for more ambitious students. Of course, you will still enjoy the show if you are a die-hard wuxia fan and the action is masterfully shot. Suitable for advanced learners.
To get some variety, you can also check out other successful formats on Chinese TV, such as game shows. A long time audience favorite is the dating show 非诚勿扰 in which one male candidate tries to win the heart of one of the 25 participating girls. Most of the candidates are Chinese, but the occasional foreigner adds spice to the show.
Let us know what you think of the above shows! Do you have any other suggestions that should make the list? Comment below!
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