A great way to learn Chinese is by watching television, but finding the right show can be overwhelming. There are actually many great Chinese TV shows for Mandarin learners. Below are five Chinese TV programs from different genres that will entertain and help you learn Chinese.
Go Princess Go (Tài Zǐ Fēi Shēng Zhí Jì, 太子妃升职记)
Arguably the hardest genre to appreciate from one language to another is comedy. Humor is an intricate form of entertainment that often involves a combination of word play, colloquialisms and pop culture references. It’s a two-way street that requires audiences to understand the surrounding culture.
As a result, trying to understand, let alone laugh along with, Chinese comedy shows can be the toughest challenge when watching Chinese television as a foreigner. If you’re able to get the gags, however, it can also be incredibly satisfying.
A good starting point for Chinese comedy shows is Go Princess Go, a web series by LeTV that’s gained a mass cult following. Go Princess Go spotlights a Lothario from modern-day China who travels back in time a thousand years and finds himself in the body of a royal princess. Despite it’s wacky concept, the show raises issues about gender and sexuality in China. The playboy-turned-princess at first uses his new position to flirt with the royal concubines, but later falls in love with his husband.
Chinese learners will find Go Princess Go easy to follow, even at points where they struggle with the language, as a lot of the humor is communicated visually.
Pleasant Goat and the Big Big Wolf (Xǐ Yáng Yáng Yǔ Huī Tài Láng, 喜羊羊与灰太狼)
When starting to learn a new language, particularly one that can feel as alienating as Mandarin, it helps to watch TV shows that use very basic vocabulary. It’s for this reason that kids’ cartoons can be a great resource for Mandarin beginners. Some learners may feel silly watching children’s shows, but to ignore them would be to overlook a valuable learning tool.
One of the most famous children’s cartoons in China is Pleasant Goat and the Big Big Wolf. Like all classic kids shows, the plot is simple: a group of goats live in a green pasture called the Qing Qing Grasslands, where a clumsy wolf, Big Big Wolf, attempts to eat them.
There’s no shortage of educational material here either, with 1,740 episodes aired so far and several movies as well.
Narrow Dwelling (Wō Jū, 蜗居)
China is a society that’s experienced a great deal of flux, yet there are surprisingly few shows that speak of the issues people face in their day-to-day lives. While in the US there are comedy dramas (“dramedies”), such as Master Of None, Atlanta, Better Things, and Insecure, that deal with societal issues, Chinese TV sometimes feels lacking in modern voices.
Narrow Dwelling, however, is the exception to the norm. The show tells the story of two sisters living in the fictional city of Jiangzhou, which happens to be very similar to Shanghai. Through its 35 episode run, the series has so far dealt with issues such as the wealth gap, real estate prices, the breakdown of family values and Chinese views of foreigners and vice-versa.
Narrow Dwelling comes highly recommended, not only for language learning but also to help foreigners in China better understand the society around them. Those who watch the show regularly should soon find themselves able to engage with Chinese colleagues and friends about more complex social issues.
Empress In The Palace (Zhēn Huán Zhuàn, 后宫甄嬛传)
Flick through Chinese TV channels on any given day and you’ll find most of the shows are period dramas set in the court of some emperor or another. Although historical dramas are a fantastic way to learn about Chinese history, culture and language, this kind of show does have a tendency to be somewhat on the dry side.
One of the better examples of historical fiction on Chinese television is Empress In The Palace. While the show is a typical costume period piece, it’s complex enough in both plot and character development to keep a viewer’s attention. Set during the Qing Dynasty and the reign of Emperor Yongzheng, the story centers around the schemes of the emperor’s concubines, with the newest arrival to the harem, 17-year-old Zhen Huan, at its emotional and moral center.
The show, a fascinating portrayal of court life in a feudal society, has been a smash hit in China and Japan. For Chinese learners it offers a great opportunity to absorb some of China’s colorful history while studying Mandarin.
In The Name Of The People (Rén Mín De Míng Yì, 人民的名义)
Audiences in the West love a good political thriller, as House Of Cards and The Good Wife attest. Until recently it was impossible to find the same kind of show on Chinese television, which seems a shame as the world of Chinese politics is surely a rich mine for story ideas.
This hole was filled recently with a show called In The Name Of People. The series, set in the fictional city of Jingzhou (not to be confused with Jiangzhou from Narrow Dwelling), depicts an internal power battle within the local Chinese Communist Party. Story lines include a corrupt deal between the government and a corporation leading to violent worker protests, and government leaders trying to intervene with the arrest of a top lawyer. Central to the political maneuverings are Li Dakang, the party chief obsessed with growth, Qi Tongwei, the Machiavellian public security chief, and Hou Liangping, the chief investigator trying to root out corruption.
After binge watching In The Name Of People, more advanced Chinese learners might start to think they know enough to embark on a career as the Chinese equivalent of Frank Underwood. Good luck with that.
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Keywords: TV shows for learning Mandarin best TV shows for learning Chinese
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