It's midnight, but Lim Yoon-ji, a Korean student at Shanghai International Studies University, is entranced watching Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, a South Korean TV series adapted from the hit Chinese show Bu Bu Jing Xin (Scarlet Heart). She couldn't help comparing the two.
A scene from Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo"Bu Bu Jing Xin is one of the best historical dramas, I think. I love the actors, their costumes, their way of speaking, the story - the whole thing is just perfect. I am just now watching the Korean version. I don't know what it's like yet, but I think it's OK so far," Lim told the Global Times.
Bu Bu Jing Xin is a typical historical costume drama, set in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but with a time-travel origin. After a terrible car accident, 25-year-old Zhang Xiao (Liu Shishi) travels from the modern day back to the 18th century and must adjust to her new life in the court of Emperor Kangxi. Soon, though, she becomes entangled in the crown princes' struggle to succeed the throne.
A scene from the hit Chinese show Bu Bu Jing XinSince it began airing in 2011, it's gained wide popularity among China's young TV fans. The Korean adaptation debuted on SBS last month, sparking a heated discussion among Koreans.
"On its premiere, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo placed first in the topical index among Korean TV series," Yuehua Cheung, the general manager of overseas market development center of Mango Entertainment, one of the show's investors and producers, told the Global Times, citing data based on analysis of cable news and Web searches in South Korea.
"It shows that Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo has high recognition and influence among young Koreans. After watching the Korean version, many Korean audiences have turned to the Chinese version, becoming interested in the Chinese history and culture," said Cheung.
Chinese costume dramas like this have become the latest cultural export, drawing a growing number of foreign fans.
Having years of experience in overseas market development, Cheung said that historical costume series on fantasy themes, shows on traditional culture and youth idol dramas are the most sought-after and influential on the global market.
"I think costume dramas are becoming the latest cultural export product because, these days, the same food, clothes, houses, cars, electronic devices can be found everywhere you go. But people have fantasies for something they don't have and wish to be unique and different. The only uniqueness each country has is its history and traditional culture. And that's why classic dramas and historical films often gain huge popularity with both foreigners and natives. No matter whether it's something they've never had or something they will never have again, it's for sure that they all love it," said Lim.
While some foreigners watch the costume dramas just for the fantasy, others are drawn into it and delve into the historical facts online when watching Chinese historical dramas.
"When watching historical dramas, I'm also trying to imagine how people's lives and thinking were then, and what is different from thinking in today's modern world (not much has changed within the greed for power and staging situations to instigate actions). Also, I can learn some Chinese words while watching," Simi, an American fan of Chinese historical costume dramas, told the Global Times.
A foreigner poses in an ancient Chinese costume at a filming site in Jinhua, Zhejiang Province. Chinese costume dramas have become the latest cultural export, drawing a growing number of foreign fans. Photo: ICAnother American, Linda, who is also known as "Crouching Dieter, Hidden Donut" on viki.com, an online streaming service for prime time TV shows around the world, told the Global Times that watching historical dramas has broadened her knowledge about Chinese history.
"Chinese historical drama has a lot of territory to cover. It encompasses both fact and speculation; the advantages of a long written history do come into play when you present the past in the modern world in a way that makes it new and interesting to the world at large," Linda said.
As an example, she noted the recent drama Chang Ge Xing, a romanticized story about the Eastern Han (25-220) restoration of the Han Empire and the enduring bond between the emperor and his true love, who clearly helped him rise up from a farmer's life to becoming emperor.
"Watching this extremely well-done drama inspired me to also read up on the actual lives of the emperor and his world, so it broadened my knowledge of the second part of the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220). It was very well-presented, so it was highly entertaining to watch and memorable. It brought another part of Chinese history to the world in a way that could be understood and enjoyed," Linda said.
Many foreign fans said they are into Chinese historical dramas because they are bored of TV series back home.
Living in the US, Simi said she cancelled her cable TV service a long time ago, tired of the commercials and poor shows that are "just bland and pretend alike where deep thoughts are missing." Instead, she said, she turned to Asian TV series, mostly Chinese and Korean ones.
Linda also said she thinks Chinese drama is of better quality than American ones, admiring the filming and production quality, attention to detail and acting.
"Sad to say, but Hollywood has slipped over the past 20 years. They remake (badly) things that have already been done. Chinese drama quality has improved so dramatically that they are showing the way there," Linda said.
"Most series in Chinese dramas have a finite number of episodes. American TV seems to ride a horse until it drops, then drag it forward longer. Example here is Lost, which got utterly lost. The majority of American TV dramas are poorly written, rushed to market and sadly aimed at a lower level of writing that leaves me uninterested. Asian historical drama as a whole is a far better product, and it makes me want to see more of it. Engaging and stimulating to the brain as well as the eyes and ears," Linda said.
She added that several of her favorite actors of all time now are Chinese.
"There are some actors who have this genre down to a point of superior acting. These actors make it (the story) believable, bring history or even 'faction' to life for us. It's more difficult to make a historical drama work," she said.
Bettina Samai from Hungary told the Global Times that there is a huge difference between Chinese costume dramas and the same in Hungary.
"I find Hungarian TV dramas boring. They concentrate only on human relationships (family, friendship, love), the actors are mostly amateurs and they depict daily lives of an average people. It feels as if I were stalking my neighbors," said Samai, who said she finds endless fantasies in Chinese costume dramas, especially martial arts dramas.
"As for me, key elements are the wonderful costumes, the fabulous sceneries and I also like that when they fight, their kung fu movements and using of their inner strengths look as if they did magic. I love Chinese language, too. The characters also stick to the morals and behavior of the given period," Samai said.
She first met Chinese historical costume dramas thanks to viki.com.
"The first one was The Four (2015) and it robbed my heart, then The Legend of Qin and Nirvana in Fire totally enchanted me, so I mostly watch only Chinese dramas since finding the first one," Samai said.
She also does translation work on viki.com for these TV series to help other Hungarian viewers understand the story lines.
"Here at viki.com, volunteers translate TV shows to other languages. I translate based on English subtitles, but since my boyfriend is Chinese, I've already started to learn Putonghua, and I also learn some simple phrases from the TV shows," Samai said.
Linda is also a heavily active user and member on viki.com. She said she was at first limited in being able to find Asian dramas.
However, since using Internet sources over the last five years, she has found consistent and reasonable access to Asian dramas.
"The more Chinese dramas I've been able to access, the more I've watched. Today folks have it much easier; there are far more dramas available, and the English in particular is more available by subtitles. It's been harder to be a Chinese drama fan because of the difficulty when watching raw episodes, if no English is provided," Linda said.
She now uses streaming sites for Asian dramas. She also buys DVDs of some of her favorites if they are available.
"Sadly, the one I want most has no English subtitle version, Nirvana in Fire!. Ouch!," Linda said.
"That being said, the recent improvements in both have made me decidedly a Chinese historical drama fan, along with the other major Asian cultures. Give me great dramas, and I will find a way to watch and enjoy them."
Good news to non-Chinese speakers is that Christopher Newman, the producer of Game of Thrones, has signed a deal with Starlight Media and K. Jam Media to work together on a new historical series based on the life of Wu Zetian, China's only empress.
K. Jam Media reportedly will broadcast the drama on networks after completion. The 13-episode drama with an estimated investment of $70 million is set to begin shooting in Sichuan Province late next year and premiere in 2018.
"If we are talking about a remake of Empress of China - or Female Chinese Emperor - I can't say I'm an optimist about Hollywood doing this well. I can only hope they won't cast Natalie Portman or Brad Pitt. Sorry, but they don't tend to follow any sense of reality. Oliver Stone syndrome, I like to call it. They ruined the Alexander the Great story; I don't think Chinese historical dramas will do well there. Personally I wish they could do Chinese historical, and for that matter, worldwide historical, well, but the evidence is against this," Linda told the Global Times.