BEIJING — There is no shortage of problems facing China these days: a terrorist attack that recently left 33 people dead and 143 injured, corruption in government, a worrisome slowdown in economic growth.
So when the country’s two highest governing bodies met in Beijing this week, what was the burning issue on the delegates’ lips? A South Korean soap opera that has taken the country by storm.
To be fair, it’s hard to overstate just how popular this show is these days. After the show’s female lead mentioned “beer and fried chicken” in one episode, it became one of the most invoked phrases online. Restaurants cashed in and started selling beer-and-fried-chicken meals.
One pregnant woman from Jiangsu, a province in eastern China, almost had a miscarriage, according to news reports, after she stayed up too many nights binge-watching and eating fried chicken and beer.
The show’s name translated in English is “My Love from the Star.” It has garnered more than 2.5 billion views online and has shot up to the top of the country’s viewership. (A taste of the drama, with English subtitles, is available here.)
Its premise may seem bizarre to Western soap watchers: It’s about an alien who accidentally arrives on Earth 400 years ago, meets an arrogant female pop star and falls in love.
Well aware of the craze the drama has created in China, one committee of China’s political advisory body (called the CPPCC) spent a whole morning bemoaning why China can’t make a show as good and as big of a hit.
At a meeting of delegates from the culture and entertainment industry, some blamed it partly on China’s censorship, euphemistically referred to as the “examination and approval system” at the meeting by Feng Xiaogang, a famous director and a CPPCC member. “My heart trembles,” he said, when waiting for a movie to go through this rigorous censoring procedure.
“My wings and imagination are all broken,” said one comedian delegate. But she didn’t go into further detail, perhaps out of caution of offending those very censors.
Many viewed the popularity of the Korean drama as a heavy blow to Chinese confidence in their culture.
“It is more than just a Korean soap opera. It hurts our culture dignity,”one CPPCC member said.
It’s not the first time popular foreign entertainment has led to hand-wringing in China. In 2008, when Dreamworks’ “Kung Fu Panda” became a runaway hit in China, it led to similar soul-searching. Why did it take American producers to find the drama and humor in a fat panda learning kung fu in China, many asked.
This time around, the angst over the Korean drama carries with it bitterness about regional rivalries. While China has long considered itself the source of East Asian culture, the domination of Japanese comics and Korean soap operas in Chinese pop culture challenges that view.
One of China’s top seven Communist Party leaders even weighed in on the issue this week.
“Korean drama is ahead of us,” Wang Qishan said in surprising comments at one of the more important legislative meetings, according to Beijing News. Wang is head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, in charge of an ongoing wide-scale anti-corruption campaign. (Wang, who seems to keep a busy TV viewing schedule, is also reportedly one of the many ardent fans within the party of the Netflix drama “House of Cards.)
But, he said, the Korean soap opera also highlights how the Chinese value aspects of their traditional culture that can be seen in the drama.
“The core and soul of the Korean opera is a distillation of traditional Chinese culture,” Wang said. “It just propagates traditional Chinese culture in the form of a TV drama.”
Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.