Whenever I meet someone from another country who speaks great English, I usually ask them how they learned. In particular, people from Sweden consistently amaze me with their grasp of the English language and knowledge of colloquialisms. Most of the people I’ve asked told me they consumed a lot of English language media growing up. I’ve also noticed the biggest leaps in my comprehension of Chinese come with power watching TV series. One of the best things about learning Chinese is that many TV shows include Chinese language subtitles, which helps immensely when looking up new words and phrases. And while there is a lot of bad programming in China, the following TV shows have enriched my understanding of Chinese and entertained me personally:
1.) The Three Kingdoms (New Version) 三国演义新版
- All 95 episodes are available on Youku with Chinese Subtitles.
- All 95 episodes are available on YouTube with English subtitles.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the four great classics of Chinese literature, and its impacts on the Chinese language can be seen in the variety of sayings/idioms that come from the stories. Watching this series is great practice, even if it includes some outdated terminology and occasionally uses Classical Chinese. And it is an addictive show! I love imagining what life was like for people in the past, and in Three Kingdoms you can put yourself in the shoes of a feudal lord vying for control of China. I enjoyed the HBO series Rome for similar reasons. Some common idioms/sayings that you can start dropping into conversations include:
- 说曹操曹操就到 “When you say CaoCao, CaoCao arrives.” This idiom literally means “speak of the devil,” and people will say it if you are talking about someone and they happen to show up.
- 万事俱备，只欠东风 “Everything is ready, we just need the Eastern wind.” This idiom comes from battle of the Red Cliff, where Zhou Yu prepared a surprise fire attack on CaoCao’s army. The only thing he needed to complete the plan was the Eastern wind. This idiom is now used to describe a situation where everything is ready, but you just lack one final necessity.
- 对酒当歌，人生几何？ “Life is short, make merry while you can” – CaoCao says this while proposing a toast before the epic Battle at the Red Cliff. It literally means “sing to accompany your wine, how long is a human life?” CaoCao’s entire monologue at this point is great poetry.
- 人中吕布，马中赤兔 “Among people Lv Bu, Among horses the red hare” – This idiom is used to describe somebody with great talent/ability. In the three kingdoms, Lv Bu is one of the most feared generals. His fighting abilities are renowned throughout China, and he rode the fastest horse (the red hare).
2.) Bachelor 大男当婚
This is a comedy/drama about a 35 year old bachelor living in Beijing who is under pressure from his parents to find someone to marry and settle down. It stars a bald headed actor that I like named 徐峥, who is in a few good Chinese movies like 无人区. Bachelor is an interesting look into Chinese culture, and there is an illustrative dynamic between the main character (曹小强) and his parents. The protagonist winds up dating a variety of different women and Chinese hijinks ensue.
3.) CCTV (for documentary/real world content)
CCTV is the state run TV platform that is all over the TVs in China. I like to watch CCTV 9, which features documentaries (travel/nature/politics/people). Listening to a narrator describe different things in the actual world helps a lot with vocabulary. CCTV 10 focuses on science and inventions. CCTV 13 is the news channel, and CCTV 1 is the comprehensive channel that includes everything.
4.) Diors Man 屌丝男士
This show is a bit silly, but funny for a Chinese sketch show. It’s a good one for studying the language because there is a lot of pun humor, and skits take place in a wide range of different places/situations. For me, humor is one of the best language teachers, as laughter typically arises from breaking social norms (which is dependent on cultural context).
5.) iPartment 爱情公寓
This is supposedly a Friends rip off, but the show has its own flavor. It’s a standard sitcom format and can be laughable sometimes.
6.) Day Day Up 天天向上
This is a variety show/talk show. Sometimes they come up with wacky games as well, but it is certainly a good peak into the culture of Chinese craptaculars. This is a very popular show in China, and if you miss out on all but one, definitely consider watching the show where Jackie Chan comes on and admits he’s not a good father (his son was caught smoking marijuana and served six months in prison). Here’s a youtube link to that episode for those outside of China. Its a great lesson on how to lose face gracefully in China, and an interesting look into drug war propaganda and enforcement in the far east. Drugs are an especially sensitive topic here given the historical context of China’s failed Opium Wars with the British empire.
7.) The Voice of China 中国好声音
I don’t watch this show much, but it’s hugely popular in China, and you won’t escape hearing this reference eventually if you are learning Chinese. I like learning songs in foreign languages as a way to study, and I’ve found at least one or two I like from watching this show. The format is like American idol, except the three “teachers” fight to choose singers and train them to win.
8.) Running Man 奔跑吧兄弟
This is a kind of humorous game show that was originally aired in Korea. Contestants are given missions to complete every show, and shenanigans follow. People in China love this show right now and I hear people talking about it a lot.
9.) If You’re Not Serious Don’t Bother 非诚勿扰
This is a dating show where one man introduces himself to 24 eligible women. As they delve deeper into the man’s life and past relationships, women can choose to reject the guy or continue to the end (happily ever after!). One thing you will have to do when learning Chinese is talk about yourself and give introductions to people, so it’s good to see people actually doing that under pressure in real life. Each episode is great practice, as the show is long and full of different people. They even have foreigners come on and try their luck from time to time.
10.) Empresses in the Palace 甄嬛传
This is a slow moving drama set in ancient China that is now available on Netflix. I also heard it was broadcast on PBS. It’s a popular historical drama here. Beautiful costumes, scenery, and story line.