Updated: Jan 22
If you’ve ever wondered if you should start venturing into Chinese romance dramas because many of your friends said you should, we are here to help you make up your mind. The goal is not to compare if k-dramas are better than c-dramas or vice versa, but rather to broaden your choices in case you happen to find yourself in a k-drama rut. Sometimes, watching something different gives you the break you need before diving more deeply into k-dramaland.
What can you expect in Chinese Dramas?
They’re longer. Chinese dramas usually last anywhere from 20 to 50 episodes at about 30-45 minutes each.
This can be a good thing if you’ve sometimes wished that k-dramas would prolong the part when the leads are together. As is often the case, k-dramas spend about 9 episodes getting the couple to admit their feelings. Then they have two or three episodes to date before the inevitable separation at the doomed episode 13-14 mark. C-dramas also take a while before they can get the romance going but once they do, the leads have more episodes not only to act all cute and in love but more importantly, the audience gets to see them overcome challenges together. In other words, we get to see the love story after the metaphorical kiss in the sunset. If you want to spend more time with your favorite couple, then c-dramas are for you.
C-drama characters have a shallow backstory. Their writers will only do enough research to dress up a character’s livelihood or industry but the world-building won’t have the same attention to detail as in k-dramas. Perhaps because of the number of dramas that are churned out in a year, actors also don’t devote as much time to learning an instrument or training for a special skill. On the upside, characters are not written to be too angsty and will often solve their sometimes traumatic issues with some deus ex machina and contrived plot points. This can be a good thing if you’re looking for an easy watch where you don’t have to invest too much emotion.
There is likely to be more than one main couple. If you’re looking for a love story, you’re bound to get your money’s worth and end up with more than one couple by the end of the series. C-drama writers have a knack for putting in second and sometimes even third couples in the mix. (Sometimes they're interesting; other times I just skip them.) Instead of the k-drama staple of giving side characters their own arcs and subplots, c-drama writers give side characters their own love stories.
C-drama couples often have a little more "skinship." Apparently, c-drama characters are not as prudish as their k-drama counterparts. While you won’t have Western-levels of blatant exposure in c-dramas, their couples do not mind showing much physical affection for each other.
C-dramas have a quirkiness that’s all their own. They come with their own fashion and aesthetic. Characters in smaller budget dramas are not averse to repeating their outfits. Set designers will randomly throw in pieces of artwork (the Mona Lisa in 1920s Shanghai, because why not?) or props (Harry Potter book on the chairman’s desk? Check!) to fill up a set. Episodes will stop at the 40 or 45 minute mark whether it’s logical to do so or not. They come with their own sense of humor that may be lost on foreign audiences. Still, if you can learn to see these things as interesting conversation pieces rather than points of rejection, then you will enjoy yourself.
Now that you have a better idea of what to expect, here are some recommendations.
K-drama and c-dramas are not entirely worlds apart. Famous Korean actors such as Song Hye--kyo, Park Min-young, Sung Hoon, Rain, Lee Min-ho, Lee Joon-hyuk, and Song Seung-heon have even starred in Chinese dramas. You’ll also find that dramas are mutually adapted on both sides of the Yellow Sea. One way to begin watching c-dramas is to watch adaptations of famous k-dramas such as Full House (Midsummer Is Full of Love), Fated to Love You (You Are My Destiny) or Boys Over Flowers (Meteor Garden, 2018). If you start with those, then you’ll know the basic plot but you might be surprised at how the writers tweak the story. (Read more here.)
If you’re looking for the first blush of love and all its heady rush of emotions...
Love O2O (2016)
One of the most commercially successful c-dramas, Love O2O (as in online to offline) tells the story of college students Bei Weiwei (Zheng Shuang) and too-good-to-be-true college heartthrob Xiao Nai (Yang Yang) who meet in an online game and fall in love in real life. The series follows them as they overcome numerous obstacles together and venture into young adulthood.
While the acting of both young leads are unpolished, the simple story and the amazing attention to digital graphics on the gaming world make for a light watch. The trope of the undergraduate falling for the hotshot college senior is too good to pass up.
30 episodes available on Netflix
Put Your Head on My Shoulder (2019)
By some strange twist of circumstance that is only plausible in dramas, accounting major Situ Mo (Xing Fei) finds herself having to share an apartment with stoic and reserved physics major Gy Wei Yi (Lin Yi). Of course when two attractive people share living quarters, sparks start to fly. But falling in love when you’re still young means that many difficult decisions need to be faced. Will the love of Si Tu Mo and Gu Wei Yi make it?
It’s watching the couple go through their day-to-day life and the slow unfolding of their love story that makes this series charming. Lin Yi is adorable as logical scientist who cannot make heads or tails of women.
24 episodes available on iQIYI, Viki, Netflix
If you like your female leads to have their own careers and not to have their lives revolving around the male lead...
You Are My Glory (2021)
If you have two extremely attractive (and I mean EXTREMELY attractive) romantic leads, you wouldn’t be surprised that their drama series reached a whopping 4 billion views. In fact, subscribers paying to watch advanced episodes of the drama caused not just one but two platforms to crash temporarily. Personally, I would seriously pay to watch Chinese superstars Yang Yang and Dilraba Dilmurat eat noodles together just because I like watching beautiful people.
But there’s actually an interesting plot to the You Are My Glory. She’s a famous actress and he’s an aerospace engineer. Their paths once crossed when they were in high school but a decade later, she needs a crash course from an expert gamer to help with her latest endorsement and he fits the bill. And what follows are some of the best romantic scenes in all of c-drama. The research on Yang Yang’s character is pretty thorough too, and they are completely believable as a couple who can’t seem to get enough of one another.
32 Episodes available on WeTV and Viu (some territories)
Designer Love/ Love By Design (2020)
It’s another Dilraba Dilmurat drama. (Seriously, this actress would probably have chemistry with a hair brush.) This time, she’s opposite Johnny Huang, who plays cocky businessman Song Li. They get off on the wrong foot when they get embroiled in a lawsuit.
It’s a hate-to-love, opposites attract trope on this drama that works surprisingly well because of the main leads. The fashion e-commerce industry provides enough tension and interesting plot points to keep the drama going.
45 episodes available on iQIYI, Viki, and WeTV
The Day of Becoming You (2021)
K-drama fans will know that body-swap romances are a dime a dozen in k-dramaland. C-dramas aren't that far behind. This light, fluffy rom-com stars Steven Zhang as a member of a popular boy and who swaps bodies with Yu Sheng Sheng (Lian Jie) an entertainment reporter. You can expect to find the usual tropes but it’s still enjoyable. And the scene where the male lead experiences menstrual cramps while in the female lead’s body (something I’ve not found in any k-drama) is actually sensitive and hilarious at the same time.
26 episodes available on iQIYI and WeTV
A Rational Life (2021)
China does the noona (older woman- younger man) romance and actually does a decent job at it, even if it does develop much slower than in k-drama. A Rational Life has the typical hardworking, no-time-for-love female lead Shen Ruoxin (Qin Lin), a competent legal consultant whose job is to put out difficult fires for her male-dominated company. As a “leftover woman,” Ruoxin also has to deal with the eternal pressures to settle down, but she really isn’t having any of it. As fate would have it, she is assigned a young intern Qi Xiao (Dylan Wang) whose positivity and energy inspires her in both professional and eventually, personal ways.
However, as the budding attraction between Ruoxin and the younger man grows, things also start happening between Ruoxin and her very capable male boss, a man who by all measures “should” be mature husband material. A predictable love triangle eventually ensues. Who should a capable woman pick as a partner for life? The young man who cares for her deeply, or the more mature man who has everything set for life?
35 episodes available on Netflix
When you have a history longer than majority of the countries in existence, you’re bound to have a treasure trove of stories to tell and scores of timelines to pick from.
The Sword and the Brocade (2021)
It’s often a hit and miss with Chinese historicals. Sometimes the wuxia (a genre of Chinese fiction where ancient fighters are given supernatural powers such as flying or excessive speed) works but sometimes it's off-putting. Some dramas will be anachronistic and put characters in situations that feel like they came out of a badly researched webtoon. And then there's Sword and the Brocade. Shi Yi Niang (Tan Song Yun), is the daughter of a concubine and realizes that she will never get the same opportunities as her sisters because of her parentage. She hopes her skills in embroidery will help her get a better chance at life (hence, the “brocade”). However, before she can even begin fulfilling her dreams, she’s used as a bargaining chip to further her father’s family and is wed to the Duke, Yu Ling Yi (Wallace Chung), a loyal general ( the “sword”).
The slow-burn romance shows real character growth in both leads. Amidst the scandals and intrigue of the prominent family, the steady development of mutual friendship, respect, and eventually love between the two make for a romantic and satisfying watch.
45 episodes available on iQIYI and Viki
Eternal Love (2017)
Think the pre-requisite two-year time gap between k-drama couples is long? Try 70,000 years and then some for a love story to unfold! The epic fantasy historical Eternal Love reached 50 billion views and is one of the most watched television series in China to date.
The simplest way to summarize this long, convoluted plot is to say that immortal Bai Qian (Yang Mi) goes on a bunch of fantastical adventures and falls in love with deity Ye Hua (Mark Chao). It’s a love story that spans three lifetimes. This high fantasy fare boasts of great chemistry between the leads and a visual spectacle that includes grandiose sets, dreamy costumes, and high-tech CGI.
58 episodes available on Netflix and Viki
Once you’ve watched a couple of these dramas, then you’ll know if Chinese dramas really are your cup of tea. If they are, welcome, welcome! You will now be able to expand your palette. Who knows, you might even venture into Japanese, Thai and other Asian dramas next. If you didn’t enjoy these dramas, that’s alright. There’s plenty in k-dramaland to keep you engaged and entertained. The important thing is you tried something new.