East Asian dramas, often shunned for their cliched plotlines, superficial exploration of human relations, and blatant display of materialism, are deemed a guilty pleasure. Yet, as a growing market, they undoubtedly play an integral part in today’s Asian entertainment industry, and serves as a connection for different Asian populations around the world.
Here are a few classic modern Chinese dramas that defy these stereotypes, remaining beloved despite their relative age.
1. Princess Pearl (还珠格格, Huan Zhu Ge Ge), 1998-2003
Although it’s based in history and some historical facts, the story, like most Asian dramas, take artistic license; however, unlike most Asian dramas, the story is moving and the characters well-developed. Ultimately, it’s about growing up, friendships, and being together through obstacles. Oh, and a playful romance and some surprising humor doesn’t hurt, either.
Princess Pearl smashed broadcasting records at the turn of the century, marking the debut of the cast’s careers (Zhao Wei, Ruby Lin, Fang Bingbing) as well as China’s new age of television. It’s spun off several remakes, including a Chinese-driven reboot in 2011, but Princess Pearl shines above the rest.
2. Romance in the Rain (煙雨濛濛, Qing Shen Shen Yu Meng Meng)
A wartime saga set in 1930s Shanghai and featuring many of the same actors from Princess Pearl as well as a story based on a work from the same writer, Qiong Yao, Romance in the Rain is, at times true to its title, a literal romance in the rain.
Like Cinderella but set in a war-ridden China and with a kindhearted half-sister, a penniless young girl and a photographer fall in love and test their bond through the circumstances and fate of that uncertain period.
It’s also a story of family: how a girl and her mother, forsaken by the father and his other wife, become a part of the family again through mutual dependence. Romance in the Rain is a fictional story, but its portrayal of wartime Shanghai is both authentic and heartbreaking, and gives our generation a powerful understanding of our grandparents’ times.
3. Lurk (潜伏, Qian Fu)
The Jennings from The Americans on FX have nothing on Lurk.
As a TV drama created a mere five years ago, Lurk takes a spot in this list for its winning dialogue.
A spy thriller set during China’s Civil War, Lurk tells the tale of an underground Communist worker and his partner in “lurking,” a brash, naive, and incredibly kindhearted guerrilla fighter straight from the countryside. More thrilling than the mystery of this drama is perhaps the tragicomedy of the love story between the two main characters.
With a script that is sophisticated yet funny, Lurk manages to convey a shivering portrayal of 1940s China, as well as a sense of how fate can bring out the most cruel, or the most selfless kindness, in people.