Beer and fried chicken — this seemingly unorthodox combo has been the most sought after late-night snack recently in Yang Xiaoqian’s dormitory on the campus of Central China Normal University.
“All of a sudden, on the tables of many dorms and in Weibo and Weixin (or WeChat) updates, the combo went viral,” says Yang, 19, a Chinese literature major at the university in Wuhan, Hubei province.
Thanks to a South Korean drama currently on air, Man From the Stars, this new mix-and-match junk food trend has become popular among young audiences, despite its unhealthy nature.
Indeed, South Korean TV dramas, or K-drama for short, have been a major force in the South Korean pop-culture wave that has captured the hearts of young Chinese audiences.
According to iQiyi, a video website that features Man From the Stars, by Feb 15, the number of views for the TV drama hit a whopping 370 million in China, where the drama claimed four out of five hot topics spots on TV and on Sina Weibo on the same day.
Yan Feng, professor of Chinese literature at Fudan University, in an interview with Shanghai Morning Post, believes the new wave of South Korean drama is trying to attract a wider audience.
“It is interesting to explore what elements of those dramas appeal to audiences. It’s obviously more than just pretty faces and cool poses,” says Yan.
Echoed by audiences, culture critics, academics and insiders of the industry, youth fantasy, creative storylines, cultural proximity, and well-organized production all add up to K-drama’s recipe for success, along with, of course, those handsome and cute faces dressed in the latest fashion trends.
Pretty faces and fashion
“Everyone fancies a perfect partner, handsome or beautiful,” says Zhou Ying, professor of TV production at Chongqing Technology and Business University. “The South Korean TV industry is feeding this need.” After Lee Min-ho entered the spotlight for his hit show The Inheritors and appeared on CCTV’s annual Spring Festival gala, he became the most famous South Korean in China. Only weeks later, Kim Soo-hyun, lead actor in Man From the Stars, swept the country.
“It reinforces the fantasy among young people with faces designed for viewers across the spectrum: the next door girl; the rebellious, sophisticated woman; the mature gentleman; little-brother faces. You name it,” says Zhou. “Idol making keeps updating the fantasies among fans and it intentionally caters to each generation’s tastes.”
Apart from pretty faces, fashion is another highlight of the series. Each time actors from the series wear a new set of outfits, similar clothes experience a sales spike online, according to Xiao Yi, a Taobao store owner based in Beijing.
Zhou says that besides economic gains for South Korean appliances, make-up, food and fashion items, those pretty faces are re-constructing South Korea’s national image.
“South Korea is imagined in accordance with those depictions in TV dramas, which is good national branding,” says Zhou.
With love triangles, incurable diseases, and Cinderella tales, storylines in South Korean dramas may seem a bit commonplace. The Man From the Stars challenges this norm by integrating aliens and time travel into these existing narrations.
Peng Sanyuan, a Beijing-based screenwriter, says a focus on detail is a key factor in the success of these dramas.
“In order to accurately target audiences and find emotional resonance with them, more and more female writers are emerging in the industry,” says Peng about her experience of exchanging ideas with South Korean colleagues.
Ma Ke, from Sohu.com, compares K-drama and Japanese drama. “Dramatic twists are more frequent in K-dramas, while urban love stories, a common theme, are often innovated by, for example, adding an alien,” says Ma. “That gives a sense of freshness to people who just want to know how everything is sorted out in such an impossible plot.”
According to both experts, South Korean writers somehow make sense of these plots, no matter how unlikely it seems.