BEIJING — There is no shortage of problems facing China these days: a terrorist attack that recently left 29 people killed 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 some news reports, after she stayed up too many nights binge-watching and eating fried chicken and beer.
The show's name in Chinese translates literally as: “My Love from Another Star.” It has garnered more than 25 billion views online and has shot up to the top of the country's viewership.
Its premise may seem a bit 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 caused 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, whenever 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 massive popularity of the Korean drama as a heavy blow to Chinese confidence in their own 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 handwringing 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 some bitterness with regional rivalries. While China has long considered itself the source of East Asian culture, the domination of Japanese comics and Korean soap opera 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 more important legislative meetings, according to Beijing News. Wang is head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, 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 argued that the Korean soap opera also highlights how Chinese value aspects of their traditional culture that can be also seen in the drama.
“The core and soul of the Korean opera is a distillation of traditional Chinese culture. It just propagates traditional Chinese culture in the form of a TV drama.”