Korean Drama vs Chinese Drama comparison has become hot topic among fans. From Western point of view, it is true that Korean Drama are well accepted. I think the most entertaining way to answer this question would be to imagine a Chinese-produced Squid Game. Would it be better? Worse? What can Koreans do that Chinese can’t?
Sounds like a fun thought experiment, no? After going through all the things that a Chinese Squid Game couldn’t have, I think you’ll have a pretty good idea of why “Americans like Korean dramas but not Chinese dramas.”
Without further ado, in our imaginary Chinese Squid Game:
1) Kang Sae-Byeok couldn’t be from North Korea
North Korean refugees fleeing to the South often have to take a route through China, and if Chinese border guards catch them, they are supposed to send them back to the North.
The idea of a North Korean refugee that slipped past China’s border guards might be edging the line. Also, any negative references towards North Korean living standards may likewise be politically unacceptable, as the very existence of the modern North Korean state is due to China. Hence, impoverished conditions in North Korea could be interpreted as “China’s fault” by some audiences, and this is not a risk Chinese censors could allow.
In order for Kang Sae-Byeok to remain North Korean, the show would have to heavily emphasize a point that North Koreans are suffering because of sanctions by Western countries, particularly the US.
2) The whole Clause 3 (voting right) would have to be removed entirely
For those who haven’t seen the show, Clause 3 is basically this article in the Squid Game contract that allows participants to go home if the majority of them vote in favour of quitting the competition and forfeiting the prize money. This adds an exciting new layer to the premise, since technically all the participants are there by choice as a desperate way to pay off their debts.
In order for the show to make it past Chinese censors, you would have to amend any sections that portray Chinese society too negatively. The idea of crippling financial debt forcing you to murder your fellow countrymen in a fight to the death may be too critical of Chinese society for the State to allow.
As such, a Chinese Squid Game would have to remove this element of the plot, leading to a less interesting “everyone just got captured against their will and can’t go home until they win” kind of premise, similar to Hunger Games or Battle Royale.
3) Korean Drama vs Chinese Drama; Foreigners could not be in debt due to corrupt local sponsors
Both Sae-Byeok and Ali have similar backstories when you think about it.
Kang escaped from North Korea, but her South Korean refugee agency is corrupt and unwilling to rescue the rest of her family unless she coughs up an exorbitant fee.
Ali’s case is similar. He is working for a corrupt South Korean factory owner who hasn’t paid him in six months, knowing that he has no right to legal counsel since he is working illegally in the country without a valid working visa. Even still he needs the money because he can’t afford to let his wife and kid starve.
So in both instances, corrupt South Korean hosts are taking advantage of foreigners that have no means of fighting back. This could never happen in China. In a Chinese version of Squid Game, both the corrupt factory owner and the corrupt refugee agent would also have to be foreigners. The idea of local Chinese villainously taking advantage of innocent foreign victims would simply be too unpalatable for Chinese audiences. Chinese censors may also interpret it as a “malicious twisting of facts,” despite the fact that the rest of the show is entirely fictional.
4) Jang Deok-Su probably could not be a mainlander
Chinese censors are not strictly adverse to the idea of depicting modern criminals in China, but these are usually limited to petty thieves or pickpockets at the most. Maybe the occasional murderer (heck, Bad Kids had the Chinese villain kill his own in-laws, so there’s that). Mafia bosses, on the other hand, would be crossing the line. The existence of an organized crime ring like Jang Deok-Su’s could be interpreted as a slight to China’s law enforcement. If local mafias are able to exist in China, doesn’t that mean the CCP isn’t doing a good enough job upholding the law?
Jang Deok-Su could still potentially exist as a mainlander, but it would be safer if he was from from either Hong Kong or Macao. Any criticism of China’s police force, either implicit or implied, is strictly illegal under Chinese law.
6) The Front Man probably couldn’t be Chinese
Oh, spoilers. Sorry. Anyway. The last two episodes of Squid Game reveal that the Front Man (the guy in the Andross mask running the show) is actually the cop’s brother, or something. I’m sure his motivations will be further explored in Season 2, but at the end of Season 1 he explains that watching the games is no different from watching horse races.
Such disregard for human life coming from Chinese character, even a villain, may not suit well with Chinese audiences. I’ve only seen a handful of Chinese TV shows but from what I can gather the motivation for typical Chinese villains tend to fall under a handful of common archetypes:
- Jealousy (especially among female villains)
- Lust for power or revenge
- Wounded pride
The idea of a Chinese villain being so evil that he would watch his countrymen fight to the death for his amusement might be too disturbing for Chinese viewers. Perhaps only foreigners are capable of such wickedness?
Speaking of which…
7) The V.I.P.s would be almost exactly the same in Korean Drama vs Chinese Drama
When I first saw the VIPs, I thought they would fit perfectly into a Chinese show. They hit all the marks:
- Terrible acting resulting from hiring your local ESL teachers instead of actual trained actors
- Awkward dialogue that’s clearly not written by a native speaker and simply run through Google Translate
- A poor understanding of Western humour (a bunch of adult, hardened criminals laughing their asses off at a joke as simple as “69, what a beautiful number.” Okay then lol)
- A vapid oversimplification of how foreigners think and talk, such as quoting cliched English adages or referencing Shakespeare at inappropriate times
If you’ve read the Three Body Problem you’ll know what I mean: Chinese depictions of foreigners tend to be based upon rather shallow understanding or cheap caricatures.
The only thing is the Chinese version of the VIPs would have a few lines to play up their foreign villainy. Preferably something along the lines of “eh heh heh. These yellow ch***s sure don’t go down easy, eh?” Then they all laugh and clink their wine glasses in a cheer. Something like that. The purpose of this, of course, is to add to the audience’s ultimate catharsis when Jun-ho (the cop character) corners one of the VIPs after grabbing him by the balls and smacking him with a snappy one-liner in English.
8) Cho Sang-Woo could not betray Ali, or if he did, he could not be a mainlander
Similar to point #3, the concept of a villainous Chinese bullying and taking advantage of a foreigner, rather than the other way around, is completely unthinkable for Chinese audiences. Chinese censors technically wouldn’t have to make this change (as far as I know there is no law that forbids depictions of foreign characters being victims of Chinese bullying), but if the show doesn’t want to be downvoted into oblivion by Chinese audiences on Weibo or Douban, the studio would self-censor.
The Sang-Woo and Ali subplot would either have to be rewritten entirely, or Sang-Woo would have to be recast as a foreigner. Perhaps he could be a DPP supporter from Taiwan. That would be a useful way to fulfill the archetype of the “spineless Chinese betrayer.”
9) Less blood and sex in Korean Drama vs Chinese Drama
People talk about how “ultraviolent” Squid Game is but if you actually watch it, it’s not really that bad. There’s no drawn-out suffering or torture scenes. No one dies by being cut in half or set on fire or ground up like you would expect from an “ultraviolent” series. It’s pretty much just people getting shot in the head or falling from a tall height.
So the actual violence wouldn’t really need to be toned down that much on Chinese TV. Believe it or not my wife and I actually watched Game of Thrones on Chinese platform iQiyi and their censorship of sex/nudity was way more strict than their censorship of violence. People still got stabbed, had their heads cut off, eaten by dogs, etc.
The only catch is a shot isn’t allowed to “linger” on any violent or graphic scenes for more than a second or so. So any scene that has a lot of blood in the frame would be cut short.
As for nudity/sex, there’s only one scene so far.
When Jan Deok-su and Han Mi-nyeo rush off to the bathroom in episode 4, the scene would cut prematurely and would later pick up with both of them smoking a cigarette.
10) Gi-hun’s backstory may have to be changed
In the fifth episode, Gi-hun reminisces on when he and his old co-workers from an automobile factory protested a mass lay-off, spiraling off a chain of events that ultimately lead Gi-hun’s life to where it is now.
This one is a tossup. There is no law in China that prohibits the depiction of corrupt businesses or massive lay-offs, unless these companies are directly subsidized by the government. An automobile factory should be fair game.
But like we we went over in point #2, there is no reason for the participants to be debt-ridden in the first place. One of the themes of Squid Game as a whole is the critique of capitalist society, including the levels of desperation people will sink to when drowning in debt. The Chinese government may be uncomfortable admitting there are any debt problems in the country.
11) We can expect more melodrama
Remember when Ji-Yeong got eliminated? It was short. She throws the match. Sae-Byeok gets pissed. An organizer readies his gun. Ji-Yeong smiles and says thanks. Sae-Byeok holds in in her tears. Gunshot. Next scene.
In a hypothetical Chinese version, this scene would be stretched out to at least ten minutes. The music would swoon and swoon. Sae-Byeok would cry and sob. There’d be five montage of slow-motion flashbacks. After the gunshot, Ji-Yeong would take at least a full minute of slow-mo falling before she’d hit the ground.
Ali’s death would be similar. Basically any “emotional” moment in the show would be ruined by being cranked up to unbearably over-the-top melodrama.
The knife fight at the finale was already pretty dramatic in the original version. The Chinese version would be the same but with even louder music and more slow-mo. Throw in a few flashbacks for good measure.
Let’s just say subtlety is a bit of a lost art in mainstream Chinese media. So far, the only Chinese TV show I liked was Bad Kids.* If anyone knows any other good ones, please feel free to recommend me some.
12) Some of the games may be different
As far as I know, they don’t really do the honeycomb game in China. The recruiter in the first/last episode may also play a different game than ddakji with the red and blue envelopes. The eponymous “Squid Game” may also be changed to something else.
I don’t know what Chinese kids played growing up but I can tell you what they play now: “Beat Pen.” Anyone who’s teaching in China now can attest to it. It’s similar to the coin flicking game we played as kids,
except the objective is to knock the other guy’s pen off the desk.
Red Light-Green Light and Tug of War are pretty universal and probably wouldn’t need to be changed.
In conclusion, Korean Drama vs Chinese Drama
If Squid Game was made in China, it would go from being a pretty intriguing action series to just another generic deadly survival competition, like Saw but with less gore.
- Any commentary on capitalism, debt, and human society would be completely absent.
- Foreign representation would be hollow and ham-fisted.
- Chinese characters would be less dynamic, resembling more cookie-cutter “good guys and bad guys.”
- Sex and violence would be toned down slightly
- Tension and emotional impact would most likely be watered down by tone-deaf dialogue and direction
- Some of the games would be different
So there you go. That’s why Korean dramas tend to have better reception overseas.
By the way this isn’t me taking a dig at China or anything. Actually Chinese people are the first to admit their frustration with Chinese censorship limiting their soft power.
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