Whether you are a rookie or a veteran to the Asian drama, you might have found yourself wondering what are the main differences between Korean and Chinese dramas ?
By “Chinese dramas” I mean specifically those produced in Mainland China. I will leave the comparison with the Taiwanese dramas for another article. Suffice it to say that there are big differences between Mainland and Taiwanese dramas in terms of themes, genre and production value.
The first Asian dramas to become popular were the Taiwanese dramas (between 2008 and 2012) with the romantic comedy genre. After 2012 they continued to appeal to the public; but Korean dramas took over in terms of popularity and they are still unchallenged to this date. The Chinese dramas have intrigued the foreign audience for several years; but they became truly popular only in the last few years.
I am a veteran when it comes to Korean Dramas, but I’ve been a fan of Chinese drama only for the past two and a half years (although I’ve watched c-dramas on-and-off since 2014). Therefore, if you feel I have left something out, please feel free to let me know in the comments.
Below I offer my insight on the main characteristics and differences between Korean and Chinese dramas; hereafter k-drama and c-drama, respectively. Please keep in mind that this is not meant to be an exhaustive account of all the major differences between the two type of dramas.
Some Characteristics of the Korean and Chinese Dramas
K-dramas are known and praised for their high production value. The industry has an efficient strategy in attracting investors willing to support and promote a drama project. Moreover, the South Korean government actively supports the “Hallyu Wave”. With the use of the “soft power”, South Korea aims to establish an international cultural influence by promoting the Korean culture abroad through entertainment (particularly music, cinema and drama), tourism and pop culture in general.
The K-dramas are exploring a variety of genres: action, fantasy, historical, sci-fi etc, but compared with the Asian drama-world in general, they excel in thriller, action, psychological and, of course, romance genre.
K-dramas rely mostly on professional and critically acclaimed writers, as opposed to adapting novels, which is a point of strength for a drama in terms of narrative cohesion.
The stories are very well-written and are, overall, plot-holes free. Moreover, generally there is a good balance between dialogues and action scenes.
The characters and their stories are very relatable. They manage to convey their thoughts and feelings to such a degree, that the viewer cannot help but become completely immerse in the story.
The main characters tend to have a strong moral compass, and when this is not the case, we witness either a coming-of-age type of story or a revenge drama driven by the character’s personal sense of justice.
In modern day k-dramas, the female characters are very feminine, yet strong and independent. In the historical genre, however (although they have great influence on the male character and his decisions) the female characters ultimately have little direct impact on the outcome of the story. Some exception to the rule are dramas such as “Empress Ki” or “Queen Seon Deok”.
The importance of social status is very present in k-dramas. Often this is what determines the dynamics of the relationships in the story. Similarly, there is a reverential respect towards seniority, whether is work or age related.
In terms of romance, most dramas follow a similar pattern: love is not a simple chemical response to stimuli; it is deeply rooted into the very essence of a human being. The better half is always the predestined one and often coincides with the first love.
C-dramas have been branching out in the past few years, but what they actually deliver best are the historical and fantasy genres. There are very good modern-day c-dramas such as the crime drama “Love Me if You Dare” or the romance “My Sunshine” but, overall, they do not compete with the best k-dramas of the same genre, unfortunately. When it comes to historical and fantasy genre, however, c-dramas are unbeatable! Dramas such as “Ten Miles of Peach Blossom”, “Ashes of Love” or “Princess Agents” reign supreme above everything that comes from Asia on this genres.
One of the reasons the c-dramas are more inclined to produce historical or fantasy dramas is due to the fact that this genres is less censored by the government.
The cinematography in c-dramas is nothing short of stunning. Also, a lot of thought goes into the sets, costumes and battle scenes; while the romantic scenes are simply gorgeous.
Often the story-lines of the side characters are not mere fillers, but run parallel to the main story-arch. Their story is quite compelling, sometimes more so than the main story-line. However, this can easily transform into a shortcoming when not executed properly.
C-dramas are often based on novels; this gives them a larger variety of themes and feel fresher than the Korean counterparts. But, on the down-side, oftentimes the story is less than cohesive and can stray focus from the main characters towards secondary characters in an endless loop (ex: Ashes of Love).
There is a distinct difference between female characters in modern day and historical c-drama. In historical and fantasy c-dramas, almost without exception, the female character is strong and independent. Often she is a ruler, a war strategist or she leads armies into the battle. She does, however, rely on her male counterpart to reach their common goals, whether they are monarchs, commoners or supernatural beings.
On the reverse side of the coin, however, in modern day dramas, the female character is often naïve, volatile and over the top (ex: My Little Princess, I Cannot Hug You). Fortunately, there are exceptions in dramas such as “My Sunshine” or “Negotiator”.
The love-story is less predictable in c-drama. It is not uncommon that the hero of the story finds love with someone else by the end of the drama (The Sound of the Desert, Princes Agents). The concept of love runs on the idea of personal affinity rather than destiny. However, sometimes, this love-bond can be so strong that it can transcend time and the lovers reunite centuries later.
Korean Dramas vs. Chinese Dramas Shortcomings
Due to the cutthroat competition for viewership, k-drama has to appeal to the public from the first episode; thus, most k-dramas nowadays start with a bang and do not give the viewer enough time to get to know the characters from the beginning. Fortunately, this is taken care of within the next few episodes.
Some dramas start airing when the filming is not completed; hence the director sometimes decides to modify the original script based on the viewers’ feedback.
There are some recurrent clichés: drunken scene, endless conflicts due to misunderstandings, the hero tends to unilaterally sacrifice themselves for the sake of a loved one instead of trying to work things out together, and so on. Thankfully, lately the k-dramas are relying less and less on these predictable elements.
Some dramas feel very familiar in terms of topic and story.
Most historical and fantasy dramas are quite lengthy (between 50 and 70 episodes).
Often they have a good start, but they slow-down in the middle, only to pick up towards the end. Some dramas could have 10-20 episodes cut in the middle section and the story would still make sense.
The fantasy genre relies too much on CGI (computer generated imagery), which often is poorly executed (ex: Journey of Flower). Similarly, the editing can be sloppy and sometimes downright bad (ex: Ice Fantasy).
It is not uncommon to find minor plot-holes and loose ends throughout the drama.
Some c-dramas are still using poor dubbing techniques; moreover, often it is painfully obvious that some important scenes were filmed in front of a green screen (ex: The General an I). However, as I stated above, things are rapidly improving in c-drama industry.
Both K-dramas and C-dramas are constantly improving on all levels, but at a different pace. Nowadays, many k-dramas have a movie-like production value. C-drama, on the other hand, has become a big player on the Asian entertainment market only a couple of years ago, but they are rapidly gaining terrain.
When the Chinese public lost their sanity over some Korean dramas such as “My Love from the Star” back in 2013 or “Descendants of the Sun” in 2016 (both record breaking in terms of commercial success), the viewing public and critics alike have raised an important question: why are k-dramas so much more popular than c-dramas even among the Chinese public? The answer seemed to be: they are big-budget, high-quality productions. Chinese dramas had good stories and experienced actors, but the industry had to invest more in terms of directing, editing, sound and picture if they wanted to become relevant. And these days it seems it does just that. There is a sharp increase in overall quality of c-dramas in the past few years. Many people who used to shun c-dramas, become more and more interested in what Mainland China has to offer.
Important Note: in Asian dramas, there are some commonrecurrent themes, such as : reincarnation, time-travel, justice and retribution (either human or divine), fate and destiny. But these themes are treated differently from country to country.
Let’s take as an example the theme of reincarnation. In k-dramas it is used as means to restore balance to the universe by completing a broken destiny. In Chinese dramas, there are two types of reincarnation. The first one is similar to the Korean one, but is seen more as a way to receive punishment and be purified (ex: past enemies who wronged each other are reborn into lovers who are bound to love each other to the point of willingly sacrificing their life for one another, ex: “The Eternal Love”). The second type is rather a sort or transformation and resurrection (especially in fantasy dramas).The soul does not die and it does not transcend the material world, thus it transforms and takes a different shape without, however, losing its original essence.
This is only one example of the many similarities between Asian dramas, that reflect their country’s ancestral beliefs. If you are able not to get stuck into theological and philosophical internal debates (which is not the aim of the dramas that imply such devices), you will be able to enjoy the Asian drama experience in a new and fresh way compared with the Western series, because they show a new world where the moral integrity of the heroes is paramount and the boundaries between good and evil are not as blurred. With this last statement I give a preview of one of the next articles “Why are Asian dramas so popular in the West?”
I hope you enjoyed this article; let me know your thoughts on the subject.