The British invasion

Thanks to a dubbed Downton, UK dramas prove hugely popular in China


Big in Beijing: Michelle Dockery is one of the drama’s leading stars

Maggie Smith speaking Mandarin? Well, not exactly. But Chinese viewers have now got the chance to watch Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham condescend in their native tongue. That’s after state broadcaster CCTV began airing Downton Abbey for the first time, dubbed into Chinese.

The costume drama, which is set in a fading British stately home in the early decades of the last century, has been a huge worldwide hit, something that series creator and writer Julian Fellowes says he’d never anticipated.

“Nobody in their right mind could have predicted what happened, when it sort of went viral,” Fellowes told the New York Times.

After spending months translating the quintessentially British tale into Chinese, CCTV finally unveiled the show in April. The first two seasons made it to the small screen completely untouched by the censors, says the Daily Morning Post.

Mind you, fans of the show are waiting anxiously to see how the broadcaster plans to deal with first footman Thomas Barrow’s sexuality as the series progresses. Homosexuality remains a largely taboo subject in Chinese media.

Well in advance of the much-loved show’s release, local fans were worried that CCTV would struggle with an adaptation into the Chinese language. A particular fear was how the Chinese version would capture Maggie Smith’s acerbic one-liners, with linguistic experts consulted by the Liaoning Morning Post admitting that some of the nuance in the dialogue is difficult to get across in Chinese. For example, when Maggie Smith’s character asks “What’s a weekend?”, the sentence is grammatically straightforward to translate. But the meaning is in her elocution, i.e. her use of the question as a put-down, and the inference that her upper class background means that she has little need to distinguish between a working day and a day off.

The challenges are not restricted to meaning and tone. Context also poses issues too. “All the different titles – earls, viscounts, barons, marquesses and dukes – are so specific and confusing for people who are not familiar with the British nobility,” says another translation expert.

And besides, “CCTV is so bad at dubbing. I’m really afraid the awful dubbing will ruin everything,” another netizen predicted on weibo.

But CCTV seems to have pulled it off. After the showing of the first two seasons on CCTV8, its drama channel, reaction has been positive. Many viewers say they were impressed by the lavish homes and the stunning landscapes of the English countryside. Others are intrigued by the Edwardian era in which the series is set.

“Chinese people have never seen anything like it really,” a fan told the Global Times. “The stories, characters, accent, manners. Even the costumes and acting are amazing.”

Downton shows a panoramic view about a family during World War I with a complex and rigorous plot,” was the verdict of another fan. “Chinese scriptwriters have proven themselves time and again to be capable of only producing cheap and boring soap operas.”

The show’s producers say that they weren’t expecting to get permission to air the series. “This is the People’s Republic of China, and this is a show all about primogeniture and inheritance and aristocracy and all those things that you thought the whole point of [Communist] China was to do away with. So that was a surprise,” says Gareth Neame, managing director of Carnival Films, who came up with the initial idea for the series.

But Neame also believes Downton has a wider appeal because of the universality of themes like tensions over social status and, most importantly, the love affairs.

“The romance is depicted in a very sort of genuine, heartfelt way. We’ve found that no matter where you live on this planet, you get it,” he says.

Downton’s success has triggered interest in other UK shows in China. That’s a welcome development for British producers, as American and Korean TV series have traditionally enjoyed larger Chinese followings. More recently, CCTV bought the rights to other UK hits like Merlin and Primeval. Youku Tudou, China’s largest online video site, also secured the broadcasting rights to the third season of Downton and also to Sherlock and Black Mirror. Internet portal Sohu even launched the first dedicated British drama channel last year. Tencent followed suit in June, says Shanghai Morning Post.

“Compared with American series, English TV shows are more subtle and not overly sensational. They don’t go over-the-top just to win viewer sympathy,” says Beijing Times. “English dramas also use irony and sarcasm to explore human nature and history, thereby arousing people’s curiosity.”

Virtually unknown in China a few years ago, British dramas now account for more than 9% of discussion about foreign TV across Chinese social media sites, according to a study from entertainment research company Entgroup (compared to around 28% for Korean soap operas). But on websites that cater more exclusively to white collar workers and college students, chat about British drama rises to more than 13%, versus less than 1% for Korean soaps. For online video sites, that’s good news: the British fanbase is a bigger-spending demographic that advertisers are anxious to tap. “Though British drama viewers are a minority, they are high-end and very loyal,” Jean Shao, spokeswoman of Youku Tudou told the Wall Street Journal. “This is what advertisers fancy.”

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