Give us a clue

Why is BBC show Sherlock so popular in China?


Not a magnifying glass in sight: Cumberbatch has a huge China fan

When UK Prime Minster David Cameron joined the social media site Sina Weibo ahead of his trip to China in December, he asked the Chinese public to submit their questions, promising to respond before the end of his tour. More than 21,000 netizens posted questions ranging from the overtly political (“How do you view the history of Sino-British relations?”) to the more personal “Is the Chief Mouser well?” (a reference to Cameron’s cat).

But the question concerning the country’s netizens most was when the third season of Sherlock, the BBC hit series, was going to return. In fact, this was asked so many times that the PM felt compelled to respond on weibo: “I know Benedict [Cumberbatch] is hugely popular in China… I will do everything I can [to tell the BBC] that people in China want more Sherlock Holmes and more of the modern version.”

Sherlock has amassed legions of fans but it appears that few are quite as obsessed as the Chinese. The first two series, which aired on a Sohu online video site, have received 24 million views since becoming available in 2011, and both the lead characters were soon given Chinese nicknames. Holmes is “Curly Fu”, combining a description of Cumberbatch’s hairstyle with “fu” as a shortened transliteration of ‘Holmes’ in Chinese. Watson is “Peanut” because the translation of his surname is pronounced hua sheng, sounding like the Mandarin word for the nut.

Millions waited impatiently for the first episode of the third season earlier this month, ‘The Empty Hearse’, which was broadcast on Youku, the largest online video site. It was viewed more than 5.4 million times in a single day, generating over 7 million posts on Sina Weibo. (The new season’s first two episodes have now been watched over 27.5 million times. Episode three aired on Monday.)

“I have waited so long for these 90 minutes,” one netizen wrote. “Please don’t make us wait so long to receive the next season. This is definitely a happy new year!”

Other delighted fans took to Cameron’s weibo page to thank him for bringing Sherlock back. (If only the UK electorate could be so easily gratified.)

Why is the show so popular? The Beijing Times is convinced that most fans are drawn to the show because of Benedict Cumberbatch, the old Harrovian actor who plays the famous detective. Caijing Magazine went further, saying that the 37 year-old actor “is the reason a new wave of Chinese viewers have turned to British television” (see WiC201). Meanwhile, in the Curly Fu Bar, an internet forum on Baidu devoted to the star, contributors discuss Cumbernatch (and his fictional character) in excruciating detail.

“He represents beauty and wisdom, but he’s best with his clothes off and sexiest when he plays the violin,” one fan gushed.

Naked violin playing aside, another reason for the popularity of the series is that many Chinese have long been familiar with the legendary detective duo. The Sherlock Holmes franchise was introduced to China as early as the Qing Dynasty, when a newspaper translated four of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories in 1896. They were such a big hit that Zhonghua Book published The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes in 1916, translating 44 of the tales, reports the Global Times.

The sleuth then moved to the big screen thanks to director Li Pingqian, who directed and starred in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1931 (although purists were furious when Li swapped the setting from London to Shanghai). The franchise even managed to survive the Cultural Revolution. “The Maoist spin was that Holmes often battled evil brought about by capitalistic greed and bourgeois injustice,” notes writer Paul French in a piece for The China Blog this month.

The franchise has also appealed to another demographic – namely, China’s gay community, spawning fan fiction like I Write You This Letter from a Foreign Land, in which Watson pens a diary describing his romantic feelings for Sherlock. There are novels too, like the 39-chapter It’s Alright, I’m Here, Sherlock, describing the duo’s long and thorny path to couplehood, according to Tea Leaf Nation.

The People’s Daily isn’t a big fan, however. “The series is basically old wine that’s packaged in a new bottle and now the world is ecstatic. If the Chinese internet industry was more developed perhaps we could let British people know that we also have an amazing detective called Detective Dee [a popular sleuth from an eighteenth century Chinese novel]” the state newspaper muttered.

The People’s Daily’s comments soon roused a response from Sherlock fans. “The high ratings for Sherlock aren’t just because of the combination of attractive men but also because the logical deduction in the script is equally persuasive,” one netizen commented, somewhat defensively. “True, we do have one [Detective Dee]… But the difference is that the story is badly told,” another wrote.

Cumberbatch’s great grandfather (Henry Arnold Cumberbatch) was Queen Victoria’s consul general to Turkey. If Benedict ever decides to chuck in the acting and follow his forebearer into diplomacy, a new career as ambassador to China may beckon…

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