A show that’s about business

Popular new drama pokes fun at China’s e-commerce giants


Song Yi: plays Qing Dynasty wife of a man who time-travelled from 2021

When it comes to the world’s most famous son-in-law, Jared Kushner, 40, is pretty high up on the list. Despite his political inexperience, the husband of Ivanka Trump became a key adviser to her father’s administration on Middle East policy. Kushner also played a part in spearheading America’s response to the pandemic.

In China another son-in-law – albeit fictional – has dominated internet chatter. Zhui Xu, whose English title is My Heroic Husband, is the latest success on online streaming platform iQiyi. According to iQiyi’s own heat index – which it now offers as a way of gauging popularity in place of publishing viewership counts – the show had a score of 10,000, rendering it the platform’s first mega-hit in 2021. It is only the second series to reach 10,000 in the index, following the hugely popular costume drama Story of Yanxi Palace in 2018.

Zhui Xu tells the tale of the exploits of Ning Yi (played by comedian-actor Guo Qilin), a young man from modern times who travels back to the fictional Wu Dynasty and finds himself about to be married to Su Taner (actress Song Yi), the daughter of a formerly wealthy family of cloth merchants. To help revive the struggling family business, Ning introduces modern business ideas and tactics, achieving great results.

Audiences have been entertained by the drama, but have also picked up on some of the real-life business lessons. For instance, for the opening day of the Su family’s debut store, Ning suggests a sales campaign of discount vouchers (the value of the discount is determined by throwing scissors at board), calling the campaign “Pindaodao” (dao means knife in Chinese). The name is clearly a play on e-commerce giant Pinduoduo, which has won over customers of its own with discount sales, sometimes randomly drawn.

Suning, another retailer, is the subject of another of the satirical punchlines on the show. After the store is up and running, Ning proposes another business innovation that he calls “order online for offline delivery” (‘online’ in ancient times is much more literal, referring to the fabric hung out on clothes lines). He calls the service Su-Ning – a combination of the couple’s last names – Yi Gou (苏宁毅购), which sounds the same as the Nanjing firm’s famous slogan Suning Yigou (苏宁易购) – which means ‘Suning Easy Shop’.

In other new strategies, Ning displays his highest-margin products – like embroidery and silk – in areas that are more visible, hoping to bring in higher-paying customers. He also designates a parking area outside the store for valued customers who arrive in carriages. All the sales staff are instructed to wear uniforms that showcase the company logo.

However, it doesn’t take long for rivals to emulate these new strategies. To that end, Ning opts to embark on a new venture selling preserved duck eggs. He offers a new range of tips for aspiring entrepreneurs: before he opens new stores for the business, he set up stalls around the county, collecting his own “Big Data”. He also develops recipes designed to encourage people to try his goods at home.

Zhui Xu has proven so popular that Pinduoduo tried to trademark ‘Pindaodao’, while Suning also wanted to trademark the mock catchphrase “苏宁毅购” (Su-Ning’s Shop). The retailer now has a dedicated page that carries merchandise featured on the show.

“What is so special about the show, which appeals to both the old and the young, is that those who want comedy get a good laugh but those who want substance can also find plenty of knowledge,” remarked Niu Dundundun, a commentator who admits to being a fan of the series.

“To put it simply, Zhui Xu is a story about how a man uses his knowledge to overcome one obstacle after another, turning his destiny around. This is the kind of life we have been taught to strive for: to use our knowledge to change our destiny.”

Industry insiders have queried why the hit series wasn’t released on Tencent Video. After all, the format was adapted from a digital novel of the same name on China Literature, Tencent’s online book publishing platform.

So how did it end up on competing video-streaming site iQiyi?

It is not the first time the two rivals have collaborated: Tencent also shared the broadcasting rights with iQiyi for the 2019 hit series Joy of Life, which was also adapted from a novel published by China Literature. More recently, the pair joined hands to produce the road-trip reality series HAHAHAHAHA, featuring A-list actor Deng Chao and heartthrob Lu Han.

Such cooperation would be deemed unusual at their American counterparts. Imagine, for instance, Netflix allowing Amazon Prime to stream its hit series The Crown?

That’s why this latest collaboration has again fuelled speculation that a merger between iQiyi and Tencent Video is nigh (see WiC501). “Zhui Xu is another perfect example of how the two platforms have complementary strengths. On the one hand, iQiyi needs high-quality content and Tencent needs a good buyer for all of its IP. The reason Tencent Video chose to forego Zhui Xu is likely because it was pushing another costume drama Douluo Continent that it released around the same time. That series is also an IP from China Literature and it has a strong following online already,” Phoenix Technology surmised.

It has been widely speculated that Tencent would be the purchaser in a merger of the two streaming platforms, with search engine giant Baidu – which majority-owns iQiyi – the seller in the deal. This speculation is based on the fact that in spite of a number of successful series on iQiyi, the platform has been unprofitable for several years. Baidu may also want to refocus its resources on other business interests, including artificial intelligence and autonomous driving (see this week’s “Auto Industry”).

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