China’s entertainment industry thrived in 2021 as film crews returned to work and cinemas reopened earlier than elsewhere in the world. Case in point: The Chinese war epic Battle at Lake Changjin was the year’s second-highest-grossing film worldwide, surpassed only by the latest Spider-Man release.
Away from silver screens, many young people in China stayed at home and binge-watched their favorite shows amid unexpected pandemic travel restrictions, while others found new ways to meet people and began experimenting with the metaverse.
In short, 2021 was another year of evolving consumer habits, and we expect more of the same in 2022.
So, what will the next 12 months bring for the entertainment industry in the world’s most populous nation? Below, we present our expected entertainment trends — from patriotic films and old-time crime dramas to virtual influencers and the growing number of metaverses being developed in China.
1. Historical Mystery Genre to Maintain Popularity
Chinese audiences showed great interest in the historical mystery genre in 2021. In April, the crime drama The Imperial Coroner by Tencent Video took the internet by storm.
The show follows the journey of a female coroner who helps solve a case that has dragged on for 18 years. At the time of writing, netizens had viewed the hashtag for the show 3.5 billion times on Weibo.
In 2022, the second season of the historical mystery drama Joy of Life is to be released, and the show’s return has many people talking online. On Weibo, the hashtag for the show has accumulated more than 600 million views.
An enthusiastic fan wrote, “I have not seen a Chinese show as engaging as Joy of Life; I can’t wait to watch season two!”
Given the popularity of historical detective dramas in 2021 and the growing anticipation for the second season of Joy of Life, we’re expecting the genre to continue thriving in 2022.
2. More Strong Female Leads on TV Shows
When it comes to Chinese audiences’ favorite shows, a recurring theme in 2021 was the presence of strong female leads. For example, many were hooked on the hit show Who is the Murderer? because of how intelligent the female main character is.
Moreover, viewers’ preference for strong female leads is also reflected by the widespread dislike of omnipotent male characters (大男主) and male savior narratives.
Specifically, the comedy show My Heroic Husband has been criticized for over glorifying the main character, Ning Yi. One Weibo user wrote, “I can feel the sexism from shows that feature omnipotent male characters.”
In addition, state broadcaster CCTV posted on Weibo in December last year, “Audiences are demanding more shows that feature strong female leads, hoping to see more independent and competent female characters.”
Beyond the film and television industry, a growing number of people in China are starting to realize the danger of gender stereotypes. On Women’s Day 2021, Chinese rapper Yu Zhen famously challenged harmful gender stereotypes in a viral women’s rights campaign video (above).
We don’t expect audiences to 360 on gender equality anytime soon, so keep on the lookout for more TV shows featuring strong female leads in 2022.
3. Rising Virtual Influencers
It has been a tumultuous year for fans of the once-legendary, now-disgraced celebrities Kris Wu, Zheng Shuang, and Wang Leehom. All three were involved in separate scandals that effectively got the stars canceled in China.
Wu and Zheng were even banned by the Chinese government, which put forward moral guidelines for online personalities in February that target China’s celebrities and livestreamers.
Fortunately, disappointed fans will be glad to know that virtual influencers such as Angie, who has 278,000 followers on China’s version of TikTok, do not indulge themselves in questionable conduct.
As evidence of the growing popularity of scandal-free virtual influencers, major brands have started to work with digital personalities. In 2020, car manufacturer Tesla tapped digital girl Ling to appear in a campaign. Last year, virtual influencer RUBY 9100M dropped a dope sneaker collab with adidas Consortium — the OZRAH RUBY 9100M.
Ironically, many people see digital influencers as more realistic than real-life ones because the latter constantly strive to be perfect, while the former are often created with deliberate and natural imperfections.
Consequently, whether it is to avoid disappointment by real-life celebrities or to find more refreshing personalities, people in China are likely to pay closer attention to virtual influencers in the year ahead.
4. The Proliferation of Patriotic Films
As mentioned above, the Chinese war epic Battle at Lake Changjin has been a massive success, bringing in 5.96 billion RMB (933.7 million USD). It surpassed the action film Wolf Warrior 2 to become the highest-grossing film in Chinese history and was the second-highest-grossing film globally in 2021.
Released before China’s National Day Holiday, the war movie tells the story of Chinese troops during the Korean War. Although the film could be perceived as a propaganda piece, since the country’s propaganda department commissioned it, its popularity among Chinese audiences is undeniable.
“The success of this film showed that our domestic film industry could be successful,” posted one astute netizen back in November.
Image via IMDb
In a 2022-preview interview with a Chinese publication, the president of Bona Film Group, Yu Dong, shared, “I hope to expand patriotic films so that they can cover different topics.” Yu cited the spy film Wu Ming (无名), scheduled for release later this year, as an example.
Because of the massive success of war movies such as Battle at Lake Changjin and Wolf Warrior, Chinese films with patriotic undertones are unlikely to disappear in 2022. Heck, a sequel to Lake Changjin is set to be released next month.
5. 30 Over 30 Celebrity Reality TV Shows
Celebrities over the age of 30 made a comeback in 2021 thanks to reality shows like the second season of Sisters Who Make Waves and Call Me By Fire, the all-male follow-up to the former.
The shows invite more than 30 celebrities who are already well recognized in the entertainment industry to compete for the opportunity to form a performance group.
The popularity of the two shows is well documented. Sisters Who Make Waves season two has been crowned the most-watched show on Mango TV 16 times since its debut. Similarly, the hashtag for Call Me By Fire had accumulated more than 12.5 billion views at the time of writing.
Both of these shows have spurred discussions about ageism. Specifically, Sisters Who Make Waves has sparked conversations about ‘leftover women,’ a derogatory term used to describe single women in China aged 27 and up.
The success of these reality shows almost guarantees another season for each in 2022.
6. More Plush Toy Madness at Disneyland
People in China are going bananas over a pink fox called LinaBell, who was introduced to the Duffy and Friends plush toy line at Shanghai Disneyland in September 2021.
The character has since been dubbed the ‘national daughter’ and ‘top female celebrity’ by enthusiastic fans. LinaBell’s plush toys quickly sold out everywhere upon release, and prices on the secondhand market start at 1,000 RMB.
The Duffy and Friends series has become so popular in China that more than 5,000 people lined up at Shanghai Disneyland’s entrance as early as 3 AM on December 29 to purchase the Duffy and Friends’ Christmas Collection the night before its release.
When Disneyland opened its gates the following morning, chaos ensued as crazed fans sprinted like Usain Bolt to get their hands on the themed stuffed toys.
Given the insane popularity of the Disney series, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more people rushing for plush toys at Shanghai Disneyland in 2022.
7. Multiplying Metaverses
The metaverse certainly fascinated the tech-savvy, forward-looking Chinese youth last year.
Before Single’s Day 2021, Alibaba launched its version of the metaverse, using technology to build a virtual space where people could explore NFT artworks sponsored by particular brands.
Besides Alibaba, companies such as Tencent and Bytedance have also been investing in this new technology, which has groundbreaking potential for the way we interact online.
Leading Chinese search engine Baidu also opened its self-developed metaverse, dubbed XiRang, to the public at the end of December. Within Baidu’s metaverse, people can visit famous attractions like China’s Shaolin Temple and participate in virtual events.
Although the metaverse is a relatively new realm in China (and everywhere, for that matter), it has already gathered an enormous amount of attention. With major companies racing to explore the new technology, we can expect more opportunities to meet each other in the metaverse in 2022.
This article was updated on January 13 at 2:28 PM to clarify that the sequel to “Battle at Lake Changjin” will be released next month.
Cover photo designed by Sabina Islas