You can learn Mandarin Chinese through TV.
Too good to be true?
Well, think about it.
If the plot is good, the cast believable and the narrative well-paced, before long, it isn’t just a matter of learning Chinese any longer… you’re suddenly motivated to learn Chinese just to understand what’s going on!
But if you haven’t really watched Chinese TV before, how do you know where to get started? What should you watch?
In this post, you’ll learn some top techniques to learn Mandarin Chinese by watching TV, as well as my list of top 16 shows for learning Chinese. Let’s get started!
How I Picked TV Shows for Learning Chinese
Okay, next, you might be thinking—what were my criteria for picking TV shows for learners?
First of all, the series has to strike a balance between being a good quality drama (or show) to watch and being a show where you can actually learn Chinese.
I tried to pick shows from different genres, so that anyone reading this post might find an option that they enjoy.
To that end, I’ve divided the 16 Chinese TV shows in this post into five distinct categories of increasing difficulty: romance, variety, cartoon, family and Imperial.
Learn Chinese with TV Shows: 16 Perfect Picks and Where to Watch Them
4 Great Romance TV Shows to Learn Chinese
In my personal experience, TV shows in the romance genre are the easiest to understand. And if you think about it, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Between lovers and couples, only the simplest of words are necessary to express your emotions and thoughts, which really fall under the scope of questions like “what’s happening in life,” “how are you feeling” and “what would you like to do.” The result? Simple, easy to understand language.
命中注定我爱你 (mìngzhōng zhùdìng wǒ ài nǐ) — Fated to Love You
Available on: Netflix | Vidol | YouTube
This story introduces us to a plain Taiwanese girl. She works in a plain office, has plain looks, a plain personality and even a plain name, 陈欣怡 (chénxīnyí). She falls in love with another fellow office worker who’s really only taking advantage of her by having her clean his home, pay his bills and so forth.
Ignorant of this, she goes on a cruise trip with him. One night, she accidentally goes to the wrong room and sleeps with the wrong guy. After clearing the misunderstanding and praying that they’ll never meet again, she returns to her old life.
Little does she know that months after, she’ll be pregnant with that stranger’s baby, and that he happens to be the owner and CEO of the large public company she works for…
Watch as the series of missteps and misunderstandings blossom into a story of real love in an unlikely turn of events. “Fated to Love You” is a romance drama which is also incredibly funny!
下一站，幸福 (xià yí zhàn, xìngfú) — Autumn’s Concerto (Next Stop, Happiness)
Available on: Amazon Prime | Netflix | Viki
The main character of this touching love story is 任光晞 (rènguāngxī), a son from a wealthy family. Materialistically well off but spiritually empty, he passes every day without purpose.
After witnessing his own parents’ failed marriage as a child, he bears a deep mistrust for women. That is, until one day, when he meets a simple delivery girl, 梁慕橙 (liáng mù chéng), who also has a complicated past. She comes from a wealthy family that’s gone bankrupt, leaving her to do odd jobs on her side to survive.
Through a series of frequent encounters, the pair falls in love. Having found someone he can confide in and genuinely connect with, 光晞 overcomes his distrust of women.
Just as love permeates through the air, a routine medical exam reveals a brain tumor in his brain. He miraculously gets better, but at a heavy price: The love between 光晞 and 慕橙 vanishes into nothingness from a bout of amnesia.
And thus, the real love story begins.
醉后决定爱上你 (zuì hòu juédìng ài shàng nǐ) — Drunken to Love You
Available on: Amazon Prime | Viki | YouTube
Mistaken identities and accidental marriages? Sounds like a fun time!
When an interior designer and a head waitress propose to their respective significant others, both proposals are turned down. They respond to their failures as anyone would: They get really drunk.
Except instead of drinking their problems away, the two wake up and discover to their surprise and horror that they’re now officially married, after all—to each other!
Now the two must work backward to find out how they wound up in this situation in the first place. What happened while they were drunk? Is this a terrible mistake or a blessing in disguise? Only time will tell!
巨轮 (jùlún) — Brother’s Keeper
Available on: Tubi
This is a Hong Kong drama that tells the story of a pair of half-brothers who were split up as children. The younger brother lives in Macau and has started a snack shop after working his way through many hardships. The older brother, on the other hand, grows up in Hong Kong and gets involved with the rougher crowd, later becoming a policeman.
Through a series of circumstances, the estranged brothers are finally able to reunite, and they rejoice at being able to become family again. Just as things are sailing smoothly, the older brother makes a series of bad decisions and lands himself in a precarious position, on the verge of losing everything in his life that he fought for.
Watch as the conflict grows between the two brothers due to their differences, and how their choices and personalities affect their loved ones. Although there are many elements of romance, this isn’t your cute, fluffy rom-com, but rather a more serious, family-oriented drama. It should be perfect for more advanced learners to dip their toes into!
3 Fun Variety Shows to Learn Chinese
Next, variety talk/game shows are also pretty good for beginners. Apart from the occasional joke where the humor might be difficult to understand, conversations between the hosts and the guests are usually light, entertaining and simple enough to understand.
康熙来了 (kāngxī láile) — Kangsi Coming
Available on: FluentU | YouTube
While “Kangsi Coming” is actually a talk show, not a variety show, it’s still worth mentioning in this list as my little surprise bonus TV show to help you learn Chinese. I’m throwing this into the mix because it’s just that good—it’s hilarious, it’s addictive and you feel like you learn something interesting from watching it.
The hosts of the show, especially the female host 小S (xiǎo S), are notorious for talking about the most controversial questions that no other hosts dare ask. They also shed light on topics in a remarkably fun and entertaining way that makes both the show participants and the audience feel relaxed enough to join in to the conversation.
The show has featured people who are obsessed with taking self-portraits, or 自拍 (zìpāi) in Chinese (and how different they are in real life), people who have had plastic surgery, Chinese-born celebrities who are raised abroad and their experiences overseas, interviews with celebrities talking about the most sensitive topics and so on.
Each episode delivers a punch, so don’t be surprised if you get hooked on it. One thing I’ll say about the show is that episodes aren’t subbed in English. This means that you’ll have to rely on your raw listening skills to understand the content. But since the episodes are light and entertaining with straightforward language, it shouldn’t be a problem for intermediate or above Chinese learners.
非诚勿扰 (fēichéngwùrǎo) — If You Are the One
Available on: YouTube
This show is loosely based around “Take Me Out,” where there are around 30 female guests and about four or five male contestants every episode.
During each segment, short video clips are played to the female guests, and the hosts talk to the male contestants about their hobbies, preferences and the like. Every female guest is given a buzzer, and if they don’t like what they see, they can always hit the buzzer. If every female guest hits the buzzer, the male contestant is eliminated from the show.
This is one of the most controversial game shows in China, where female guests can sometimes enter the spotlight of mass media attention from being pretty haughty in their mannerisms. But if you like a good dating show, this is as good a dating show as any in mainland China.
中国达人秀 (zhōngguó dá rén xiù) — China’s Got Talent
Available on: FluentU | YouTube
As you can guess, this one’s based on the format of “America’s Got Talent.” In this show, people showcase their talents in front of a panel of judges who come from various professions in the entertainment industry.
There are no restrictions on what you can show off but, as with “America’s Got Talent,” the most popular auditions are the ones with singing and dancing. If you like “America’s Got Talent,” I highly recommend “China’s Got Talent.”
3 Enjoyable Animated Series to Learn Chinese
Most people assume that cartoons would be easier to understand than romance and game shows, but the level of difficulty depends on the animated series. It’s the difference between watching cartoons for children and animated shows for adults, where the former is perfect for beginners and the latter for more advanced learners. No matter the level, there’s no doubt that cartoons are an approachable way to learn Chinese.
Available on: Amazon Prime | YouTube
As a Mandarin-learning cartoon aimed at preschoolers, the stories and vocabulary of this show cater to beginners of the language. The series follows the adventures of a young Chinese Canadian girl named Miaomiao, her puppy Doudou and the rest of her animal friends.
Through the obstacles and problems they encounter, Miaomiao and her friends learn character-building lessons and the power of friendship, along with simple Chinese words and phrases. Given that the main character is bilingual, the show is an excellent starting point for complete novices. It’s also quite entertaining to watch as an adult, even though the TV series is meant for kids.
The Miaomiao universe also includes a few apps, if you’re interested in playing games and using additional educational resources.
天庭小子-小乾坤 (tiāntíng xiǎozi-xiǎo qiánkūn) — Heavenkid
Available on: YouTube
“Heavenkid” takes it up a notch since the show is completely in Mandarin Chinese. This award-winning Taiwanese cartoon is based on the book 弟子规 (dìzǐ guī), known in English as “Ti Tzu Kui, Standards for Being a Good Pupil and Child.” The show educates children on discipline, morals and virtues deeply rooted in Ancient Chinese wisdom and Confucian teachings.
It offers a well-rounded education in terms of language and culture. Not only will beginners improve their Mandarin skills, but they’ll also learn about the history and traditional Chinese values.
It’s worth a note that this show is a popular reference for immersion daycares and kindergartens.
伍六七 (wǔliùqī) — Scissor Seven
Available on: Netflix
Known as “Killer 7” or 刺客伍六七 (cìkè wǔliùqī) in the Mainland, this show was first released on Chinese TV back in 2018 and debuted as the first Chinese animated series on Netflix at the beginning of 2020. It was renamed “Scissor Seven” to appeal to a younger audience.
The story is about a hairdresser named Seven who suffers from amnesia and lives on Chicken Island with his friend and boss Daibo, who also happens to be a chicken. Seven also has another chicken friend named Xiao Fei that’s small enough to fit in his pocket.
Because his past is a mystery, Seven figures that he needs to save up for an expensive medical operation, and he believes that becoming an assassin is the best way to earn that money. Although he has the power to control his scissors, his weapon of choice, Seven is a goofball and pretty much fails at killing anything.
This series is great for improving your humor in Chinese. Beginners can watch this show with English subtitles, though intermediate and advanced learners should challenge themselves with Chinese subtitles or, better yet, no subtitles at all.
3 Addictive Family-themed Dramas to Learn Chinese
Family-oriented themes are a tad more difficult to understand. The conversations are still colloquial, but occasionally—when someone throws in the odd philosophical discussion, for instance—some esoteric Chinese expression may come up that you might never hear again. Or maybe you will! Who knows?
老表，你好嘢！(lǎo biǎo, nǐ hǎo yě!) — Inbound Troubles
Available on: Amazon Prime | Viki | YouTube
This Hong Kong drama follows a couple who set out to achieve their dream of opening a travel agency, but go bankrupt after being cheated out of a lot of money by a crime syndicate.
The story follows a colorful cast of characters. There’s the protagonist’s wife, who falls in love with his best friend, the protagonist’s younger cousin from Dongguan who dreams of becoming a singer, an old diva who cons people for food and living accommodations and other fun personalities.
The show is centered around the theme of the conflicts between mainland China and Hong Kong. It’s a rare comedy that’s culturally insightful and full of comedic fun with a large musical component and lots of singing.
巾帼枭雄 (jīnguó xiāoxióng) — Rosy Business
Available on: Tubi | YouTube
One of the most widely acclaimed TV shows in Hong Kong of all time, “Rosy Business” is a drama set in the Qing Dynasty. It follows the story of a wealthy family that operates the largest rice trade business in Wuxi.
When the father of the family becomes sick, he hands control of the business to his fourth wife. Unfortunately, this doesn’t sit well with his other wives and their children, who seek to wrench this control from her.
Centered around the themes of family, love and betrayal, the story follows the interactions between the fourth wife and the other wives, who each have very distinct motivations and personalities: The first wife is cunning and devious, the second wife is honest and blunt but stubborn and the third wife is kind but never stands up for herself.
Other characters play important roles in the story, including the fourth wife’s estranged lover, and four sons from the different wives.
This is a must-watch for those who are interested in Imperial China.
If you love this show and want more, there have been two followup shows made with the same cast in different time periods, with a fourth on the way.
溏心风暴之家好月圆 (táng xīn fēngbào zhī jiā hǎo yuè yuán) — Moonlight Resonance
Available on: Tubi | YouTube
This is yet another classic TV series set in modern Hong Kong, serving as a spiritual successor to 2007’s “Heart of Greed.” “Moonlight Resonance” was critically acclaimed and highly rated, so you know you’re in for a good one!
The story is centered around the themes of family, love, friendship, jealousy and wealthy socialites.
The protagonists, 钟笑荷 (zhōng xiào hé) and 甘泰祖 (gāntàizǔ), are owners of a small up-and-coming bakery. However, all dreams for their little cafe fall apart when the husband cheats on his wife with an employee.
Pained by his betrayal, the wife leaves her husband, sparking a court battle between the couple to settle custody of the six children in the family.
Many years later, the husband and his new companion are rich and very well-off thanks to the expansion of their bakery business. Meanwhile, the wife remains in the original store, still working hard with the help of her children.
As the two families cross paths again, a new legal battle ensues. Their fates are once again joined together, intertwined in a battle of love, hatred and jealousy.
3 Thrilling Imperial TV Shows to Learn Chinese
Finally, where would we be without our Imperial dramas? Of the five, Imperial dramas are undoubtedly the most difficult to understand. Since Imperial dramas are based in ancient China, classical Chinese is often used in them. This means that you’ll find many idioms thrown into the mix, as well as older words and expressions you’re less likely to know. Keep an eye out, though: Modern Chinese is often used in onscreen interpretations.
还珠格格 (huán zhū gége) — My Fair Princess
Available on: Viki | YouTube
It’s almost impossible to mention the term “Imperial drama” without mentioning this series.
Set in ancient Beijing, this story follows 小燕子 (xiǎo yànzi) or “Little Swallow” who makes a living through street performances and being a con artist, and 紫薇 (zǐwēi), a well-mannered girl.
The two girls become fast friends and before long, 紫薇 reveals a shocking truth about her true identity: She’s actually the illegitimate daughter of the then-incumbent Chinese Emperor.
The two girls work together to reunite the emperor’s daughter with her father. However, through a series of misunderstandings, Little Swallow is taken to the palace in her place. What will happen to the emperor’s daughter? Will she ever get to meet her father and clear up the misunderstandings? Watch this show to find out!
A must-see for those who like Imperial dramas. Instead of just sinister plotting against each other in the palace, there’s a fair bit of comedy in the story, and it remains China’s most commercially successful drama series, a record that has held for over two decades. This is especially impressive when you consider that the show was made with a limited budget and actors who were virtually unknown at the time!
宫心计 (gōng xīnjì) — Beyond the Realm of Consciousness
Available on: Tubi
This drama is set in ancient China, where a mother and the two girls in her care are thrown into service in the imperial palace as handmaids. One girl is placed in charge of the palace jewelry, while the other is in charge of attire.
As they grow older in the palace, one girl lives by the words of her mother—to always do good and be kind—while the other is only out for her own survival, lying and cheating her way up the ranks. She sees the kind-hearted girl as a rival, and so, of course, must get rid of her!
She does so by setting her up for the murder of the empress.
The story follows the growing distance between the two friends, and it can only seem that the Imperial palace is a place where people’s true natures manifest in real life.
美人心计 (měirén xīnjì) — Beauty’s Rival in a Palace
Available on: YouTube
This Imperial drama tells the fictionalized story of Empress Dou, and how she helped her husband rule during his reign.
The show follows the future empress from her childhood, when she’s forced to go on the run with her mother for being involved in a series of affairs in the palace harem.
With nowhere else to go, the young girl seeks refuge at her aunt and uncle’s, neither of whom are originally willing to take her in and therefore make her upbringing a miserable one. Facing their constant spite, she learns to be witty in dealing with people, and her resourcefulness to survive is shown through many pressing circumstances and dangerous situations, shaping her into a clever young lady.
When she grows up, she’s once again embroiled in the sinister affairs of the Imperial palace harem. Knowing that she’ll constantly be in danger, she changes her name to 窦漪房 (dòu yī fáng). Through her wits and cunningness, Dou manages to turn enemies into allies and get herself out of many sticky situations.
As her power and influence in the palace grows, Dou finds herself in the center of moe and more sinister plots.
This is a touching story centered around a female heroine whose name will be forever engraved in history as a woman who influenced the fate of the entire nation.
So, Where Can I Watch Chinese TV Shows?
To effectively learn with Mandarin Chinese shows (and other type of videos), you should definitely check out FluentU.
FluentU has excerpts from many of the shows mentioned here, like “China’s Got Talent” and “If You Are the One.”
All the videos come annotated: Each word is accompanied by useful images and definitions.
And you can review each video with flashcards that teach you each word using clips from other videos.
With that said, because of the work that goes into annotating the videos, you aren’t going to find all the episodes for each of these shows.
If you want to watch all of the episodes, you have a number of options.
Chinese Streaming Services
First of all, for Chinese (mainland China) shows, you can simply go to large video streaming sites like Youku and Tudou—they have a huge library of Chinese TV dramas. Find them here:
However, for dramas from Hong Kong and Taiwan, these websites block users from outside the country. That means that you’ll have to look for alternative solutions.
The first solution is via P2P websites. One of my favorite ones is 风行网 (fēngxíng wǎng) or Funshion. Unlike its streaming counterparts like Youku and Tudou, Funshion actually allows anyone from anywhere to watch all TV shows and movies without restrictions.
One thing to note about Funshion is that the mobile apps have a better reputation than the desktop version.
Other Streaming Websites
Finally, there are some sites that offer subtitled Chinese dramas without the need for a VPN.
Many of these websites have subtitles available in English and Chinese. For instance, Viki is a community-powered site where subtitles are crowdsourced to website members.
As previously noted, these shows are also available on the following websites:
(Note: The list above has been updated with streaming links available in 2021.)
If you come across a website that isn’t listed here, watch out for video mirrors, which are prohibited. Sites that link to video mirrors rather than hosting the videos themselves are problematic because these mirrors can sometimes be taken down over time or stop working altogether when the video hosting sites encounter issues. Plus, these websites that host their videos elsewhere offer a smaller selection of Chinese drama titles.
If you need it for your location, you can get a VPN that allows you to access streaming websites in China from a Chinese server location. On the other hand, if you’re actually based in China at the moment, you can use that VPN to get past the Great Firewall. Either way, geographic restrictions are lifted, and you’re free to access any blocked shows.
However, if you’re familiar with using a VPN to access blocked websites, you’ll know it doesn’t always provide a good experience for streaming videos. But you never know—you might be lucky and find a service that provides a smooth streaming experience.
How to Learn Mandarin Chinese Through TV Shows
So, how do you actually learn Chinese through TV?
It isn’t enough to just soak up the vocabulary.
Using a series to improve your Chinese means watching it actively rather than just sitting back and enjoying it. If you hear an unfamiliar word, write it down. Make sure you look up the words in a good dictionary and then review them on a regular basis.
That said, when you set out to learn Chinese with these shows, you’ll have to be realistic in your expectations.
Unfortunately, even if you watch the simplest types of TV shows, you’ll have to have a certain proficiency in Chinese before being able to understand what’s going on.
Because of that, I have to recommend that, for most of these shows, you should be at least at the intermediate level. Otherwise, you’ll be struggling to even understand basic sentence structure and vocabulary—which defeats the purpose of learning some Chinese and actually enjoying the show at the same time.
There’s only one way I know to get around this challenge.
You can check out FluentU. Our platform was designed to help you learn Chinese with videos, even if you’re a total newbie with the language.
You'll find a wide range of contemporary videos that cover all different interests and levels, as you can see here:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up.
All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
From the description page, you can access interactive transcripts under the Dialogue tab, or review words and phrases under Vocab.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your learning. It customizes quizzes to focus on areas that need attention and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. In other words, you get a 100% personalized experience.
Try FluentU in your browser or, better yet, download the FluentU iOS or Android app today!
So, what are you waiting for?
You’re sure to find a show that you love among our large selection above. Start watching today and learn Chinese with TV shows!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.