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Best Chinese Dramas of 2019

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the best Chinese dramas of 2019!

All is Well
All is most definitely not well in the Su family. When the Su matron suddenly passes away, her children reunite for the first time in years. Estranged daughter Mingyue (Yao Chen) left home years ago due to her mother's biased treatment. Feckless, favored middle son Mingcheng (Guo Jingfei) spent years leeching off their parents. Proud eldest son Mingzhe (Gao Xin) lives in the States, clueless of the family problems. The siblings are forced to communicate over providing care for their timid but demanding father (Ni Dahong). Years of resentment boil over as the siblings deal with relationship and career issues on top of family conflicts. Though All is Well often hovers in soap opera territory with its posturing men, constant fighting and corporate side story, the Daylight Entertainment drama acutely captures the realistic ridiculousness and frustration of dealing with family that you didn't ask for, but also can't ignore. The series generated spirited discussion about the importance of one's "family of origin" and the consequences of family violence and parental gender bias. The entire Su family offers a showcase in acting with Ni Dahong, in particular, giving the performance of the year; he manages to be both detestable and adorable as the petty-minded elder whose transparent habits of self-preservation and avoiding responsibility inflict great damage on his children.

Before We Get Married
"Love is like an investment. You bear risk, and you pay for it." Cheating in a relationship may sound wrong, but Before We Get Married provides some new insights on love and relationship. Chu Kehuan (Jasper Liu) and Zhou Weiwei (Puff Kuo), who are both in stable relationships, meet and fall in love with each other. Faced with Kehuan's confession, Weiwei denies her feelings for him and accepts her boyfriend's (Steven Sun) proposal. Meanwhile, Kehuan finally finds the courage to break up with his girlfriend (Nita Lei), whom he hasn't loved for years. Kehuan's existence puts Weiwei in a dilemma, prompting her to reassess her relationship and whether she truly wants her life to go as planned by her boyfriend. There are a lot of to-dos and not-to-dos to learn from this romantic drama – most notably, don't fantasize that your partner should feel grateful for your "sacrifices." In the end, is emotional cheating acceptable or not? There isn't a model answer, but Before We Get Married teaches us to always be true to ourselves and our own feelings, and never be confined by plans and responsibilities.

Joy of Life
Based on the previews and the presence of Chen Daoming, Wu Gang and Yolanda Yuan, Joy of Life seemed surely to be a serious historical drama about political strategy and succession struggle. But then it opens with a present-day prologue featuring the most blatant "this is just a fictional story" declaration to set up a time-slip drama that can pass censors and skip science. And the cast starts delivering perfectly timed jokes with straight faces in between wuxia tropes, origin mystery shenanigans and political intrigue. Zhang Ruoyun plays a snarky swordsman who was raised in ancient times, but has modern memories and knowledge. Said knowledge isn't of much use besides when he's plagiarizing Cao Xueqin and Tang poets, and pushing modern values of purpose, justice and equality on unreceptive audiences. As such fictional stories require, he also searches for answers about where he came from, falls in love with a princess holding a drumstick, and gets entangled in various feuds, plots and conspiracies involving the King, rival royals and mysterious martial arts masters. Thanks to the genius of Wang Juan, the rare screenwriter who improves on the IP material that he adapts, Joy of Life is serious with the serious stuff and also seriously funny. It's simply a joy to watch.

Like a Flowing River
Like a Flowing River didn't make our list last year due to its late airing in December, so we're sneaking it in here (it ended in January – totally counts!). Daylight Entertainment delivers a representative work about the representative paths taken by three men from the countryside during China's era of economic reform from 1978 to 1992. Wang Kai plays a bookish young man who goes to college and works to advance engineering standards at a state-owned enterprise. Yang Shuo is a former soldier and village chief who strives to lead his hometown out of poverty through agricultural reforms and village enterprises. Dong Zijian is a scrappy entrepreneur who heads north to try his luck and find business opportunities. Co-directed by Kong Sheng, Like a Flowing River is the kind of traditional drama with modern appeal that Daylight Entertainment excels at. The stirring decades-spanning story of family and enterprise is reminiscent of Family on the Go, but with an even wider outlook of how a generation of rural people ushered in new changes and challenges. In Daylight Entertainment we trust.

A Little Reunion
The team behind 2016's A Love for Separation reunites for the acclaimed heartwarming family series A Little Reunion. Huang Lei takes on writing duties in addition to starring alongside Hai Qing again as parents of a teenager during a crucial academic turning point. This time, it's the final year of high school and preparation for China's notorious college entrance exam. Resonating across generations, the series shows how three normal middle-class families reorient their lives around the gaokao, revealing the dreams and pressures of both the parents and the kids. Filled with laughs and tears, the slice-of-life drama is eminently relatable in its depiction of different family dynamics and the disagreements between parents and children. The teen cast is incredibly likable, and the nagging conversations are so realistic, they will likely make you think of your own parents or kids!

The Longest Day in Chang'an
The Longest Day in Chang'an is indeed quite long since the series goes for 48 episodes. Based on a novel by Ma Boyong, the story is set in motion when the security bureau receives intelligence that enemy guards have infiltrated Chang'an and plan to stage a terrorist attack during the Lantern Festival. To thwart the attack, official Li Bi (Jackson Yee) grants temporary amnesty to gruff death row prisoner Zhang Xiaojing (Lei Jiayin), a former soldier with intimate familiarity of the capital city's streets and people. He has 24 hours to track down the terrorists. As the hours tick down, Zhang and Li find themselves up against a complex labyrinth of enemies and insurgents, and a conspiracy that could shake the kingdom to its core. More than just 24 in Tang China, The Longest Day is a serious, thrilling and dignified period effort that offers a feast for the eyes. Under the exacting direction of Cao Dun, the series is as visually stunning as his last effort Tribes and Empires: Storm of Prophecy, with an impeccable attention to detail in its cinematography, sets, costumes and portrayal of Tang customs. In a year that saw Jackson Yee somehow become even more popular and perfect, the TFBOYS darling delivers an acting breakthrough as an austere young official opposite the brasher characters of established thesps Lei Jiayin, Zhou Yiwei and Han Tongsheng.

Love and Destiny
As the scale and quality of China's television productions grow, more and more movie stars have answered the call of the small screen. Arthouse favorite Chang Chen finally made the jump in 2019 for the first drama series of his 29-year career, and it's even in the ever trendy xianxia romance genre. At first glance, this period fantasy seems like a potential waste of Chang Chen and Ni Ni's combined talents, as the story about a bright young fairy with demonic energy who falls in love with a stoic God of War just looks and sounds too much like director Lin Yu Fen's previous The Journey of Flower and Eternal Love. Both of those dramas were big hits for good reason though, and sure enough, Love and Destiny reels you in before you know it with heartrending romance and reincarnations, lovable characters, desktop wallpaper-worthy images of icy realms and peach blossom forests, and the strong acting of the leads. Though Chang Chen has been around for a long time, his filmography is fairly brief and selective, and he often opts for supporting roles on the silver screen. Please enjoy Chang Chen putting his soulful eyes to work for a whole 60 episodes!

The Making of an Ordinary Woman
After winning Best Actress at the 55th Golden Horse Awards for her performance in Dear Ex., Hsieh Ying Hsuan becomes the relatable everywoman at a crossroads in this acclaimed Taiwan mini-series. Co-written and co-directed by actress Yen Yi Wen, the warm and zippy series hits home with its empathetic and amusing characterization of the sharp yet bumbling heroine who just never quite became that mature, sophisticated and successful woman she envisioned for herself. As she approaches the big 4-0, she hits hiccups in her work and her relationship, and ends up going home to Tainan. What was supposed to be a brief respite turns into a life reset as she bickers with family, re-encounters old friends and recalls her childhood days. At times farcical, at times moving, and always genuinely affecting, The Making of an Ordinary Woman is just the right length and tone to convey the family drama and daily trials of a not-so-young adult still in the process of growing up and knowing herself. The intertwined childhood flashbacks to the 80s create an air of small-town, old-timey nostalgia for the series, while the frequently funny script keeps it real with a steady stream of predicaments, arguments and internal monologues.

The Untamed
The Untamed is not only the most addictive Chinese drama of the year, but also arguably the most successful. When was the last time a Chinese drama spawned an overseas fan meeting and a sold-out concert? Based on the popular BL novel Mo Dao Zu Shi, the period fantasy revolves around the soulmate relationship and perilous adventures of the clever, free-spirited Wei Wuxian and the aloof, disciplined Lan Wangji. One a smiley prankster and the other a poker-faced stickler, the two heroes seem to be polar opposites but in fact share the same sense of pure-hearted justice and compassion – and a mutual trust and affection that transcends all those heartwrenching obstacles and tragedies. Stars Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo deliver breakout performances, such that it's hard to picture anyone else in the roles. Xiao is a revelation, emanating a magnetic warmth and charm that gives life to the character of Wei Wuxian. In the reticent role of Lan Wangji, Wang quietly spells out the unspoken with heart-fluttering microexpressions. While "boys love" getting turned into "brotherly love" is par for the course with live-action adaptations, The Untamed stays admirably faithful to the main characters and relationships. In comparison to the novel, the drama actually strengthens the bond between Wei and Lan from the start while staying in platonic-on-paper territory. Besides being the fan-service favorite, The Untamed also made a legendary rise on Douban for being, well, legitimately good. The series started out with a mediocre rating of 4.8. It now sits at 8.3 with ratings from over 600,000 users. There is no exit from WangXian!

The World Between Us
The World Between Us swept six awards at the 54th Golden Bell Awards, and it deserves every one of them. Set in the aftermath of a random mass shooting, the PTS series connects the lives of different individuals indelibly changed by the senseless tragedy, including Alyssa Chia and James Wen as the parents of a victim, Chen Yuu as the killer's sister, and Chris Wu as the killer's defense attorney. There's a lot to unpack from Lu Shih Yuan's dense script, which takes on deeply personal struggles of grief, guilt, anger and family discord, as well as social and institutional issues concerning mental health, the media and the justice system. The ten-episode drama develops a rich cross-section of conflicts, themes and characters within a compelling, compassionate story that poses difficult questions while seeking to challenge, understand and heal. Remarkably acute, humanistic and well-made, The World Between Us sets a new gold standard for Taiwan television.

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Published December 20, 2019

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