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    China’s New Hit: A Cheesy Drama About a Time Traveling Stepmother

    Tapping into China’s fast changing family values and societal norms, “I Became a Stepmother in the 1980s” is striking a chord with millions.

    A modern-day college student snaps awake to find herself transported back in time to the 1980s. She occupies the body of Si Nian, a young woman forced to marry a divorced pig farmer who has two children.

    With no way back, she must now adapt to her new role as a stepmother to her fiancé’s children, battle tiresome relatives, and reconcile her modern sensibilities with the customs of the time.

    That’s the premise of “I Became a Stepmother in the 1980s,” a new drama that’s striking a chord with millions across China by tapping into the deeply personal experiences often associated with family dynamics and societal expectations.

    Since its release on Feb. 12 during Spring Festival, the ultrashort series — a genre featuring episodes lasting just a minute or so — earned over 20 million yuan ($2.8 million) on its first day. And on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, related hashtags have garnered over 1 billion views.

    Combined with traffic on other social platforms, “I Became a Stepmother in the 1980s” has already drawn attention comparable to that of blockbuster films. While the ultrashort drama genre still has a reputation for cheesy and cliché stories, similar dramas with improved production quality are now adding to the 500 million-strong audience in China.

    “I was never fond of this genre until I stumbled upon this show during the Spring Festival,” says 30-year-old Sophia Xu, who paid 50 yuan ($7) to watch all 82 episodes.

    She tells Sixth Tone that the show offered her a new perspective on such dramas. “Compared with previous short dramas, marked by unnatural performances and cringeworthy lines, the actors in this series are more attractive and professional in their performances. Both the storyline and the settings are more compelling,” she says.

    The show’s appeal extends beyond its production quality, touching on deeper, relatable themes.

    In a video commentary, Liu Yang, a researcher and former associate professor of communication at Peking University, underscores how the story mirrors real-life challenges many young Chinese face during the Spring Festival holiday, when many confront the relentless pressure to marry or face comparisons with other relatives at family reunions.

    For many, particularly young Chinese, returning to their hometowns from big cities feels like a journey through time, Liu says. The change in people’s behavior, language styles, and even being with relatives and fellow villagers may create a sense of discomfort and a desire to push back.

    “In essence, a short play uses typical scenes from real life to resonate with the viewers,” he explains in his commentary.

    Echoing his sentiment, Xu says she often receives unsolicited advice and comments about her weight and other personal matters from relatives, leading her to even stop visiting relatives during Spring Festival to escape the relentless pressures.

    Her favorite scenes in “I Became a Stepmother in the 1980s” are those where the female protagonist asserts herself against harsh criticisms from her relatives.

    So far, the drama’s popularity has proven lucrative. Utilizing a micro-payment model typical of ultrashort dramas, the first 10 or so episodes are offered for free to entice viewers. To continue watching, users must pay 1 to 2 yuan to unlock each episode, or about 40 yuan for the entire series.

    Comprising 82 episodes with each lasting less than two minutes, the entire series was shot in just 10 days and produced by Zhangwan, a new media company focused on online literature, game publishing, ultrashorts, and new media advertising.

    Combined with another similar drama, “Mr. Pei Loves Her So Much,” both projects have generated over 100 million yuan in revenue during the winter holiday season. Production costs for such micro-dramas often range from hundreds of thousands to a few million yuan.

    The online ultrashort drama market in China has surged since 2023. According to iiMedia, a market research firm, the ultrashort drama market reached 37.39 billion yuan in 2023, marking a 267.65% increase from the previous year.

    It is estimated to expand to 100 billion yuan by 2027. In comparison, China’s movie box office was worth 54.91 billion yuan in 2023, indicating that short dramas, a category that emerged less than five years ago, now represent more than half of the Chinese film market.

    Zhang Yi, iiMedia’s chief analyst, tells Sixth Tone that short dramas cater to the contemporary audience’s need for quick and quality entertainment options suited to their fragmented schedules. “Improving production quality meets the demand of the audience for fast-paced and quality entertainment,” said Zhang.

    Ultrashort dramas, particularly shot in vertical format, are predominantly released on short video platforms like Douyin and Kuaishou or uploaded on third-party apps within WeChat. “Targeted recommendation algorithms play a significant role in boosting the popularity of micro dramas by delivering content tailored to viewers’ preferences,” Zhang added.

    Amid the surge in popularity, China has ramped up its regulatory oversight, prompting the industry to search for growth opportunities outside the country.

    Last November, the National Radio and Television Administration rolled out seven regulatory measures covering the sector. It led to shows like “Go Queen Go” being banned for its themes of revenge and its characters’ use of violence to resolve conflicts.

    “As short dramas become more professional, there’s more space for the genre to explore a variety of themes and styles, whether societal, historical, or cultural,” says Zhang.

    But he also underscores that this would require more caution in the choice of themes and presentation methods. “In the long run, the regulation of short drama should gradually align with the regulatory standards on long-form videos,” he explains.

    Amid the tightening of regulations, short dramas continue to evolve, particularly with viewers seeking an escape from the mundane.

    After “I Became a Stepmother in the 1980s,” Xu was drawn to a series about an overbearing CEO who falls in love with a poor girl, as well as other tales featuring time travel.

    “Worn out from daily routines and work, these dramas offer me moments of escape. I don’t care if the plots occasionally don’t make sense, as long as they are enticing,” she says.

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Stills from “I Became a Stepmother in the 1980s.” From Weibo)