Sherlock mania takes hold in China
Published 19/01/2014 | 13:27
Chinese TV audiences have declared their love for an Englishman - Sherlock Holmes.
The latest series of the BBC's Sherlock, a modern-day reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Victorian detective stories, has become a phenomenon in China. Five million people watched the first episode within hours on January 2 when it was streamed with Chinese subtitles on the video hosting platform, Youku.com - its most popular programme ever.
Online fan clubs of the show have attracted thousands of members. Chinese fans write their own stories to fill the time between the brief, three-episode seasons. In Shanghai, an entrepreneur has even opened a Sherlock-themed cafe.
Holmes is known in China as "Curly Fu," after his Chinese name, Fuermosi, as well as actor Benedict Cumberbatch's floppy hairstyle.
Watson, played by Martin Freeman, is "Huasheng", a name that sounds like "Peanut" in Mandarin. They have become two of the most popular terms in China's vast social media world.
"The Sherlock production team shoot something more like a movie, not just a TV drama," said Yu Fei, a veteran writer of TV crime dramas for Chinese television.
Scenes in which Holmes spots clues in a suspect's clothes or picks apart an alibi are so richly detailed that "it seems like a wasteful luxury," Yu said.
Even the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily is a fan, saying of the third season's premier episode: "Tense plot, bizarre story, exquisite production, excellent performances."
Wealthy Chinese nationals send their children to local branches of British schools such as Eton and Dulwich. Rolls-Royce said China passed the US last year to become the biggest market for its luxury cars, while on the outskirts of Shanghai, a developer has built Thames Town, modelled on an English village with mock Tudor houses and classic red phone booths.
"The whole drama has the rich scent of British culture and nobility," Yu said. "Our drama doesn't have that."
The series has given a boost to Youku.com, part of a fast-growing Chinese online video industry. Dozens of sites - some independent and others run by Chinese television stations - show local shows as well as foreign imports, such as The Good Wife and The Big Bang Theory.
Youku.com says that after two weeks, total viewership for the Sherlock third season premiere had risen to 14.5 million people. That compares with the eight to nine million people who the BBC says watch first-run episodes in Britain. The total in China is also bumped up by viewers on pay TV service BesTV, which also has rights to the programme.
Appearing online gives Sherlock an unusual edge over Chinese dramas. To support a fledgling industry, communist authorities have exempted video websites from most censorship and limits on showing foreign programming that apply to traditional TV stations. That allows outlets such as Youku to show series that might be deemed too violent or politically sensitive for state TV, and to release them faster.
Yu said: "Our writers and producers face many restrictions and censorship. We cannot write about national security and high-level government departments."
Referring to Mycroft Holmes, a shadowy government official and key character in Sherlock, Yu said: "Sherlock's brother could not appear in a police drama in China."
Terigele, a 25-year-old geological engineer in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, started an online Sherlock fan club in 2010. The group has grown to become the biggest on the popular QQ social media service, with more than 1,000 members.
"I've watched several versions of Sherlock Holmes, and this is my favorite one," said Terigele, who like many ethnic Mongols uses one name.
"The fans in my group, and I too, think it is especially interesting to bring these two men into modern society, with the Internet and high technology."
And Chinese fans have fallen in love with Cumberbatch in particular.
"I am always super excited to see him on the screen and murmur, 'Wow, so beautiful' every single time,'" said Zhang Jing, 24, who works for an advertising company in the eastern city of Tianjin.
That fondness for the performers has helped fuel a fad for Sherlock fan fiction in China. Some stories play on Holmes and Watson's complicated relationship by making them a gay couple.
"The sexual orientation is also an interesting point," Terigele said. "Their relationship is a bit more than friendship. They appreciate each other. It is cute, and it makes the audience more eager to watch it."
And it would seem Sherlock is something of a cultural ambassador for Britain.
When Prime Minister David Cameron visited China last year, fans posted appeals on microblogs for him to press the BBC to speed up the release of the new season.
Today, a popular online comment aimed at Mr Cameron is: "Thank you for Sherlock."