The Big Bang Theory in Little China

There's a demographic reason why fictitious nerds from CalTech have charmed millions of Chinese viewers.

Weibo/Fair Use
Weibo/Fair Use
Weibo/Fair Use

When producers at U.S. network CBS launched a show in 2007 chronicling the daily lives and dating woes of four nerdy California Institute of Technology scientists and their cute female neighbor, they almost certainly didn't expect to create one of the biggest television sensations in China. Yet that's exactly what they did with The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom that has accumulated almost 1.3 billion views since first appearing on popular Chinese video site Sohu TV in 2009. The show's amiable but socially inept protagonists have found a surprisingly robust audience in China -- just as the country has entered a new era of geek culture.

Awkward bookworms like the male characters in The Big Bang Theory are becoming more hip in China, or at least more mainstream: One of China's most popular words in 2013 was diaosi, a once-pejorative term for poor, girlfriend-less geeks that translators generally render as "loser." In one survey conducted by popular Internet portal Sohu, over 80 percent of respondents aged 24 to 34 identified as diaosi. On Douban, a social media platform for television and book lovers, one commenter remarked that "many diaosi were watching" The Big Bang Theory. The state-run newspaper Guangzhou Daily wrote in an August 2012 review of the sitcom that "we have experienced the life of a diaosi," which is why "we see ourselves in The Big Bang Theory."

It may seem odd that young Chinese would willingly label themselves losers, but as non-profit research website Civil China explains, diaosi are different: their status is shaped not by personal failings but "by larger social conditions." By embracing the moniker, Chinese youth are implicitly blaming their lack of material, professional, or romantic success on problems like China's low social mobility, a growing gender imbalance, and the high cost of urban living.

When producers at U.S. network CBS launched a show in 2007 chronicling the daily lives and dating woes of four nerdy California Institute of Technology scientists and their cute female neighbor, they almost certainly didn’t expect to create one of the biggest television sensations in China. Yet that’s exactly what they did with The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom that has accumulated almost 1.3 billion views since first appearing on popular Chinese video site Sohu TV in 2009. The show’s amiable but socially inept protagonists have found a surprisingly robust audience in China — just as the country has entered a new era of geek culture.

Awkward bookworms like the male characters in The Big Bang Theory are becoming more hip in China, or at least more mainstream: One of China’s most popular words in 2013 was diaosi, a once-pejorative term for poor, girlfriend-less geeks that translators generally render as "loser." In one survey conducted by popular Internet portal Sohu, over 80 percent of respondents aged 24 to 34 identified as diaosi. On Douban, a social media platform for television and book lovers, one commenter remarked that "many diaosi were watching" The Big Bang Theory. The state-run newspaper Guangzhou Daily wrote in an August 2012 review of the sitcom that "we have experienced the life of a diaosi," which is why "we see ourselves in The Big Bang Theory."

It may seem odd that young Chinese would willingly label themselves losers, but as non-profit research website Civil China explains, diaosi are different: their status is shaped not by personal failings but "by larger social conditions." By embracing the moniker, Chinese youth are implicitly blaming their lack of material, professional, or romantic success on problems like China’s low social mobility, a growing gender imbalance, and the high cost of urban living.

Chinese college students comprise a healthy portion of The Big Bang Theory‘s audience, perhaps because over 90 percent of all Chinese students identify as diaosi. As China’s growth slowed, its class of 2013 faced the toughest job market in recent history. Almost 7 million Chinese graduated in 2013, up 300 percent from 2003. Partly as a result, only 35 percent of graduating college students had found jobs as of mid-April of last year, a 12 percent drop from 2012, according to an online survey jointly conducted by Internet company Tencent and data firm MyCOS.

The relationship challenges that The Big Bang Theory’s characters endure also resonate in China, where men outnumbered women by 15 million in 2011, a figure expected to rise to 30 million by 2021. Even those who do land girlfriends may get no further should they struggle to buy the houses that many Chinese see as a prerequisite for marriage but which are prohibitively expensive for many: Purchasing an apartment in Beijing is "almost three times as expensive for Chinese as buying a home in New York City is" for U.S. citizens, adjusting for average income, according to Reuters.

The U.S. sitcom’s success has not escaped the notice of Chinese producers. A popular domestic show called iPartment, which depicts friends in their twenties living and working in Shanghai, has translated and adapted entire scenes from the U.S. program for use in its own plot. One 2010 web series even went so far as to call itself The New Big Bang Theory; backlash against its slavish repurposing of the beloved U.S. sitcom led its Chinese producers to cancel it after only two episodes.

But Chinese fans haven’t abandoned The Big Bang Theory for domestic copycats, and even potential competitors can’t suppress their affection for the show. In a Dec. 8 post on Weibo, China’s Twitter, the male lead of a Chinese web series informally known as Diaosi Man posted pictures of himself on-set with Big Bang star Johnny Galecki taken during his Nov. 2013 trip to China. Galecki remarked on Weibo that "everyone has been very friendly" during the visit. One fan offered an explanation: "That’s because we have so many science nerds in China."

Liz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World. Twitter: @withoutdoing

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