Learn Mandarin With Netflix and Historical Chinese TV Shows
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the best way to learn a language is to do things in it. Especially things you enjoy. And who doesn’t enjoy a good Netflix and chill session?
So if you’re looking for a new show to get addicted to and learn Mandarin at the same time, I’ve got the perfect solution for you: Chinese palace dramas.
What are Chinese Palace Dramas?
Chinese palace dramas are fictional stories set in real historical periods. They sometimes feature authentic characters—people who really lived—but they have largely fictional plots. Think “The Crown” but set in China, and even more fictional.
The storylines in these period pieces commonly portray the love, politics, and power struggles in the palace, often between the emperor, his harem and concubines, and the court.
Why watch these Chinese Netflix shows?
Many are attracted to palace dramas for the aesthetic pleasure provided by their costumes. Through fabric choices, makeup, hairstyles and accessories, and jeweled ornaments, the visual authenticity helps to vividly portray imperial life. For anyone who loves fabulous costumes and makeup design, this is definitely your genre!
Palace dramas are also a good fit for people interested in learning about the Chinese history and roots of the culture.
For one thing, these dramas usually speak in a literary language that is more concise and subtle, which provides Mandarin learners with a different language learning experience than you’d get from a modern TV show or from real life.
For another, you’ll get a bunch of new vocabulary you might not get elsewhere.
The 6 Best Chinese Palace Dramas on Netflix to Learn Mandarin!
Watching drama is a great way to get some language practice. If you have been curious but don’t know where to start with Chinese historical dramas, here are some good starters. Get your popcorn ready!
1. Empresses in the Palace
The success of Empresses in the Palace (後宮甄嬛傳) in 2011 really initiated the popularity of this genre in China and led to a decade where Chinese palace dramas have exploded.
The series follows a young, innocent woman sent to the palace to marry the Emperor. Along the way, she survives brutal conspiracies and betrayals at the hands of the other women in the harem, and she eventually becomes the Empress Dowager. Although somewhat soap-operatic, we witness the transformation of a kind, naive girl into a sophisticated—and manipulative— woman.
You can find the first episode on Youtube.
2. Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace
Genre: political, romance
Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace (如懿傳) is the sequel to Empresses in the Palace, although the two tell different storylines.
The story progresses with the evolution of the relationship between step-empress Ruyi and Emperor QianLong, from childhood friends to lovers to their last days together. The story depicts the struggles and insecurities of a woman, surviving and striving in the midst of palace politics and intrigues.
Again, the first episode is available on Youtube.
3. Story of Yanxi Palace
Genre: political, romance
The Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略) tells the story of a young palace maid, YingLuo, who seeks to uncover the truth of her sister’s death. Although surrounded by court intrigue, she encounters the virtuous empress who teaches her etiquette, manners, and to remember to forgive and be kind. YingLuo’s courage, wittiness, and intelligence inspire those who struggle to pursue their dreams.
4. Scarlet Heart
Genre: romance, time travel
If you enjoy the more romantic narratives, Scarlet Heart (步步驚心) could be for you. It tells heart-tugging, beautiful love stories centered in the midst of court intrigues.
Zhang Xiao is a young woman from the 21st century who travels back to the Qing Dynasty after a car accident. She finds herself becoming involved in nine princes’ battle for the throne and gets entangled romantically as well.
5. Nirvana in Fire
Nirvana in Fire (琅琊榜) tells the story of Mei Chang Su, whose family was wrongly accused and massacred for treason, leaving him on a 12-year fight for justice. Unlike typical Chinese heroes, his adventure entails more political maneuvering than physical powers and battles. It is an epic story of loyalty, sacrifice, and friendship.
Featuring themes of betrayal, conspiracies, revenge, and fight for the throne, some have said Nirvana in Fire is the Chinese version of Game of Thrones.
6. Princess Agent
Genre: action, romance
Princess Agent (楚喬傳) is the first drama in China to exceed 40 billion views online. The story follows a slave girl who witnesses bloody power struggles between rich families. She has no choice but to learn how to fight in order to survive in a chaotic and unjust world. If you like watching intelligent women become strong, determined, independent fighters, you’ll love this one.
Learn some Mandarin before you dive into these Chinese Palace Dramas!
Mandarin is a rich and rewarding language. And it’s closely tied to Chinese culture, which makes it an especially good candidate for learning through immersion in cultural activities. So be sure to check out a Taiwanese night market if possible, or enjoy Chinese Lunar New Year and other celebrations when you have the chance!
If you’re looking for a way to get started, check out Pimsleur’s learn Mandarin program. It uses real-world conversations and language to teach you Mandarin step-by-step.
Begin your Mandarin Chinese language journey today with a free week of Pimsleur.