In the first episode of the Chinese drama Deflation Made Me a Tycoon, a young office clerk decides to end his life. His boss has yelled at him, his girlfriend has broken up with him because he is poor, and his mother has been killed in a car accident. He jumps off a bridge, only to find himself transported to a fantasy world where everything is ultracheap because of hyperdeflation, and becomes the wealthiest person in the world. The entire episode unfolds over the course of less than two minutes.

Ultrashort dramas designed for people to watch on their smartphones have become a billion-dollar industry in China. These low-budget productions, cheap to make and easy to consume, appeal to users who increasingly prefer watching short, TikTok-style videos over traditional full-length soap operas. Industry data shows that in 2022, nearly 95% of Chinese internet users consumed short videos, and 24% of new internet users used short-video apps as their first online activity. Since 2021, all major streaming sites, from Bilibili to iQiyi, have launched verticals dedicated to the smartphone dramas, dubbed “miniseries” in Chinese. 

Their stories often recycle familiar tropes trending in China’s online literature industry: protagonists falling in love with billionaires, revenge plots against unfriendly in-laws, or travels back in time. The fast-moving plots, sex scenes, and cliffhangers at the end of every episode — typically one to 10-minutes long — keep viewers hooked. 

“I wouldn’t watch a show if each episode is longer than 10 minutes,” miniseries fan Zhang Xiaoran, a college student in Henan province, told Rest of World. Zhang said she watched the dramas in bed, and they helped ease her period cramps. “I love stories that are sweet and brainless.”     

Some miniseries are released on streaming platforms and short-video apps like Douyin and Kuaishou, produced for young urban viewers to watch during their commute or lunch break. These shows profit from product placements and subscription fees. Others are uploaded on third-party apps inside WeChat, where viewers pay to unlock each minute-long episode. Watching a 100-episode series can cost up to $15 — more than double the average price of a movie ticket in China. 

WeChat miniseries target the “sinking market,” which refers to consumers living in small cities and rural areas — a rapidly growing internet user base. Despite their lower production quality, these shows provide viewers a delightful break from reality with rags-to-riches fantasies, producers told Rest of World. In one popular genre, for example, blue-collar workers like security guards or delivery workers are blessed with magical powers. Another trope involves young ladies being forced to marry rich, handsome billionaires, and later falling in love with them. 

A screenshot from the Chinese miniseries Deflation Made Me a Tycoon showing a woman holding up a 100 Renminbi banknote.

“They feel good seeing the protagonists winning women, wealth, status, power, or privileges,” Hou Chao, who runs a miniseries production company in Zhengzhou, told Rest of World. The company has produced 10 miniseries since August 2022, all targeting men above 40 — a demographic that has spare time and money to watch dramas, and can relate to the underdog narratives, said Hou. “[They think,] ‘It would be awesome if the same magic happens to me.’”  

Most shows are produced with a budget under $30,000, but Hou said publishers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars advertising the teasers on short-video apps like Douyin. His most successful work, Deflation Made Me a Tycoon, is a 101-episode series, with an advertising cost of roughly $5.8 million. According to Hou, the show raked in more than $7 million in subscription fees, with a 20% margin. 

Heart-wrenching series are very profitable with middle-aged female viewers. These stories feature a recurring trope: a female protagonist suffering at the hands of an abusive, unfaithful husband who typically calls her a “bitch” and forces her to donate blood to another woman he likes. Viewers sympathize with the protagonist and the shows always end happily, with the husband returning home to reconcile with his wife.

“[Viewers] are attracted to story plots where the underprivileged just suddenly become the top of the world.”

According to Elaine Jing Zhao, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, who studies China’s digital media, the stories resonate with viewers by showing challenges they might themselves face in real life, and then by offering a miraculous solution. Producers are trying to appeal to a social underclass that is the fastest-growing internet population in China, Zhao said. “[Viewers] are attracted to story plots where the underprivileged just suddenly become the top of the world.” 

Aria Lee, a Beijing-based miniseries director, told Rest of World that compared to traditional dramas, miniseries require faster-moving plotlines that can hook viewers in seconds. “The first five seconds must contain a shocking line that makes people want to stay,” Lee said. One of his shows, for instance, opens with a couple sleeping together, perhaps after having sex. The man wakes up and asks, “Big sister, who are you?” 

Such provocative storylines are rarely shown on Chinese television, or streaming sites such as Tencent Video and iQiyi — the government demands that TV shows reflect the officially sanctioned values of hard work and patriotism. But many miniseries, especially those released on WeChat accounts, do not require approval from media regulators, and often contain references to rape, pregnancy out of wedlock, or excessive spending, producers said.

But it is unclear how long these dramas can evade government scrutiny. In December, China’s media watchdog ordered a crackdown on “pornographic, violent, vulgar” content in miniseries. The fast-developing industry has become a threat to mainstream content and should be more strictly censored, the regulator said. In March, a state official called for the entertainment industry to make high-quality miniseries that “tell good China stories.” In April, WeChat, Douyin, and Kuaishou said they had removed hundreds of miniseries channels for promoting sex, violence, and other “unhealthy” values.   

So far, rags-to-riches stories are still a favorite on the Chinese internet, and some have even been re-uploaded on YouTube. International viewers like the dramas so much that they have requested Spanish, Portuguese, or Polish subtitles. 

In the fantasy world depicted in Hou’s miniseries, the clerk-turned-tycoon rides in a Rolls-Royce, purchases villas, and rescues a beautiful woman from angry debt collectors. In the 101st episode, however, he wakes up from the dream and realizes the entire adventure has been an illusion. “This is an insult to my intelligence,” one YouTube user commented under the video. “But I really like it.”