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  • Aug 30, 2014
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Why 'The Big Bang Theory' resonates with Chinese geeks

Mainland geeks in tune with sitcom 'losers'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 11:56am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 11:56am

When producers at US network CBS launched a show in 2007 chronicling the lives and dating woes of four nerdy California Institute of Technology scientists and their cute female neighbour, they 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 garnered almost 1.3 billion views since appearing on video site Sohu TV in 2009. The socially inept protagonists have found an audience on the mainland, just as it has entered an era of geek culture.

Awkward bookworms such as the male characters in The Big Bang Theory are becoming more hip in China, or at least more mainstream: one of the mainland's most popular words in 2013 was diaosi, a once-pejorative term for poor, girlfriend-less geeks that translators render as "loser".

In one survey conducted by the mainland internet portal Sohu, over 80 per cent of respondents aged 24 to 34 identified themselves as diaosi.

On Douban, a social media platform for TV and book lovers, a commenter noted that "many diaosi were watching" The Big Bang Theory.

The 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 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, youngsters are implicitly blaming their lack of material, professional or romantic success on problems such as the mainland's low social mobility, a growing gender imbalance, and the high cost of urban living.

College students constitute a healthy portion of The Big Bang Theory's audience, perhaps because more than 90 per cent of all students identify themselves as diaosi. As China's growth slowed, its class of 2013 faced the toughest job market in recent history.

Almost seven million Chinese graduated in 2013, up 300 per cent from 2003. Partly as a result, only 35 per cent of graduating college students had found jobs as of mid-April last year, a 12 per cent drop from 2012, according to an online survey 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 see as a prerequisite for marriage, but which are prohibitively expensive. Buying a flat in Beijing is "almost three times as expensive for Chinese as buying a home in New York City is" for US citizens, adjusting for average income, according to Reuters.

The US sitcom's success has not escaped the notice of producers. A popular domestic show called iPartment has translated and adapted entire scenes from the US programme for use in its own plot.

One 2010 web series even went so far as to call itself The New Big Bang Theory. However, a backlash against its slavish repurposing of the beloved US sitcom led producers to cancel it after only two episodes.

Foreign Policy magazine

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