A literal success: China's TV spelling bees enjoy surprise popularity

With audiences finding such educational programmes more entertaining than big-budget blockbusters, hopes are high it will help raise writing standards nationwide

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 3:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 January, 2014, 7:37am

China's television networks, catching on to the growing concern over deteriorating writing standards across the nation, have created a raft of spelling bee shows in the past few months, attracting a devoted fan base coming from diverse backgrounds. 

Surprisingly, some viewers find the spelling contests more entertaining than other much more expensively made programmes.

Chinese Spellling Hero had a highly successful first season, climbing to the mainland's top 10 most popular shows last year amid cutthroat competition for television ratings, and it just started broadcasting its second season last week.

The show features student contestants who must write down the correct Chinese characters in front of the judges (a mix of celebrities and academics).

It also has other popular segments, such as when competitors share their life stories and demonstrate their other talents onstage. The competition is kept generally friendly, with the judges -- in concert with the hosts -- often trying their best to egg the contestants on and engage them in lively conversation.

The prizes are attractive: participants are awarded 500 yuan (HK$641) for each character they are able to write, and a total of 2,500 yuan if they manage to survive five rounds, with each stage getting progressively difficult and more challengers getting eliminated. 

The show's producers -- Henan Satellite TV and and video-sharing portal iQIYI -- have also launched a mobile app that allows users to test their own writing abilities in the same challenges presented on TV.

"I felt so connected to the show after playing with the app," Danda, a fan of Chinese Spelling Hero, wrote on, a popular knowledge-sharing online forum.

"I can't find another show that's both so positive and fun, " Danda wrote.

Others said the show had helped reinvigorate their enthusiasm for writing Chinese characters, an ability that is being eroded by the rise of the internet and smartphones, which encourage the use of Latin script when typing.

"Both my child and I enjoy watching the game," wrote viewer Aini, before adding a suggestion: "The show should also ask players to write the strokes in the right order, which will help children memorise the correct writing sequence." 

The show now only asks contestants to write characters correctly regardless of the way they are assembled.

The stunning success of the show and similar ones on rival networks has been welcomed by China's broadcasting authorities, who last week asked local and national stations to create similar shows that help "preserve traditional Chinese culture".

And it seems Chinese Spelling Hero isn't lost in translation. Just before its second season's premiere, a teaser video for the show was flashed on a billboard at New York City's Times Square, Chinese media reported.

Although this was widely seen as a marketing move by iQIYI to warm up for its initial public offering this year, it is also believed to be a tactic to lure more international viewers. 

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