Beginner Donghua Show Recommendations
There’s a common misconception that not a lot of compelling Chinese content exists, at least in comparison to other popular East Asian languages such as Japanese and Korean. But nothing could be farther from the truth—compelling Chinese content does exist and in overabundance, too. It’s simply less well-known in the Western hemisphere and much has never even been translated into English, which makes it that much more difficult to find and much less even be aware of unless your Chinese is already at a level where you can search for it yourself on the Chinese internet. When it comes to beginners, searching for Chinese content in Chinese on the Chinese internet obviously isn’t feasible or reasonable—which is why I’m here today writing this article.
As of writing this post, I have immersed in Mandarin Chinese for roughly 3000 hours over the past 20 months and reached Stage 3 in the language per Refold’s guidelines in 15 months. I’ve watched numerous Chinese dramas and donghua (Chinese animation), listened to podcasts, and read manhua, webnovels, and novels. It’s safe to say that I’ve been around the Chinese block more than once and had to go through the trouble of digging out compelling content myself as a beginner, despite my very handicapped Chinese ability at that time. Donghua happens to be one of my favorite ways of immersing in the language, so hopefully this post will prove helpful and save others some of the time and frustration I had to spend looking for good content.
With that said, here are my top donghua recommendations for beginners needing something easy and comprehensible, yet still compelling enough to hold interest.
Lan Mo’s Flower (蓝漠的花)
Gluttonous and tomboyish, Lan Mo is hardly anyone’s ideal girl, but with a magical hair clip from a mysterious trinket shop that disappears the next day, she may be able to become just that. With its power, she can transform into a beautiful and feminine young lady, someone who may finally be able to catch the eye of her childhood friend and crush, Liu Yifeng. However, keeping the clip’s secret proves difficult for Lan Mo when faced with Liu Yifeng’s admirers and the mysterious stranger Xia An. And to further complicate matters, Lan Mo’s possession of the hair clip may turn out to be more than just mere coincidence.
Lan Mo’s Flower is an older animation for donghua standards, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best donghua for beginners. Its simple, sweet story full of daily life vocab makes it one of the easiest shows to follow and comprehend for even the newest of beginners whose vocabulary is still quite small. The show itself is very short with a straightforward, standard romance plot, so while it would likely be too simplistic in storytelling and a bit dated in animation quality and sound design for those who already have a decent grasp on Chinese, it’s a perfect alternative for the beginner who’s tired of children’s shows such as Peppa Pig and wants something targeted at an older audience while retaining comprehensibility.
Spicy Girl (麻辣女配)
Since her childhood, Su Xiao has been sidelined because of her frightening aura. Now an actress, she unfortunately remains stuck in the roles of villains. One day, Xiao Jian, a well-known investor and actor, comes across a scene between Su Xiao and his manager. In order to silence him, Su Xiao signs a contract with him.
Going into this donghua, I was quite skeptical, thinking it would be just another cheesy romance-centric show full of fanservice. Turns out it was quite the contrary, and Spicy Girl quickly became one of my favorites in the donghua slice of life category. The characters are well-written and believable, the plot is engaging, and the animation quality is solid, which all combine to make the show an easy, bingeable watch with a high degree of comprehensibility for the beginner. The opening and ending songs are quite catchy, too, and you may just find yourself humming the tunes long after finishing an episode.
Start to Be a Star Today (今天开始做明星)
Qin Ze is a young man who has just entered university. From an early age he excels in singing but following a trauma, he is no longer able to sing in public. However, one day, his twin sister Qin Ya, a popular singer, will change his fate by asking him to replace her.
Start to Be A Star Today was another donghua that I went in with lower expectations after reading the synopsis, knowing how easily shows with similar premises fall prey to the respective low-effort, unfunny cliched tropes typical of this specific genre. However, it wound up being a pleasant surprise, and I came out more than satisfied with the show. It handled the plot premise quite well and was genuinely funny in the right places while also having enough heart to keep the viewer invested. The ending was particularly satisfying, concluding in a mature, fitting manner, and the animation definitely deserves a shoutout as being among some of the best in slice of life donghua.
Twin Spirit Detectives (双生灵探)
There is always more to the world than meets the eye. This is the motto that twin brothers Xiaotu and Xiaohu follow in their lives as paranormal investigators, where what may be terrifying to some is just another day at work. Normally, it is simple for them to separate their daily lives from their job, but when they go to investigate a seemingly typical haunting of a pair of twins, a series of bizarre events throw their perception of the supernatural world into question as they become a target of the hauntings themselves.
While Twin Spirit Detectives is a step up in difficulty from the three shows listed above, I personally found it easy to follow as a beginner and very engaging, so much so that I binged it in one entire night. A lot of the vocab in the show is daily life language and the rest of the crime and mystery related vocab is easily understood in context, always making it clear what is being said on screen.
Despite being produced in 2014, the animation in this series was quite ahead of its time compared to other donghua, and the quality still holds up better than many of the current animations released around the world today. The soundtrack and atmosphere are exceptional with some absolutely stunning moments of sound direction, in particular during the horror-centered scenes, which make fantastic use of long, drawn-out drones to build suspense, punctuated with intense sound effects and orchestrated crescendos once the tension reaches a tipping point. It is in these moments of masterful tension that Twin Spirit Detectives can be genuinely frightening. So, be warned if you are someone who is easily scared and don’t make the same mistake as I did by watching it in the middle of the night.