After 9 years, Have I Found the Best Way to Watch Children's Chinese Shows in the U.S.?
During my recent trips to visit family and friends in China, I have discovered and envied a phenomenon: when kids in China flip on their smart TV or tablet to play a movie or a show, more often than not, they play them in English! Even the newest Hollywood and Disney movies in the theater are played in English…Toy Story 4, The Avengers…a massive, updated and impressive selection! English shows and movies are so prevalent and easily accessed by children, that my sons ended up watching quite a few English Disney movies this summer in China with their Chinese playmates. Chinese moms and dads consider playing an English movie learning for children anyway, just as I feel much more assured and less guilty about screen time when my kids watch movies in Chinese.
Our American boys watched Incredibles 2 English Version with friends in Sichuan, China, summer 2019
No wonder so many kids I met in China speak wonderful English at a very young age!
I can’t help but feel jealous because it has been and still is quite a hassle for my children to access Chinese language shows and movies in the United States. Talking about increasing Chinese exposure, learning Chinese while having fun and learning Chinese as a family experience, motivating and stimulating, watching great shows in the target language would fit all these bills.
Copying Video Files Onto The Computer?
You may laugh and frown at this seemingly ancient and unethical idea, but it was exactly what some resourceful and resilient Chinese American parents did until recently. 9 Years ago, when I was very pregnant with our first son, we were over at a Chinese American friend’s house for dinner. Their 6-year-old daughter, was speaking beautiful Chinese, and impressed me with her ease and grace navigating the very colloquial conversation with her adult dinner party guests.
Why? How? I asked.
Sure, it helped that her father was a professor teaching Chinese at a major U.S. university. But I had also met professors of Chinese in the U.S. whose children barely speak much Chinese. I probed: What’s the secret?
“We let her watch Chinese cartoons, a lot of them!” Said the father.
As a true friend, he did a big favor for me: I was given a copy of their “secret source.” A large number of video files of Chinese children’s shows and movies, including some Disney shows in Chinese, were copied onto my laptop computer! It was an era when YouTube and Netflix hardly had any Chinese content! I had no idea where he got all these video files, but what the heck?! If this is the only way to expose my future son to some terrific Chinese shows, I had to do it.
Unfortunately, 2.5 years later, by the time my, then in utero son, passed our family's strict “zero screen time before age 2” mark, I had abandoned my old computer due to its slow processing speed. When I did pull it out of storage and fire it up, I realized that many of the files had been corrupted and couldn’t play anymore. Firing up an old computer, sorting through video files to try to hit the few that might-play-just-in-case didn’t fit my full-time working mom with toddler schedule. The video files were quickly totally forgotten.
Buy DVDs from China?
As an alternative, I searched Chinese Websites, and on my trips to China, searched physical video stores to buy DVDs…a lot of them! I also burdened friends and family by asking them to bring DVDs over to me in their suitcases when they visited. Since DVDs bought from China do not play on DVD players or computers bought the U.S. for regional copyright reasons, I also bought DVD players from China. Since electricity voltages in China are different from the U.S., I also bought heavy, chunky voltage converters so that I could use the DVD players bought in China, to play the DVDs bought in China!
Some of the DVDs I bought from China
We did watch some of those DVDs when all the stars were aligned: the DVD players were in good condition, the DVDs were in good condition, the voltage converters were in good condition, and the mom had the time to sort it all out.
Corpses of some of the DVD players and voltage converters I bought from China
One after another, the DVD players broke. And gradually, China was also phasing out DVDs like the rest of the world, or maybe faster than the rest of the world. If you search for DVDs to buy on major Chinese websites right now, you will have to be very lucky to find the selections you want. Additionally, the DVDs usually can’t be shipped to an address outside of China.
We have not watched a Chinese DVD in the last few years! DVDs and my broken DVD players became another abandoned history occupying a forgotten corner of the house. (I did loan some of my DVDs to Caelyn who uses them to expose her kids to more Chinese in the family car, but, I'll let her write a separate post about that!)
Smart TV Box 小美盒子(xiǎo měi hé zǐ) from China?
Since DVDs were being replaced by smart TVs and those chic looking TV Boxes , I searched and searched again, read a ton of reviews and comparisons of products (in Chinese of course), consulted some tech-savvy Chinese American friends and finally invited to our home a smart TV Box called 小美盒子(xiǎo měi hé zǐ, Xiao Mei TV Box) from China. It was supposed to play a large number of Chinese shows over the internet. I had to get my friend on the phone to help hook up the box with our internet and TV, but finally, when we turned on our TV, we could navigate among a lot of Chinese shows for children and for grownups from a remote control!
The honeymoon with 小美盒子(xiǎo měi hé zǐ) was short lived as well though. We found the 小美盒子(xiǎo měi hé zǐ) very clumsy to use and navigate, and the quality of the shows were not consistent. Sometimes it played a show with poor picture quality. Sometimes it didn’t play at all. In order to find an appropriate show with decent picture quality for my son, I had to navigate through a ton of “stuff.” And every time when we wanted to use the TV to watch a U.S. show, we had to wrestle again with un-plugging and re-plugging the 小美盒子(xiǎo měi hé zǐ). Thus, in a month’s time, the 小美盒子(xiǎo mǐ hé zǐ) was also abandoned.
The smart TV box I bought from China didn't work out for us.
If figuring out electronics and network connections are your hobby, you might think those TV Boxes are great, and, in that case, a Chinese smart TV box may be a great solution for you. For a mother like me, who loathes the complexity of electronics and just wants to spend 30 seconds to get a show playing, and whose non-Chinese speaking husband still needs a normally functioning U.S. TV, I do not recommend spending money on such a thing! Not to mention that, if you don’t speak and read Chinese, you can’t even buy, install, or navigate it.
I have learned that some other Chinese smart TV box manufacturers including 小米盒子(xiǎo mǐ hé zǐ, Xiao Mi Box) has recently released “international versions.” MiBox S, for example, that can be ordered at Walmart. These new generations might be more user friendly, but I am concerned that the "international versions", competing with Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV, are catering to English speaking customers and crippling their Chinese content. (If any of you have had experience with these new boxes that contradicts my hypothesis, please comment to let everyone know!) However, my belief is that the roots of the problem run deep. The market of people interested in watching Mandarin programming in the U.S. is currently small so the potential profit is also small. It's not worth it for the media production companies to pay for separate region-specific copyrights for such a small audience. Companies have little incentive to create a first-class product for the niche group who want to watch Chinese media outside of China.
Subscribe to Chinese Video Streaming Services like 爱奇艺(ài qí yì)?
What would really work for a hectic family with young children is something that can easily play on any smart tablet or device, anytime, immediately at the on-command. What about a subscription to the YouTubes of China, such as 爱奇艺(ài qí yì) or 腾讯视频 (téng xùn shì pín)? When I skimmed through their sites, my jaw dropped! There are a ton of Chinese entertainment resources for Children, not only the latest Disney movies, but also some of the most popular children’s shows from around the world that were translated into Chinese!
Screenshot of 爱奇艺(ài qí yì) aqiyi.com's animation collection. Even though I subscribed, I could not play most of these from my U.S. home due to copyright restrictions.
Well, there is only one problem: because of regional copyright restrictions, most of them do not play on any devices showing an IP address outside of mainland China. Of course, people can try to cheat the system by subscribing to a VPN service ( a server in China that “tricks” the video streaming provider to think you are a customer in China), but good luck with all the VPN shutdowns, technical issues, bugs, and to maintaining your sanity!
Is there a way for people outside of China to pay to watch those Chinese videos? Better yet, is there a site with English navigation to make it possible for non-Chinese speaking parents to navigate the website? I was determined to find out because I was weary, from all the failed attempts I made simply trying to play Chinese shows for my sons simply for educational purposes. I wanted to figure out whether there was a way to solve the problem, so that families like ours have a way to watch Chinese shows. We were willing to pay to watch legally and conveniently, would someone take our money?
I wrote emails, got on calls and met 爱奇艺(ài qí yì) executives in Beijing to try to find an answer. Caelyn wrote unrelentingly to Disney without getting an answer as of the date of this blog.
I and a fellow JoJo team member Yuan visited 爱奇艺(ài qí yì) aqiyi.com's headquarters in Beijing in June 2019
I did get an answer from 爱奇艺(ài qí yì) , though, it was a big SORRY. For now, fighting the vastly complicated international copyright system does not seem like a near-term solution. The scale of economics has not been able to incentivize media giants like 爱奇艺(ài qí yì) or Disney to gear much attention to the small children’s Chinese media market outside of China. They are kept very busy serving the vast 1.4 billion population market within the Chinese border. Unless a lot more children outside of China start to learn Chinese, and demand to watch Chinese shows, this journey may stay bumpy for years to come.
YouTube, a convenient solution that is getting better?
I have a love hate relationship with YouTube. The commercials and overdose of information can drown me, but, it is right at my figure tips when I need information! YouTube has made more and more Chinese children’s shows and movies available. Although, sometimes one movie or show hosted on YouTube would all of a sudden disappear (presumably as a result of copyright complaints), an increasing number of legitimate organizations are putting up Chinese video resources there. CCTV (China Central TV) has put an entire CCTV Children’s Channel on YouTube, if you have the time and ability to sort through the jungle of Chinese contents to weed out unsuitable, and sometimes politically charged content.
When it comes to finding a way to play shows, natural selection did the work for my family. YouTube quietly and naturally won the game among all the ways we have tried watching Chinese shows. Still, today’s YouTube is far from my dream platform for Chinese video entertainment, i.e. the best quality, most popular Chinese shows and movies ( especially Disney movies), organized neatly with English navigation and English subtitles ( so my non-Chinese speaking husband can also play movies for my children in my absence, and can join the family for a Chinese movie night).
YouTube has very limited shows and no Disney movies in Chinese. I still must search long and hard to find appropriate, educational shows with positive messages for my sons. But it is the better option when the best does not exist.
The best feature of YouTube that I have found for my family is the ability to create, save, and share "playlists". Much in the same way that adding shows to "My List" in Netflix helps parents keep track of which shows there are available in Mandarin, adding playlists to our family's YouTube profile makes it much more straight forward and easy to play our favorite shows. Even better, my children can operate their own YouTube playlists.
Are you interested in exploring YouTube as a potential way for your kids to get access to Chinese videos? For the convenience of other busy parents like us, we put together several playlists containing what we think are some of the best Chinese Children's shows currently available on YouTube. You can check them out on JoJo’s YouTube Channel . We will update the channel monthly as new content becomes available, so, we'd recommend that you check back periodically to see if there is something that will especially delight and engage your young learner. We put hours into reviewing and organizing the playlists so that you don’t have to. Stay tuned with our blog to be updated when new playlists and show recommendations become available.
Netflix or Amazon Prime Video?
Our family had Netflix at some point, solely for the purpose of watching English shows. A couple years ago though, after 2 kids, my husband and I didn't feel like we had enough time to watch anything. We dropped Netflix and just started to use our Amazon Prime subscription account for the Prime Video streaming feature-- Amazon is gradually taking over every aspect of our lives!
However convenient, Amazon Prime right now is not the best option for Chinese children’s shows. It just doesn’t have many options. The few Chinese shows on Amazon Prime, for example, Ali the Fox and Miaomiao’s Chinese for Kids, don’t readily meet my checklist for the highest quality programming.
Now what about Netflix? I have learned from Caelyn and from other friends who maintained Netflix subscriptions, that Netflix is actually a hidden gem for Children’s Chinese shows if you know how to find them. To name a couple, Netflix exclusively plays 超级飞侠 (chāo jí fēi xiá, Super Wings) and 神奇校车 (shén qí xiào chē, Magic School Bus). In my opinion, 超级飞侠 (chāo jí fēi xiá, Super Wings) is by far the best animated series ever produced in China. Stay tuned for our future blog review of Netflix Chinese shows.
To sum up, if you are searching for a way to play Chinese shows to your children. I suggest you start with YouTube and then consider subscribing to Netflix. For YouTube, subscribe to our JoJo Channel to obtain some good playlists to try out. Check our in-depth reviews of YouTube Chinese shows(4 Best Chinese Shows for Preschoolers on YouTube) and movies if you don’t want to trust the playlists blindly.
If you have found any other good ways to access Chinese language shows and movies, please let us know what's working for you!
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