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“The Story of Chuan’er” Shines a Light on China’s Best-Loved Street Food

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Chinese people love eating. Among the countless, extremely varied types of cuisines, there is one beloved food that one can find everywhere in China, from Harbin to Chengdu, from Urumchi to Guangzhou: chuan’er (串儿), which can be roughly translated to Chinese barbecue, often involving meat on skewers.

Though chuan’er is a staple and local favorite no matter where you go in China, it rarely comes up when people talk about “Chinese food.” But if you’ve never had any chuan’er in China, then basically you haven’t eaten Chinese food yet.

As a popular late-night, beer-accompanying snack (similar in that sense to crayfish), millions upon millions of chuan’er sticks were certainly consumed during the World Cup, whose matches screened live late into the night in China. Thus it was an appropriate time to release The Story of Chuan’er, the first documentary to take a deep dive on this singular snack, co-produced by anime streaming platform Bilibili and Authrule Digital Media. At this writing, The Story of Chuan’er has been viewed over 22.9 million times and received 500,000 bullet comments since its June 20 debut.

The Story of Chuan’er (人生一串) on Douban

The last of the documentary’s six episodes will air this Wednesday, July 25. For the time being, the series has received a rating of 9.8/10 on Bilibili and 8.9/10 on Douban, a Chinese equivalent to IMDb (among other things) where the pickiest movie lovers gather.

The characters that have been featured on each 30-minute episode thus far are definitely not chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants, but ordinary stall owners from small towns. Protagonists include the Yi minority boss of Xiao Er Ge Barbecue in Liangshan, Sichuan province; Sister Yang from Xi’an, who is good at making sweet, sour and spicy beef tendon; and “Eggplant Girl,” whose garlic-egg eggplant has been famous for years in Yichang, Hubei province.

The show seems to have struck a chord with young Chinese viewers, who see in its stars the people they’ve met at greasy but lively chuan’er stalls on any street corner.

Even if you don’t have these specific memories, these gifs speak for themselves:

“This is the real Chinese Midnight Diner‘, not the TV show,” commented one viewer on Bilibili, referencing a fictional Chinese TV series from 2017 adapted from a manga series.

CCTV-produced food documentary A Bite of China started the upsurge in Chinese food documentaries when it first aired in 2012, though the show’s third season, aired late least year, went down poorly with viewersThe Story of Chuan’er seems to have picked up A Bite of China‘s earlier popularity, capturing Chinese people’s common appetite with a down-to-earth style. Here are two representative comments on Bilibili:

“To tell the truth! It’s not only a good documentary! But also the narrator and the script make the films full of humanity, rather than emotionless explanation. It’s like a good friend recommending food that he thinks is really good to you!” – Mu Guam

“Haven’t been back to China for 8 years. A Bite of China made me miss life there, but this documentary made me book a flight.” – zero2782

As a video platform where 81.7% of the users are Generation Z (individuals born in China from 1990 to 2009), Bilibili has demonstrated with The Story of Chuan’er that it is possible for documentary content to resonate with young people who grew up with bullet comment culture. Since 2016, documentaries and museum-related shows produced by CCTV such as Masters in The Forbidden City, Every Treasure Tells a Story, and National Treasures have gone viral on online video platforms, becoming much more popular in their internet rebirth than their initial airing on television channels.

Bullet comment stream on an episode of The Story of Chuan’er

Bilibili’s homepage has recently been updated to include an independent column called “Screening Room,” where a “Documentary” category is listed along with “Film” and “TV series,” perhaps indicating Bilibili’s ambition to produce more original documentaries. With the unexpected success of The Story of Chuaner, it probably won’t be long until we see more programming in this vein.

If you want to watch the series for yourself, be warned that some of the content might be more extreme than you’re expecting. In fact, the show’s second episode comes with a warning:

And they mean it. Here are some “special” animal parts one can find in chuan’er stalls across Jilin, Guangxi, and Chongqing:

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Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van

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