Why is China obsessed with 'Sherlock'?

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I am Marco Warman, and this is the World a co production of the world service PRI and WGBH in Boston. American fans of the TV series Sherlock are counting down the days to the season premiere later this month on PBS “Sherlock anything on the menu whatever you want free, only for you and your date Do you want to eat? “I am not his date. But for this man, I ought to go to prison. You did go to prison. I will get a candle for this table it is more romantic. I am not his date.” But British fans got there fix yesterday and thanks to the web millions of Chinese viewers have already watched that first episode as well. It turns out this latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes and his trusted sidekick Dr. Watson is wildly popular in China. Liz Carter is an assistant editor for Foreign Policies Tea Leaf Nation and she has written about this Chinese fascination with with Sherlock.

Liz Carter: There are several shows that are really big in China that weren't made there for instance The Big Bang Theory is huge, The Walking Dead consistently trends on Chinese social media. I would say that Sherlock is particularly popular. Probably the most popular British television show in China.

Werman: What is it about Sherlock that has made it so popular in China? What do you think?

Carter: Sherlock the stories have been popular in China for as long as they have been around, mystery is easier to translate but one reason it is popular in China I believe is because a lot of people are following the relationship or the imagined relationship between Sherlock and Dr. Watson.

Werman: Yeah and what do they make of it?

Carter: There is a lot of room to imagine. A lot of people assume the two characters are gay, I wouldn't say it is all Chinese who see this relationship between the two main characters, but certainly a very vocal subset of Sherlock fans enjoy imagining Sherlock and Watson getting together.

Werman: How much of the fandom in China for the show is about the character Sherlock or or is about the act of the play of Benedict Cumberbatch?

Carter: I think Benedict Cumberbatch has played a large role in popularizing the show, people like him a lot and I don't think that is specifically a China thing he is just a great actor. But he has become kind of a sex symbol in China and around the world.

Werman: Is he a sex symbol for gay Chinese men or is he just a sex symbol full stop?

Carter: I am not so sure that there is one particular group that likes him better then any other but I will say that among fans of Sherlock who enjoy writing about or reading about fan fiction about Sherlock and Watson getting together a lot of them are actually young women. And that is true of slash fans around the world. Slash is either fiction or fan fiction about two characters of the same sex in a romantic situation.

Werman: Okay so explain that because there is a whole kind of sub plot here to Sherlock in China. I gather many Chinese now refer to Sherlock and Watson with nicknames Curley Foo and Peanut what is all that about?

Carter: Curley Foo if you break it down in Chinese is gem foo. Gem means curly like your hair and foo which is short for ?? which is Holmes just the last name of Sherlock Holmes. Watson is called peanut because his characters name Watson is phoneticlay says ?? . ?? is a close homonym for ?? which means peanut. So they are just cute nicknames that people kind of affectionately use to refer to the characters.

Werman: So also a sign that a thing is a cultural phenomenon when characters get nicknames. As yo say this goes beyond nicknames which we talked a moment ago about fan fiction or slash fiction or Donma (sp) as they call it in China. What have been the new stories that Chinese writers and fans have been coming out with around Holmes and Watson? Can you give me an example plot or two?

Carter: Sure one of the more explicit ones that I read while writing my story on this was a story in which I believe it was set in LA they were kind of in their 18 or 19 yrs old and they were acting in the pornography industry and in the first chapter of the story Sherlock uses all sorts of clues to deduce that Watson is actually started filming adult films in order to pay off his loans from medical school. So, Watson is still a med school student in this and Sherlock is still using his intelligence to solve mysteries but in a more erotic context.

Werman: It's fascinating the whole concept of the spinoff produced by fans is kind of how comic books got a lot of traction in the United States in the thirties.

Carter: And I know modern/slash traces his roots to the Kirk Spock parring . And in China I would say Slash or Dunmae which is a bit more broader of a category then Slash is the same sex fictional parings also show a lot of there inspiration to Japanese literature as well as Western influences as well. And there is of course a lot of home grown stuff so it is just this really interesting cultural section where everyone can unite around the fact that it is really fun to imagine Sherlock and Dr. Watson getting together.

Werman: Liz Carter is assistant editor of Foreign Policies Tea Leaf Nation. Fascinating stuff Liz thanks for speaking with us .

Carter: Thanks for having me.