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The Most Expensive Chinese Drama and Other High-Budget Shows to Watch

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While Western dramas and TV shows have long dominated our screens, a new contender has emerged in recent years to pluck at the heartstrings of the modern viewer. Enter the era of the Chinese drama, replete with captivating storylines, exquisite costuming, and excellent cinematography that come together to create visual marvels — all bolstered by lavish budgets. How did the most expensive Chinese drama ever made fare in the court of public approval? We take a look, along with some other high-budget productions from the region. 

In life, as in entertainment and television, a generous budget is likely to yield sublime results. It is true that the most elite of showrunners have produced compelling shows and movies with smaller budgets; conversely, it has also happened that high-budget productions were unsuccessful in capturing an audience. That said, shows and movies with high budgets are often considered the creme de la creme of entertainment, imbuing the screen with special effects and exquisite design that only the big bucks can bring. 

The most expensive Western TV shows ever produced 

Across the board from Eastern to Western media, the phrase ‘bigger is better’ often takes centre stage where television productions are concerned. This is especially prevalent for productions that come from massive studios like Disney, Warner Bros, and Universal Pictures. 

Most notably, Disney made silver screen history in 2015 with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was the most expensive movie ever produced with a heart-stopping budget of USD 447 million. In second place, Universal Pictures’ Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2015) racked up production costs of USD 432 million, with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) coming in third with a budget of USD 379 million. 

Beyond the silver screen, filMMAkers and showrunners have brought that same energy to the sets of TV shows. The most expensive TV show ever made in the West, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power racked up production costs of USD 58 million per episode. In second place is Stranger Things, produced at USD 30 million per episode, followed by WandaVision in third place with each episode costing USD 25 million. Understandably assuming fourth place in the list of the most expensive TV shows ever made is HBO’s highly successful prequel to the Game of Thrones series, House of the Dragon, which is produced at USD 20 million per episode. 

Easterly trends in television 

In the East, showrunners have begun to match the offerings of the West, upping the ante on quality by leveraging a growing interest in cinematography across viewers and producers alike. The improvement in quality has been swift and deliberate, its effects widely felt across digital content production, film, literature and manhua (Chinese language comics produced in greater China). And while Chinese dramas have some way yet to go before it can truly boast to stand shoulder-to shoulder with its Easterly cousin, the Korean drama, recent years have shown growth that lends itself to a positive, sunny future. 

The growing public interest in Chinese dramas is reflected in the numbers. In 2022, reports placed the export value of Chinese TV shows around USD 56.83 million, with Southeast Asia emerging as a core consumer market. With the release of hugely popular shows like Love Like The Galaxy, Lighter and Princess, and The Blue Whisper, 2023 marked a 118 percent increase from 2021, showing a significant upward trend that bodes well for the industry as a whole. As per Statistica, the entertainment and media market in China had an estimated worth of USD 241 billion in 2023; experts projected an upward trajectory, charting growth to USD 255 billion in 2024, USD 271 billion in 2025, USD 287 billion in 2026, and USD 305 billion in 2027. 

Additionally, the rise of Chinese mini-dramas — shortform video content of 2 minutes or less with 20 to 100 episodes per drama — has also contributed significantly to global interest in China-produced content. The most successful of these dramas have been known to rake in millions of dollars within days of their release, driving keen investor interest. Indeed, according to MIT’s Technology Report, the Chinese short drama market, which surpassed USD 5 billion in 2023, is projected to hit USD 13 trillion by 2027.  

Given the sunny pastures available in content and television, it makes sense for producers and showrunners to leverage public interest to give them what they want. More dramas, more compelling storylines, better production, better editing — and of course, higher budgets.  

What do bigger budgets do for a production? 

A bigger budget doesn’t always translate to the production of a TV series in a straightforward manner. With bigger bucks to play with, a showrunner might nonetheless choose to prioritise certain elements in their production, strategically placing the money where it is likely to make a bigger impact. This can range from any number of improvements, including better costume and set design, better special effects, better editing, and more marketing to the engagement of more popular celebrities with greater public draw — and a higher asking salary. 

Consider The Story of Yanxi Palace (2018), which boasted a budget of CNY 300 million (approx. USD 41.41 million) to produce. Widely lauded as one of the best Chinese dramas of its time, Yanxi Palace boasts an excellent cast, exquisite costume and set design, and a clever and engaging storyline. With 70 episodes to its name, the drama garnered global success, earning well over its initial budget in broadcast rights across 90 countries following its release. 

By all accounts, the showrunners ensured its massive budget paid dividends, and emerged successful in their endeavour; Yanxi Palace received stellar reviews and ratings, and currently boasts an 8.8/10 on MyDramaList, 8.1/10 on IMDb, and 9.5/10 on streaming platform iQIYI. 

While the Yanxi Palace production budget is less than half that of the top entry on our list, the accolades and ratings of both are comparable in nature. And so, it is demonstrated that a small budget does not immediately relegate a drama into the lower rungs of success, just as a big budget does not immediately guarantee success. 

But, let’s face it; having millions to throw at a production can certainly help to pave the way to the top. 

With that in mind, let’s dive into the most expensive Chinese drama, plus other high-budget productions, as well as how well they all performed in streaming numbers and ratings. 

The most expensive Chinese drama ever made, plus other high-budget productions 

11. Nirvana In Fire

Cost: CNY 110 million (Approx. USD 16.9 million in 2015)

Year released: 2015 

Number of episodes: 54 

Cast: Hu Ge, Liu Tao, Wang Kai 

IMDb rating: 8.9/10 

A historical drama set in sixth century China against the backdrop of the warring feudal Northern Wei and Southern Liang dynasties, Nirvana In Fire tells the tale of Lin Shu, son of Liang commander general, Lin Xie. Adopting an alias to conceal his identity, Lin Shu embarks on a journey to seek justice for his family, which had been falsely labelled as traitors some 12 years prior. Received as a commercial and critical success, the series garnered over 100 million streams by its second day, and was viewed over 3.3 billion times on iQIYI by the end of the series. 

The series won numerous awards, receiving the Outstanding Television Drama Award at the 30th Flying Apsaras Awards as well as the Outstanding Director Award for Kong Sheng. It also garnered recognition as one of 20 most outstanding dramas of 2015 as named by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT). Nirvana In Fire was also honoured with the Best Original TV Adaptation award at the Forbes China Original Culture Billboard Awards. 

Watch Nirvana In Fire here.

10. The Dream of Red Mansions

Cost: CNY 118 million (Approx. USD 17.9 million in 2010)

Year released: 2010  

Number of episodes: 50 

Cast: Yang Yang, Jiang Mengjie, Li Qin, Michelle Bai 

IMDb rating: 4.9/10 

While it can boast to be one of the most expensive Chinese dramas ever produced, The Dream of Red Mansions did not receive the critical acclaim it had hoped for. Released in 2010, the show was adapted from a classic 18th century novel Dream of the Red Chamber, which is comparable to Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet — a tragic tale of star-crossed lovers. 

The lovers in question: A shy, delicate, and sickly Lin Daiyu, who is sent to live with her mother’s relatives, the Jia family, where she falls in love with her cousin Baoyu. While her love is reciprocated, the couple are not allowed to marry. The resultant tragedy of their love story is set upon a backdrop of corruption and the collapse of the noble Jia house, making for a poignant, if rather heartrending watch. 

9. All Men Are Brothers

most expensive chinese drama
(Image: All Men Are Brothers/IMDb)

Cost: CNY 130 million (Approx. USD 20.6 million in 2011) 

Year released: 2011 

Number of episodes: 86 

Cast: Zhang Hanyu, Calvin Li, Hu Dong, Huang Haibing, Chen Long 

IMDb rating: 7/10 

Adapted from the 14th century novel Water Margin by Shi Nai’an, All Men Are Brothers is set in the Northern Song dynasty; in broad strokes, it is the tale of an oppressed people who stand up in rebellion against the corruption of the government. The series explores the fight of over a hundred men and women as they band together to defy the government in demand of their rights. It was well-received and received multiple awards at the 3rd China TV Drama Awards — Best Television Series, Best Original Soundtrack, Best Character for Zhang Hanyu, and Best New Actress for Bobo Gan. 

Watch All Men Are Brothers here.

8. Three Kingdoms

Cost: CNY 180 million (Approx. USD 27.3 million in 2010) 

Year released: 2010 

Number of episodes: 95 

Cast: Chen Jianbin, Yu Hewei, Lu Yi, Peter Ho, Ni Dahong, Yu Rongguang 

IMDb rating: 8.3/10 

Drawing its inspirations from the 14th century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Three Kingdoms set the record for being the most expensive Chinese drama ever produced at the time of its release in 2010 with a budget of CNY 180 million. Requiring over five years’ worth of pre-production work and two years of production, it debuted to commercial success, garnering high ratings on television. Despite its success, the show was criticised by historians, fans, and critics, some of whom claimed that it had veered too far from its source material and history. It ultimately went on to gross over CNY 800 million (Approx. USD 133.3 million) by 2012, marking its place as a critical financial success. 

7. My Chief and My Regiment

most expensive chinese drama
(Image: Huayi Brothers Media Group)

Cost: CNY 319 million (Approx. USD 46.7 million in 2009)

Year released: 2009 

Number of episodes: 43 

Cast: Duan Yihong, Zhang Yi 

IMDb rating: 8.2/10 

Set in Burma, 1942, My Chief and My Regiment follows a small group of soldiers in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army Expeditionary Force in Burma as they come to a head with the Imperial Japanese Army at the Battle of Yunnan-Burma Road of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Narrated through the perspective of student-turned-soldier Meng Fanliao, the series explores the horrors of war and the soul-draining effects of battle, particularly through the eyes of men who believe they have been forgotten by their superiors in the mainland. Harrowing events culminate in the decimated regiment encountering a mystery man who claims to be their regiment commander; yet when the dust finally settles, it is revealed that he is not who he says. My Chief and My Regiment is a touching tale of honour and hope, suffused with the idea that inspiration can come from the unlikeliest places.

6. Empress of China

Cost: CNY 320 million (Approx. USD 49.1 million in 2015)

Year released: 2015 

Number of episodes: 82 

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Zhang Fengyi, Aarif Rahman, Janine Chang 

IMDb rating: 6.7/10 

Produced by Fan Bingbing Studio and starring top Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, Empress of China is one of the most expensive dramas ever produced from the region with a hefty budget of CNY 320 million. Set in the Tang dynasty, the series tells the tale of the first and only woman Emperor of China, Wu Zetian. Through a series of ups and downs that include betrayals and the cruel machinations of others, Wu Zetian nonetheless emerges victorious as the Empress of China alongside the Gaozong Emperor, and upon his passing, succeeds as Emperor in her own right. 

The series proved to be a commercial success, with its first episode breaking rating records and maintaining all-time high viewership numbers. However, reviews were mixed; while audiences lauded the show’s beautiful costuming, they were also quick to comment on pacing issues, calling out the slow narrative. At the 2015 China TV Drama Awards, Empress of China was named a Top 10 Television Series, while Fan Bingbing took home the award for Best Actress.

Watch Empress of China here.

5. The Legend of Ruyi

Cost: CNY 330 million (Approx. USD 47.98 million in 2018) 

Year released: 2018 

Number of episodes: 87 

Cast: Zhou Xun, Wallace Huo, Janine Chang, Vivian Wu, Tong Yao, Dong Jie 

IMDb rating: 7.9/10 

With an incredible CNY 330 million budget for 87 episodes, The Legend of Ruyi is one of the most expensive Chinese dramas of all time — and for good reason. Leveraging the star power of actress Zhou Xun, The Legend of Ruyi featured exquisite costume and set design, inviting audiences into the Forbidden City of Qing dynasty China and receiving much warranted adulation for its efforts. The series follows the life and love story between Ulanara Ruyi and the Qianlong Emperor, mapping the former’s journey in the palace from princess to consort to Empress. While the two initially share a deep and devoted love match, the machinations of would-be usurpers, coupled with Qianlong’s selfish and suspicious nature eventually drive a wedge between them. 

The Legend of Ruyi is a poignant tale that beautifully frames the fallacies and tragedies of love, told through the eyes of Zhou Xun’s iconic heroine. Garnering much success with contemporary audiences with a penchant for despair and cataclysmic tales of lost love, it has since debuted in 19 countries including the United States, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Watch The Legend of Ruyi here.

4. The Legend of Yang Guifei

most expensive chinese drama
(Image: The Legend of Yang Guifei/The Movie Database)

Cost: CNY 383 million (Approx. USD 58.1 million in 2010)

Year released: 2010 

Number of episodes: 49 

Cast: Yin Tao, Anthony Wong, Wang Luoyong, Shi Xiaoqun, He Saifei, Michelle Ye 

IMDb rating: 7/10 

Set in the Tang dynasty, The Legend of Yang Guifei is a romantic drama that takes its inspirations from the romance between the Xuanzong Emperor and his consort Yang Yuhuan. As with all historical palace dramas, the protagonist Yuhuan encounters adversaries in the form of the Emperor’s other concubines and consorts, each desperate to claim power for their own benefit. Boasting intricate costume and set design, the series is a feast for the visual senses, making clever use of its CNY 383 million budget. 

3. The Legend of Fei

Price: CNY 600 million (Approx. USD 91.8 million) 

Year released: 2020 

Number of episodes: 51 

Cast: Zhao Liying, Wang Yibo 

IMDb rating: 7.1/10 

The Legend of Fei is a 2020 Chinese historical drama that leverages the exceptional star power of actor Wang Yibo, whose shining persona has lit up the Chinese Entertainment scene since his debut with boy band Uniq in 2014. Adapted from Priest’s novel Bandits, it tells the story of Zhou Fei, a female martial artist and daughter of a national hero who crosses path with poet Xie Yun. The duo forms an unlikely alliance and begin to hone their skills together; however, secrets lie beneath the surface, waiting to be uncovered across the duo’s adventures together. 

Despite its stellar cast, The Legend of Fei received mixed reviews upon its release, with some viewers expressing dissatisfaction at the show’s underdeveloped characters and plotlines. However, the show nonetheless managed to garner 130 million views just 8 hours after its release, a number which soon burgeoned to 4 billion in just over a month. 

Watch The Legend of Fei here.

2. The Longest Day in Chang’An

Cost: CNY 600 million (Approx. USD 86.2 million in 2019) 

Year released: 2019 

Number of episodes: 48 

Cast: Lei Jiayin, Jackson Yee 

IMDb rating: 7.8/10 

Set against the backdrop of China’s Tang dynasty, The Longest Day in Chang’an takes its inspiration from Ma Bo Yong’s novel of the same name. Directed by Cao Dun with a staggering budget of CNY 600 million, the historical suspense series depicts an intricate web of mystery and drama surrounded former soldier and local security personnel in the city of Chang’an, Zhang Xiaojing. After killing 34 members of a gang that murdered his former army commander, Zhang is imprisoned and sentenced to death; however, he is granted an unexpected reprieve when it is revealed that a major rebellion is underway involving a terrorist cell, the Wolf Squad. 

To secure the safety of the people of Chang’an, the Department of City Security orders Zhang to capture the terrorists within a 24-hour period, failing which he would be executed. The immersive and visually stunning series is a thrilling and suspenseful take that leverages the star power of TF Boys’ Jackson Yee, a shining star in Chinese Entertainment with a net worth of millions. With its strong Educational drama elements and the showrunner’s dedication to historical accuracy, the series was well-received, winning numerous awards to cement its place in the hall of the greats in Chinese dramas. 

Watch The Longest Day in Chang’an here.

1. The Rebel Princess

Cost: CNY 700 million (Approx. USD 110 million in 2021)

Year released: 2021

Number of episodes: 68 

Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Zhou Yiwei, Tony Yang 

IMDb rating: 7.8/10 

Boasting a budget of over CNY 700 million, The Rebel Princess (also known as Monarch Industry) is the most expensive Chinese drama ever made. Adapted from MeiYuZhe’s novel Di Wang Ye and starring the iconic Zhang Zi Yi, it tells the tale of Wang Xuan of the Wang clan, who is forcibly married to a general from the peasant class, Xiao Qi. While the two have a difficult start to their marriage, they eventually come to understand one another, paving the way for love to blossom.  

While audiences and netizens criticised Zhang’s portrayal of the 16-year-old heroine at the beginning of the show, it did little to curb the show’s popularity. Fans praised the show’s dedication to aesthetics, with intricate costuming and set design both serving to draw viewers in, inviting them to sit, stay, and enjoy the stellar production and performances by a stellar cast.  

Watch The Rebel Princess here.

(Main images: The Rebel Princess/IMDb, VCG Photo; featured image: The Rebel Princess/IMDb)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

– Which Cdrama has the highest budget? 

With a budget of CNY 700 million, The Rebel Princess (or Monarch Industry) is the most expensive Chinese drama ever made. 

– What is the highest rated Chinese drama? 

As of 2024, the highest rated Chinese dramas include: The Legend of Shen Lee, The Spirealm, Blossoms in Adversity, Amidst a Snowstorm of Love, Angels Fall Sometimes, In Blossom, Burning Flames, Sword and Fairy, White Cat Legend, and more. 

– What is China’s top 1 drama? 

At the moment, China’s top dramas include: The Ingenious One, Back From the Brink, Till the End of the Moon, The Ordinary Road, The Knockout, Best Choice Ever, Hidden Love, Love Like the Galaxy, Who Rules the World, Princess and Lighter, and more. 

– How much does it cost to make a Chinese drama? 

The cost and budget of making a Chinese drama differs from series to series and is dependant on a variety of elements. Along with the genre of the drama, the number of episodes, filming location, cast, marketing, mode of release, and CGI requirements are all things that can contribute to the cost of making a drama. The most expensive Chinese drama ever made is historical drama The Rebel Princess, which cost an estimated CNY 700 million to produce. 

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