FAQ: Why do people dub?


Stay calm and just repeat after me – one two three, two two three, three two three

I used to make excuses for dramas that dub, citing restrictions on accents, technology, and all that good-stuff. Unfortunately, I’ve since realized that’s not really true. The only real reason? That lovely little thing called self-interest.

The voices you hear in a TV show came through one of the three ways:

  • Dubbed by a dubbing team –  ex. all of Empresses in the Palace,
  • Dubbed original voices – ex. some leads of Nirvana in Fire.
  • On-site Recording  –   ex. Ode to Joy, The Interpreters

Dubbing methods often vary character-to-character, and dramas can use a mix of all three.

Let’s go down the list of excuses I used to believe :

  1. China doesn’t allow accents

The TV regulators at SARFT specifically said they do not object to the use of accents. Just look at First Love 柠檬初上, where Hawick Lau speaks with a Hong Kong accent, their daughter with a Taiwanese accent, and Gulnazar in listless whispers.

In fact, several recent dramas have actually asked the actors to learn accents to fit their characters (ex.  Tong Liya and Yuan Hong in A Simple World)

2. Too many Chinese accents are distracting.

Accent coaches. They’re great, more people should use them.

Tong Liya is one of the few younger actresses who's learned an accent for a role.

Tong Liya is one of the few younger actresses who’s learned an accent for a role.

3. Big Brother is listening

Primetime airing requires screening, and getting final approval may require multiple edits.  For example, Ode to Joy had to dub over a Qu Xiaoxiao line that used a line from a nature documentary to suggest it’s time for mating, although not one referring to Dr. Zhao as viagra for women.  But most shows only have to change a few lines  which shouldn’t take more than a day to dub.    Surely you can spare a day for your poor, voiceless character?

Even if it’s something drastic like changing the name of the leads (which is rare and only occurs if it’s an important historical figure, someone complains, and you are Yu Zheng/Tangren), recording shouldn’t take more than a week. Plus, you would think by the number of times Yu Zheng had to go to court for plagiarism, he would have a good enough lawyer to write requirements for re-recording into the contract.

If Wang Kai can learn Taiwanese accents for 20 minutes of screentime, you can learn mandarin for your lead role

If Wang Kai can learn Taiwanese accents for 20 minutes of screentime, you can learn mandarin for your lead role

4. Noise-control is expensive

This is the only semi-legit reason for historical dramas.

Yes, Hengdian probably gets more visitors than the average drama gets viewers, and noise-control can be difficult. Dubbing a whole drama takes a minimum of a week, which is a lot of money in actor time.

But The Three Heroes and Five Gallants, which used Chen Xiao’s on-site recorded voice, sounded perfectly fine despite not even trying too hard since they had originally planned to dub it. That drama was filmed at Wuxi Studios, which is also flooded with tourists.

Why dub?


Actors get paid really well in China, and their time is measured in gold. Compare the upwards of 100k per day A-listers receive for a variety show to a few thousands for dubbing, and it’s not hard to see why neither actors nor production teams are incentivized to get the actors in the studio.

And it takes time to prepare lines.   It’s hard to imagine the leads remembering all their lines for a 70-episode show filmed in 30 days, not to mention say it with the right emotions.  That’s why you get reports of actors just counting instead of saying their lines or having their assistants tele-prompt them while filming.

Dear actors: We know you're very busy, we know your work's important, but if you can't do your job then please just quit.

Dear actors:
We know you’re very busy, we know your work’s important,
but if you can’t do your job then please just quit.

Another  growing reason is the large number of non-mainland actors/producers/directors. Many of the hottest Chinese idols have strong accents and haven’t bothered to get an accent coach, and producers often chose their fame and face over the drawback of dubbing.     On top of the fact that most historical idol drama directors are currently from Hong Kong, there’s an increasing number of Korean companies investing in Chinese dramas, often with the requirement that the production teams and many of the leads being Korean.  This means that actors who can read their own lines are often simply not valued by many teams, and it’s not like the rest of the team can tell the difference anyways.





Is there any hope?!

Luckily, with increased competition for dramas and airing,  production speed has become important.  Almost all of Hunan TV’s Sunday dramas, including many I almost wish were  dubbed,  have so far used mostly on-site recording. These dramas often are filmed while airing, with no time for dubbing.

In 2010, exactly zero of the top idol dramas from the mainland used the actors original voices.  Although to be fair, only two modern idol dramas from the mainland had over 1% in viewership (Meteor Shower 2 and Strands of Love).   I’m ignoring rom-coms like Ugly Wudi and iPartment.

With a surge in mainland idol dramas and mainland idol actors, we’re seeing more and more dramas using either on-set recording or getting its leads to dub themselves. In 2015, two of the most acclaimed dramas, The Disguiser and Nirvana in Fire, suddenly made no-dubbing cool.    2016 has already seen  The Love of Happiness,   The InterpretersSo Young, Ode to JoyLove O2O, etc.  Upcoming, we have Hu Ge’s Hunting Ground,   Wang Kai’s   When a Snail Fall in Love, and the epic Storms of Prophecy to look forward to.  And for the first time, Yu Zheng had the leads dub themselves for Memories Lost.   

You can tell it's now cool for actors to dub themselves when even Yu Zheng is doing it.

You can tell it’s now cool for actors to dub themselves when even Yu Zheng is doing it.

16 thoughts on “FAQ: Why do people dub?

  1. Dubbing really bothers me but it is seriously horrible when Korean actors speak Korean for their lines and the dubbing doesn’t match at all. Many a drama have been ruined by Korean actors, I for one am glad they’re not allowed on Chinese tv anymore.

  2. I hate dubbing so much >.> Like ok, if it has to be done, at least do it well. But most of the time, they just use the same group of people to dub the same dramas over and over. And those dubbers dont sound or even enunciate like actors. I think the worst is when they try to dub a child’s voice, but its obviously an adults voice, made to sound “cute.” /cringe

    Also, the way the the dubbed voices sound, its as if just bc it is sound controlled, they dont have to worry if they sound as if they are speaking into a microphone or anything. That microphone sound ugh. I mean you almost think with all the effort put into making a drama, it sounds as if they are making it harder for themselves doing all that extra work…

    Extra but, just a disclaimer, I listen to audiobooks so I have a higher standard when it comes to these things. Also, when it comes to dubs, imo japanese voice actors are at a completely different level. I watched a bit of the disguiser, and I have to say, when the japanese dub comes on, its like, so this is how it could have been…

  3. Coming from a production point of view here. Several weeks ago, we had to film an outdoor scene. The park was beautiful and crowd control was manageable. But lo and behold, a police helicopter flew in to circle above us. Not too sure who they were looking for…we joked that the person on the run probably blended in with our background performers. Anyway, 50 cast and crew (plus countless background) waited over an hour to resume filming. Daylight hours are precious too, even though we usually film 10 – 12 hours a day! Yes, that’s an exception and not an example, but outdoor scenes are insanely unpredictable. Indoor sets aren’t that great either. On another show, they bought the largest studio space that money could buy. The only problem was that because it was so cavernous, it produced a lot of echo. Face-palm. The 1st A.D. is constantly yelling, “Quiet on set!” Let’s talk about the actors now. It’s not easy to deliver the lines with the same fake accent, take after take. You’re bound to make mistakes, especially if it’s take 39047509790. To err is human, right? Sometimes, the foreign (Aussie, Kiwi, etc.) actor delivered a kick-ass performance, American accent and all, but the director may insist that a different and sub-par take be printed, one that showcased the lead actor’s acting. Since some shows *keuf sci-fi keuf* require sound effects and special effects to be added in post-production, why not take that opportunity to dub voices? Do you think the audience is looking for authentic accents when they’re bombarded with outrageous special effects? I don’t think so. I find dubbing in C-productions really efficient. How else could they film a 50+ episode show in 3 or 4 months? It usually takes 9 – 15 days to film 1 episode over here. One particular show took more than 8 months to film 6 measly episodes! 6 episodes?! Ever since I discovered C-entertainment, I’ve been wanting to tell everyone, “Get a Chinese film crew over here.” :)

    • The lack of labor laws does wonders for productivity (quantity, not quality) ;b

      Chinese crews work 80hr/wk, and two or three crews are often filming at the same time. Also a lot of body doubles. I’ve heard of series where the leads are together in the studio for like two weeks only, with most scenes being shot with body doubles.

      note: I’m totally pro-labor laws

  4. “…here Hawick Lau speaks with a Hong Kong accent, their daughter with a Taiwanese accent, and Gulnazar in listless whispers.” LMAO….

    I am not a fan of voice-dubbing that’s not by original actors who don’t have an accent at all. It usually turns me off from watching a drama (unless the drama is good enough for me to overlook that). If the actor got dubbed simply because their voice didn’t fit the character/their delivery was weak, then they shouldn’t have been chosen for the role in the first place >_>

    Empresses in the Palace was so spot-on with their dubbing though, especially for Sun Li and Ada Choi.

    I am glad no-dubbing is becoming popular so we will get to hear more nice voices like Wang Kai’s XP

    • Lol, it seems you have read my previous comment :)

      I still think that it’s okay to be professionally dubbed when an actor’s voice is unsuitable. It’s possible that an actor has all the qualifications for a certain role except for the voice. I don’t think its fair that an actor shouldn’t be chosen for a role just because his voice is not the best/suitable. For example, I think that Yang Mi has the skills to act as a cold person or an ethereal character, but her squeaky and high pitched voice just might be a bit distracting and contrasting to the role. Just like how low quality dub can sound annoying, some actors original voices can sound annoying as well. Gosh I sound shallow, but I’d much rather have an actor be dubbed for suitability purposes rather than for monetary gain only.

      I agree that actors shouldn’t be chosen for a role in the first place if they couldn’t deliver a line properly. But we all know that in the entertainment industry, profit is the key. As much as we want to, we can’t possibly stop production companies from giving unqualified idols or actors difficult roles. If being dubbed by a professional improves the character being portrayed by the unqualified actor, I’m okay with it. Hopefully the actor will learn from the professional how he should have delivered his lines as well. That being said, I wish only those with really terrible and unacceptable line delivery will be dubbed, as I still prefer original voices if possible. Sigh, only if everyone had a voice and acting skills like Wang Kai.

  5. I might be in the minority but I prefer dubbed dramas, with a preference for original actors dubbing themselves as long as their Chinese is pretty standard. If dubbed by voice actors, they need to pick top of the line voice actors and not the cheap ones who you usually hear dubbed in Korean dramas for Chinese audience.

  6. Well I guess you ca have a look at HK dramas which basically always use 100% on location recording of all actors/actresses. Granted a lot of the TVB ones are filmed in studio it is easier for noise control but even their outdoor scenes manage well even when filming in the busiest streets in HK so there isn’t much excuse.

    I like how the current trend is to use on location recording except I think it also means that actors should start learning proper mandarin/ accent training (especially all the HK/ TW actors going into Mainland. I mean just look at Wallace Huo and Eddie Peng – they actually bothered learning and it works well)

  7. Nice article. I too often wonder if accent is the problem, why not just learn it? But then again actors get cast as lead roles even when they can’t act to save their life (which supposed to be the basic qualification for the job srsly), so I guess they care even less for accents. Also the noise-control… is it really that hard/expensive? Other like kdramas or jdramas almost never use dubbing and it’s not like they only filmed at remote locations, and it’s not like cdramas have less budget. Low quality dubbing can be harmful to the quality of a drama imo. Hearing the same set of voices with the same intonation in several different dramas can be annoying, it feels like the voice actors don’t really care about character interpretation after all, and they just act like the script told them to. Sounds very much like how most idol actors ‘act’, heh. It just screams low production value to me.
    On the other side, it’s cool to hear popular dramas (Disguiser and NiF) manage to give positive influence to the industry, more often than not you’d hear the opposite.

    A bit off-topic here, since you mentioned Storm of Prophecy, I heard that the trailer released by Hunan TV looks brighter than the one released by the production company, so there’s bigger chance that the drama will look that bright instead? In case I need to adjust my expectation lol

    • It’s not that unlikely that the actual drama is brighter. That’s what happened with NIF, too. :(

      Yeah, I’m 90% sure that Yu Zheng decided to get the actors to dub themselves for Memories Lost after hearing people praise Snail for doing it since he’s already pushed back release dates several times to match Snail’s, so I think NIF/Disguiser definitely helped.

      I think it’s hard for dubbers because they get paid so little compared to actors, and never have time to actually think about the roles. Plus, it’s not like they get any credit for the roles, so there’s no incentive. It annoys me when people complain a dubber ruined their idol’s role. Especially for A-lister’s, if they didn’t care enough about their character to spend a week dubbing, then it’s on them.

      • Ah, then I’ve spoken too rashly about the dubbers, it wasn’t an ideal situation either for them huh. Also thanks for answering the SoP question, ugh, why TV stations do that anyway…

    • Indoor scenes of Korean historical dramas are usually filmed inside a private studio, for example MBC’s, so the noise level is much easier to control. Outdoor scenes also seem to be filmed in locations where there are no usual visitors, hence the easier noise control. When you’re at a place like Hengdian, or when you’re using a whole bunch of loud machines, it’s much more difficult to have good/inexpensive noise control. However, like you mentioned, I also find it questionable that most modern Chinese dramas are dubbed whereas modern Korean dramas manage to be on site recorded.

      I also find low quality dubbing to be annoying and distracting. But hey, let’s appreciate those times where dubbing actually benefited a drama. As you said, not all actors can act, and this includes emoting lines correctly. I actually find that there are many professional dubbers that can emote lines better than the actors themselves. Also, there are times when an actor’s voice just doesn’t suit the character being portrayed, especially when there is a big contrast in vibes between the character and voice. These are times when I think that dubbing is probably the better option. Well, given that the voice actor uses a voice that is suitable for the character and can emote lines properly. However, other than these circumstances, I personally prefer on-site recording over dubbing.

      Hunan TV versions always look brighter than the production company releases for some reason, so I don’t think you have to worry about adjusting your expectations, unless you plan on watching the Hunan TV version lol.

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