The eBay of China made a TV show?

Key Takeaways

  • Harnessing the growth of the new TV format, the Alibaba-owned resale platform Xianyu produced its own 10-episode mircrodrama series.
  • The series follows a scorned female executive as she amasses a fortune and rebuilds her life using the Xianyu platform.
  • Microdramas are a fast-growing format ideal for product promotion, as they are cheap to produce and drive engagement on social media.

It is natural that beauty brands would take advantage of the rising tide of microdramas, short web series designed to be viewed on smartphones. As with conventional TV in China, opportunities abound for product placement within microdramas. But spin-off content, such as livestreams with stars of the show, confers a host of further opportunities for product promotion – a benefit of this social media-centric format. C-beauty brands and global names in luxury cosmetics are clamouring to reach the mostly female viewership of this emerging content format, which swelled to a 37 billion RMB industry in 2023.

Xianyu’s microdrama has all the trappings of a viral hit, including revenge, romance, and money

But Xianyu, China’s eBay, also wants a piece of the pie. In fact, the Alibaba-owned online consignment store took it a step further by producing an entire microdrama. The 10-episode series “Mrs Fu Hangs On by a Thread” has all the trappings of a viral hit, including revenge, romance, and money. Therein lies the power of the microdrama: it is a low-cost delivery mechanism for a highly effective formula.

Xianyu Saves the Day

Xianyu’s microdrama follows the story of Su Qiqi, the female chairman of a successful corporation, which she runs in partnership with her husband. When she discovers the relationship was fake and she was simply a pawn in his climb to success, she quits the company and the relationship, declaring “I, Su Qiqi, am going to become my own boss!”.

With the help of the Xianyu platform, Su Qiqi earns a fortune selling second-hand items, builds an independent business empire and enacts revenge on those who wronged her. This rags to riches arc is a wordplay on the Chinese idiom “the salted fish turns over” (咸鱼翻身), meaning to turn over a new leaf or reverse one’s fortunes, since salted fish (咸鱼) is a homophone of Xianyu (闲鱼, literally “idle fish”).

Throughout the short series, the Xianyu platform is portrayed as harbouring miraculous abilities

Throughout the short series, the Xianyu platform is portrayed as harbouring almost miraculous abilities, becoming Su Qiqi’s secret power to which she turns in times of crisis. In episode 2, Su Qiqi taps into the Xianyu user base to quickly resolve an awkward situation with her philandering husband. She marches into their company headquarters to reclaim her belongings, only to be told by him that if she cannot retrieve them in 10 minutes, she can’t have them back. She responds that that will be no problem, and in the blink of an eye uploads all the items to Xianyu. The buyers instantaneously appear in the office to collect their second-hand purchases as if by magic, leaving the ex-husband and his mistress astonished.

This dramatic flair is partially a nod to a unique selling style that has become rife on the second-hand platform. In what Rest of World calls “confessional item listings”, users on the site will often go into great detail about the backstory of the item for sale, telling stories of heartbreak, treachery, and love lost. Whether this is knowingly deployed as a marketing tool is unclear, but either way this “Xianyu Literature” has built an endearing reputation for the app among its users. There is a catharsis in selling preloved items. In doing so, users let go of an old life, just as the microdrama’s protagonist Su Qiqi does.

Xianyu Turns over a New Leaf

Alibaba CEO Eddie Wu hopes Xianyu will become a lifestyle hub of sorts, rivalling the likes of Xiaohongshu

The launch of the microdrama comes as Xianyu embarks on a new era. Back in January, the first brick-and-mortar Xianyu Recycle Shop opened in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province and home to the Alibaba headquarters. The store adopts a consignment model, meaning customers can leave used items for sale or buy something left by someone else. Besides typical product categories including apparel, toys, homeware, and books, sellers can also list services like running errands for others or dog-walking, adding to its function as a community hub.

More than this, though, Alibaba has named Xianyu one of four “strategic-level innovation businesses”, a cumbersome moniker that nonetheless represents new opportunities for the business. Going forward, it will become an independent subsidiary with the ability to “face the larger market with [its] own strategies”. Alibaba CEO Eddie Wu hopes it will become a lifestyle hub of sorts, rivalling the likes of Xiaohongshu. With this in mind, the Xianyu team seeks to engage consumers beyond product discovery and transactions, stimulating a deeper connection built on creativity, storytelling, and a shared love of pop culture. The microdrama, as campy as it might be in style, is a bold and exciting way to mark this evolution.