Puzzling formula for Chinese TV show’s success

The reality show Super Brain has invited more than 500 contestants from 15 countries to address challenges entailing superb mental strength and acumen since its initiation in January 2014.


The tenth season of the reality show Super Brain engages 50 contestants in a series of complex mental challenges that test their abilities in such aspects as creative thinking, problem solving and spatial navigating. [Photo provided to China Daily]

February 9, 2023

BEIJING – Now in its tenth season, reality contest sees participants use their wits to overcome challenges, Xing Wen reports.

Five years ago, for Xu Xinkai, then a high school student in Shandong province’s Zibo city, an important pastime was to watch a science-based reality show on the big screen in his classroom during breaks.

The show, Super Brain, invites brilliant minds to go through challenges that require participants’ exceptional mental skills in reasoning, calculating, observing details, visualizing objects from different angles and solving spatial problems of navigation.

The winners of each season can claim the title of “king of brainpower”.

Its fifth season, released in 2018, provided a break for then-18-year-old Xu who was busy preparing for the upcoming gaokao, or national college entrance exam, and enabled him to find his idol, Yang Yi, a Tsinghua University alumnus who became the winner of that year.

Contestant Xu Xinkai [Photo provided to China Daily]

Yang could maintain unbreakable concentration and methodical thinking even under great pressure in the show’s intensive competitions of solving math and science puzzles and also showed outstanding leadership in teamwork, which Xu says he appreciates.

This year, Xu, now a postgraduate student in astronomy from Nanjing University, gets to compete in the show himself and is likely to be offered a chance to challenge his idol Yang as the latter has been invited to join the newest season, the 10th one.

Before Xu’s debut on the show, he wrote a letter to Yang, which roughly goes as: “You’re a hero who could confidently map out strategies for your team and make your way up to the final victory, which inspired me to get closer to you step by step. I hope that my participation in the show could also bring courage to other people who might be at a loss in the same way you did with me.”

So far Xu has been smoothly sailing in the show’s challenges, which he says is largely due to the mental skills he has been honing through solving the Rubik’s Cube over the past five years.

As a keen viewer of Super Brain, he found that different variations of the iconic puzzle toy are often set as challenges for competitors who work the puzzle quickly and sometimes even blindfolded.

“The puzzle’s different configurations bring a lot of fun into the game. The diverse methods these world-class solvers of the Rubik’s Cube on the show have applied to figure out solutions improved my understanding of the game,” Xu recalls.

Then he went in for the three-dimensional mechanical puzzle. His Rubik’s Cube solving ability has been outstanding among this year’s 50 contestants on the show.

And, he also found he’s good at recognizing faces and comprehending spatial relationships between objects.

“Participating in the show has helped me know more about myself, both my strong points and shortcomings,” he says.

Additionally, meeting Yang, now a primary school math teacher, face-to-face has also motivated Xu to start a career in the education sector in the future.

The reality show Super Brain has invited more than 500 contestants from 15 countries to address challenges entailing superb mental strength and acumen since its initiation in January 2014.

With the slogan “making science popular”, the show aims to promote science knowledge and unleash the potential of the human brain by upgrading challenges and encouraging wider public participation, according to the show’s executive producer Zhang Jingwei.

Generations of young viewers have been inspired to develop scientific thinking and expand their knowledge.

Some even shot to fame on the stage of the show at a very young age. Yang Yinghao is among them. In 2018, he was a grade two student in Hangzhou Wenlan Middle School and had obtained several prizes in national mathematical Olympiad competitions.

He also formed an interest in informatics Olympiad. When watching competitors solving complicated puzzles in Super Brain, he thought maybe he could sign up for the show and have fun. After rounds of shortlisting, the then-14-year-old joined the show and successfully bulldozed his way to the finals.

His young age and unexpectedly stable, outstanding performance throughout the fifth season won him a big fan base.

“The wide attention I received during the show has urged me to keep going on and embrace a better self,” he says.

He is now a freshman at Westlake University and is determined to probe into the domain of artificial intelligence.

This year, he competed in the show again. An enjoyable part of participating for him has been hanging out with other contestants.

“Many of them are able to strike a balance between academic advancement and entertaining hobbies,” he says.

“And talking with older intellects makes it clear to me how to explore more life possibilities.”

Contestant Wang Xinran [Photo provided to China Daily]

Shaping personality

Wang Xinran, a contestant in the show’s seventh season, has also come back to the stage this year. She once studied physics in Peking University and later chose to be a physics Olympiad teacher. Her father was a major influence in developing her interest in the field.

He had studied physics at the University of Science and Technology of China during his undergraduate years, then completed a postgraduate program from Tsinghua University and later became a successful businessman.

“He gives useful instructions on learning the subject and I think I’m more or less gifted,” she says.

The father’s excellent academic performance and career achievements consolidated his authority in the family.

“I respect and even worship him,” Wang says.

The father and daughter shared joyful times when watching competitors solving puzzles in Super Brain. In 2020, they decided to have a try themselves.

Both signed up for the show’s seventh season.

As a result, the daughter had several highlight moments when coping with the challenges while the father failed to survive the preliminaries.

“The experience was inspiring,” she says.

Growing up in a family where strict parents regularly show their disapproval of her, Wang confesses that she lacks courage and self-confidence.

“I was fainthearted when we had to compete as teams in the show. I was afraid that my mistake would cause a failure of the whole,” she reflects on her performance in the seventh season.

She found that some other contestants could express themselves emotionally on the stage, living a free and easy life.

Wang wanted to be more outgoing and expressive.

“In this new season, I won’t shrink from taking the responsibilities of my team,” she says.

Contestant Yang Yinghao [Photo provided to China Daily]

Contestant Shi Mingxin [Photo provided to China Daily]

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