China’s Concubine Dramas Have Lost the Emperor’s Favor

TV shows about imperial intrigue are feeling the bite of censorship.

Artists perform "Song of the Everlasting Sorrow" at the ancient Huaqing Palace on March 29, 2008 in Xian, China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
Artists perform "Song of the Everlasting Sorrow" at the ancient Huaqing Palace on March 29, 2008 in Xian, China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

The Lunar New Year is peak TV time in China, as families gather to watch the latest hits and advertisers compete for a spot. Normally, the biggest shows of the year are rebroadcast during the holiday season. But this year, several of the record-breaking popular dramas were noticeably absent. They all shared one thing in common: They centered on the palace intrigues of courtesans.

The hottest show last year was undisputedly Story of Yanxi Palace, a 70-episode Qing dynasty drama that was released last summer on iQiyi, China’s equivalent of Netflix, and has since been exported to more than 70 countries, streamed a stunning 20 billion times with over half a billion tuning in on one day alone, and became the most Googled TV show worldwide in 2018, even with Google blocked in China.

The show’s popularity was driven by women, according to statistics from a Chinese data company, which showed that more than 80 percent of the audience was female and mostly under 30. That’s typical for concubine dramas, which are mostly about the desires and competition of women.

Since Empresses in the Palace, a massive 2011 series that eventually made it to Netflix in the United States, a wave of concubine dramas has hit Chinese TV. All these shows tell basically the same story: A poor girl rises to power in the Qing court. (The Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty, is hugely popular for TV dramas, not least because the sets and costumes are easily available.) Innocent and good-natured at first, she gradually turns into the most calculating schemer after being repeatedly pushed to the breaking point by other concubines—her evil, aggressive yet stupid and short-lived rivals, who are always ready to do anything, including murder, to achieve power.

The only major male character is the emperor, but he is the man with absolute power over the fate of all other characters, whether it’s the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735) or the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796). Looks, obedience, manners, and fertility—particularly the ability to produce boys—are key to thriving in the emperor’s harem. But to survive and succeed, the women also need to be skilled readers of their husband’s mood, feelings, and whims.

Fantasies about the lives of courtesans are old tales in China, but they remain relevant today. At their core, these are stories about the struggle to reach the top—especially for young women in a male-dominated world, forced to adapt, win the favor of those in power, and reshape themselves to men’s preferences. And there’s some resonance, too, for young Chinese with the need to conform to succeed in society—whether they face that challenge in everyday life from their boss in the office or from the changing moods of the state’s leadership.

The success of the shows also speaks to the patriarchy’s continued hold in China. Some netizens even produced a set of “guidelines for career advancement” out of these stories of the imperial court women, both for the workplace and private life. Over the past decade or two, success for women has been defined, yet again, as marrying money and especially giving birth to a male heir. There is even an internet meme for those figures—“winners in life.” Meanwhile, single women over a certain age are defined as “leftovers.” It feels as though Chinese women are still trapped behind the walls of the Forbidden City.

When interviewed, Yu Zheng, a scriptwriter and producer of several Qing period TV series, including Story of Yanxi Palace, cited national pride as one of his reasons for making the script, saying he wanted to convey an aspect of China’s “intangible cultural heritage.” “People in our generation are all watching American and British television series,” Yu told the New York Times, “but actually there are many traditional cultures in China that are very worthy of being promoted to the world. We have a lot of beautiful things.”

But that wasn’t enough for the culture police. In late January, the state-run Beijing Daily ran a harshly worded editorial calling out a few of the most popular Qing court TV dramas and categorizing the scheming and intrigues of the concubines in the shows as “incompatible with core socialist values,” referring to a set of state-sanctioned moral principles that has been preached since late 2012 and increasingly used to censor artwork and entertainment products in recent years.

The editorial also slammed the perception that characters in the shows had been more popular than the communist heroes in the state’s official narratives. “The dramas made the emperor’s lifestyle a fashionable trend, polluted our modern society with the concubines’ back-stabbing mentality, and beautified the feudal-imperial past while ignoring the positive role models of today,” the article read. In other words, the “beautiful things” that Yu thought his works were displaying to the world still don’t fit the orthodoxy of the officially promoted core socialist values.

This came as yet another sign of the Chinese authority’s tightening grip on the entertainment industry. From homosexuality to religious materials, from drug addiction to gambling, from celebrity gossips to “poisonous chicken soup for the soul,” over the past few years China’s regulators have been escalating the censorship of films, blogs, social media, and websites with rules that sites failing to adhere to core socialist values will have to shut down. Even the once tolerated apolitical entertainment content can now fall into this category.

The Beijing Daily editorial was enough to shift the lines for those who read the messages from the top. Days later, unsurprisingly, it was reported that the planned rebroadcast of Story of Yanxi Palace and another hit Qing court drama, Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, had been abruptly cancelled.

The concubines may have just fallen victim to the ever-growing dragnet of the somewhat arbitrary cultural censorship. Weeks before, the earlobes of male actors with earrings shown on China’s livestreaming websites appeared to be blurred. “Do earrings run against the core socialist values too?” one social media comment read. They probably really do. A 2018 article by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, accused Chinese pop idols of spawning a generation of “sissy boys,” clearly defining masculinity as the only correct beauty standard of men. And earlier in January, regulators released a list of 100 types of content that short-form video platforms should get rid of, including any material that promoted “nonmainstream views of love and marriage.”

I feel really sorry for Story of Yanxi Palace. It’s very rare in China that a show can simultaneously satisfy the censors and the audience. Even though you think you’ve tried your best to toe the official line and depict standard traditional virtues such as docility—and to show an all-powerful emperor in a positive light—things could still go wrong all of a sudden. After all, the whim of the emperor can change in a moment, and only those who can read his face well can survive.

Audrey Jiajia Li is a Chinese journalist.

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