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Political barbs of dramas Yanxi Palace and White Snake enthral Chinese viewers

The Story Of Yanxi Palace has been viewed more than 21 billion times on China's iQiyi platform – and that's not sitting well with "core socialist issues".

Political barbs of dramas Yanxi Palace and White Snake enthral Chinese viewers

(Photo: The Legend Of White Snake)

Imagine the script of Downton Abbey, the lavish UK television period drama, tickled to launch subtle barbs at the administration of Theresa May and, say, her handling of Brexit.

Chinese costume dramas, equally lavish and likewise holding a nation in thrall, have added just such a layer of political piquancy to tales of intrigue and love in the Qing dynasty. Several platforms held off airing episodes of the shows during the politically sensitive month of March, when political meetings are held.

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The self-imposed moratorium reflects history’s troublesome tendency to hold a mirror up to the present, even centuries later. Tales of dynastic emperors holding on to power, prompting revolts among those long-gone citizens, might be expected to chafe with a leader who has secured the ability to rule for life.

As one academic delicately put it, “[The government] doesn’t want people to think that they have the opportunity to replace the leader or to struggle with the power base or change it. This kind of idea, if it circulates in the countryside or the cities, would be a little dangerous.”


Elaborate hairstyles, sumptuous silks and life at Qing dynasty court, meantime, betray a decadence and moral laxity that sits uneasily with “core socialist values”. An editorial in the state-owned Beijing Daily railed against the imperial dramas’ proclivity to champion such pleasure-seeking above the “virtues of frugality and hard work”.

But you can’t keep a good story down. With March safely out the way, at least some – such as The Legend Of White Snake, a tale of love, heartbreak and destruction – are coming online.

(Photo: The Story Of Yanxi Palace)

The shows are lapped up by Chinese viewers. The Story Of Yanxi Palace, which ran to 70 episodes, became the most googled TV show last year and was shown in more than 80 countries – and this in a nation where Google’s search engine is blocked. According to iQiyi, the Netflix-like platform that hosts the show, it was streamed an average 300 million times a day and has been viewed more than 21 billion times.

"[The government] doesn’t want people to think that they have the opportunity to replace the leader or to struggle with the power base or change it."

The secret sauce of the imperial dramas, said Lok-yin Law, lecturer at the School of Arts & Social Sciences at the Open University of Hong Kong (and husband of an avid fan), is two-fold. The stories resonate with everyday life, in the court or today’s workplace – back-stabbing is every bit as common in offices as it was in dynastic harems – and they revive the glory of Chinese culture.

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The everyday appeal goes beyond bitchy colleagues. Patriarchal power politics may be the reality, but Yanxi Palace boasts a female protagonist who is more conniving minx than demure doll, and has won legions of feminist fans.


As with British period dramas, historians carp that accuracy is sacrificed for ratings. “It’s impossible an emperor in the Qing Dynasty, very busy dealing with politics and affairs of state... would have time to deal with so many concubines and negotiate among them,” said Song Geng, associate professor at Hong Kong university’s School of Chinese.

That highlights another schism: Any educational purpose of TV shows is at odds with the profit motive of producers. Dramas set in Imperial China – much like those based in Edwardian Britain or indeed the 1980s Texas of Dallas – go big on costumes, intrigue and wavering moral compasses. They are less occupied with instructing the nation’s youth in history and moral rectitude.

(Photo: The Story Of Yanxi Palace)

That, of course, is ultimately where their appeal lies: As escapist dramas rooted just enough in the enduring traits of human nature to ensure growing audiences. Several are finding popularity beyond China, particularly in Vietnam, Singapore and Hong Kong. Indeed, said Mr Law, he sees more chat about the shows in his Facebook social circles than among his friends on the mainland.

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Hence the potential for the imperial dramas to become part of China’s soft power arsenal. That its culture has failed to hold much global sway – compare the reach of South Korea’s K-pop or Japanese anime – is a source of dismay within China. “It’s ridiculous that Kung Fu Panda was made by Hollywood,” harrumphed one analyst.

For Prof Song it’s a missed opportunity. “It could be... just like the K-wave,” he said. “For me this is good for China because it shows the influence of the culture.”

By Louise Lucas © The Financial Times Limited 2019