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Too lavish, too nasty: Chinese state media goes to war against Yanxi Palace and other period dramas

Imperial dramas blamed for promoting extravagance, glamour and pleasure-seeking over the virtues of frugality and hard work

Programme makers also accused of putting commercial profits above providing spiritual guidance to audiences

Some of China’s most popular historical dramas have been taken down from television channels after state media launched an unusual attack on the genre for its extravagance and “negative influence on society”.

The extravagant series Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace about a girl strategically climbing above her rank to become Empress of the Qing Dynasty was scheduled for Monday afternoon on Dragon TV, but was replaced by a reality show, Joyful Comedians.

Some online commentators also claimed Shandong TV had replaced its regular evening showing of the hit series Story of Yanxi Palace with Ode to Joy, a contemporary drama series about five women seeking love and career success in Shanghai.

The change in programming schedules followed an article in Friday’s edition of the Beijing Daily magazine Theory Weekly which called out the “sins” of imperial dramas, claiming they encouraged viewers to pursue the glamorous lifestyles of China’s past monarchs and promoted pleasure and luxury above the “virtues of frugality and hard work”.

The article singled out a number of period dramas – including ?Story of Yanxi Palace and ?Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace – and said a close following of the plots of these series – which usually involve elaborate schemes hatched by back-stabbing courtiers – would worsen the “balance” of society.

The programme makers were also accused of putting commercial profits above providing spiritual guidance to their audiences.

Story of Yanxi Palace broke all viewing records when it was released last summer on video streaming site iQiyi. The 70-episode series has since racked up more than 5 billion views on Chinese streaming services and is especially popular with women.

The drama – set in the Qing dynasty court, where the emperor’s concubines vie for power – became an overnight sensation for its elaborate costumes and set design, as well as its strong-willed and cunning female protagonist, a rarity in typical Chinese court dramas, which usually feature pure and innocent women characters.

Online commentators on China’s social media platform Weibo defended their favourite television drama.

“Yanxi Palace’s contribution to the feminist movement has been hugely underestimated. From little angel Fucha’s silent protest against feudal etiquette … to sister Wei’s leveraging of imperial power to reach the peak of human life, they have reached the limits of what women could do in a feudal society,” one user said.

“The integrity of sister Wei’s character and her independence in love are what many so-called big female protagonists [of other dramas] can only dream of having,” another said.

One top-rated comment on Weibo read: “OK, let’s watch the anti-Japanese dramas they broadcast every day then.”

However, Chinese social commentator Zhang Lijia said she understood the concerns of the people and the authorities.

“I do see some points that the article made. To go far in life, you have to play tricks and be ruthless and nasty to each other. Already there’s moral decline in today’s China,” she said.

Zhang also saw the article’s criticism as a reflection of the current general crackdown, recalling that some conservatives had made similar noises in the past when the political atmosphere was tightened.

For example, a few years ago a senior retired official had criticised young girls with dyed hair clad in sexy outfits on a talent show for being out of line with socialist values.

“These costume dramas are hugely popular and therefore money makers. I’d be very surprised if they are banned. Then, who knows. The top leaders have become less predictable,” Zhang said.

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