A historic romance

Costume drama is watched 1.5 billion times online


Half of the perfect couple: Tang Yan stars in the hit TV drama

In 2005 writer Tong Hua released an online novel called Scarlet Heart. It tells the story of a young woman who travels back in time to the Qing Dynasty. The heroine finds herself trapped in the body of the young daughter of a Manchu aristocrat and strikes up an unlikely romance with one of the sons of the Kangxi emperor.

The novel proved popular and in 2011, that savvy purveyor of pop-culture Hunan Satellite TV adapted it into a television drama. It went on to become the most popular series of the year, inspiring a crop of time-travel shows (like Gong, see WiC98). Eventually they annoyed the censors, who banned them.

Three years after the first success of Scarlet Heart, Tong wrote another story but this time without the time-travel element. It too has been turned into a TV drama. Perfect Couple tells the tale of Jin Yuanba, the only son of an aristocratic family in the Ming Dynasty. He is told to marry a young woman called Jiang Xiaoxuan from another prestigious family. She is secretly in love with another man, so in order to escape from marriage Jiang persuades her friend, the odd but beautiful Yu Qilin to step in as the replacement bride.

Perfect Couple concluded its TV run last week. But the best measure of its success is online, where it has accumulated more than 1.5 billion views, says 21CN Business Herald. It seems to have struck a chord with viewers largely because it is not the typical historical drama. Gone are the power struggles and the palace politics. “Why is Perfect Couple so popular? In summary, the story is engaging and light-hearted. It gives viewers plenty of laughter and joy. The acting is outstanding. That explains why fans are already demanding a second season right after the first season wraps,” says Morning Express.

Still, the success of Perfect Couple was a surprise to many industry insiders. That’s because the consensus view was that audiences had tired of costume dramas, which have swamped broadcasting schedules over the past few years. As a result, satellite networks have redirected much of their energy to making sit-coms and more contemporary shows. Almost all of the recent series reviewed by WiC have been set in modern China.

Perhaps audiences have changed their minds again and are embracing the costume genre once more. In addition to Perfect Couple, a similar drama called The Palace: The Lost Daughter has also done well in the ratings.

Blame nostalgia? “Watching [costume] dramas makes me forget all the pressures of modern life and brings me back to my high school and college days when I watched them all the time,” one netizen wrote.

Others say the appeal is in the recreation of a more glamorous era. “All the women are so elegant in the period dramas. The beautiful headpieces and costumes are just amazing,” another online fan wrote.

Will Perfect Couple prove a ratings anomaly? Perhaps. What isn’t in doubt, however, is popularity of the genre in other parts of the world, namely southeast Asia. Legal Evening Post reports that Chinese costume dramas like Scarlet Heart are winning over viewers in places like Myanmar and Thailand too. “When it comes to contemporary shows, Korean dramas still take the lead. However, for costume dramas, China is the undisputed leader. Even Japanese dramas don’t pose a threat to the Chinese in that sector,” says Burmese commentator Jue Du.

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