China’s breast drama

Regulators fire back after Fan’s feast of flesh leads to dizzying TV ratings

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Fan: drama over costumes

She was the only female monarch in Chinese history. Wu Zetian, the Tang Dynasty imperial concubine-turned-empress, was said to be stunningly beautiful but also spectacularly ruthless.

Myth has it that she ordered the suicides of a grandson and granddaughter who dared to criticise her. Later she poisoned her husband, who – in very strange circircumstances for an emperor – died unwatched and alone.

The controversial figure is again in the news thanks to a drama on Hunan Satellite TV based (very loosely) on her life story.

The Empress of China was reportedly the country’s most expensive series to make, costing Rmb300 million ($48.2 million). But helped by the lure of lead actress Fan Bingbing, early episodes were soon breaking ratings records. In addition to Fan’s star power, critics have credited a generous showing of skin as a factor in the show’s popularity. In the first few episodes, a number of the actresses donned low-cut dresses highlighting their shapely forms. For many onlookers, the impact has been revelatory. One overly-excited photographer even developed a nosebleed while shooting on set, says NetEase.

“I can hardly concentrate when there is nothing but porcelain cleavage,” agreed an overwhelmed netizen.

But the series seems to have been over-exposed. Unfortunately for its fans, it disappeared abruptly from the air before the New Year for what Hunan TV calls “technical reasons”. Although the network didn’t elaborate further, netizens suspect that it might have irked China’s notoriously prudish censors. “Many viewers speculated the suspension was a punishment given by the television regulators for the much-discussed revealing costumes of the characters on the show, which stirred online debate in which the female characters were dubbed ‘squeezed breasts’,” Xinhua offered in wary explanation.

That speculation was confirmed when the show returned to the airwaves last week. Although the storyline appeared unchanged, it was clear that the aesthetic had undergone a major transformation. Boldly-defined bodices were no longer on display, thanks to a new edit. Viewers were soon complaining that they couldn’t see anything below the characters’ necks and all the wider-angle shots were replaced by close-up headshots.

Disgruntled netizens moaned that the drama should be renamed the Saga of Big Head.

“At this rate, even the Mona Lisa’s cleavage needs to be censored,” one mocked.

Another wrote: “I really had no idea that twenty-first century people could be this conservative. They are not even as open-minded as people from the Tang Dynasty one millennium ago.”

Property developer Ren Zhiqiang also chimed in on his widely-followed weibo: “People are less concerned with the cleavage but more worried that a bunch of cultural thugs are in charge of censorship.”

Others tried to defend the producers, saying that the revealing clothing choices were historically accurate.

“Back in the Tang Dynasty, the higher a woman’s social status, the lower her neckline. I think it shows that the drama should follow the historical facts. No matter whether the show is good or not, I don’t agree with the regulator’s measures,” argued a more scholarly contributor.

The vast majority of viewers seem to concur. A survey conducted by Sina Weibo asked the simple question: “Cleavage scenes cut, yes or no?” An almost-unanimous 95% of respondents – out of 86,000 in the poll – backed the bosoms and demanded their return.

No great surprise, perhaps. But the Morning Post, a Shanghai newspaper, reckons that the censoring is necessary. “The excessive cleavage is merely a gimmick to distract attention from the roughly-written screenplay and rowdy performances from the actors,” it explained starchily. “Even without the ‘scissor hands’, this is hardly a show that respects TV viewers’ intelligence. And now, without the cleavage to distract them, it is just a silly costume drama.”

It is not the first time that on-screen flesh has stirred a furore. In Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), Gong Li’s dramatic decolletage provoked a debate about the need for a ratings system in China’s cinemas. Meanwhile the censors’ edit of The Empress of China is proving costly for Hunan TV. Guangming Daily says ratings have plummeted since its rerelease, with many of the 3,000 low-cut costumes made for the series now looking redundant.

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