Inside the harem

TV viewers say Qing concubine drama offers lessons on office politics

Wu Jinyan-w

Wu Jinyan: stars as a battling concubine in the Story of Yanxi Palace

Back in 1998 a TV show called My Fair Princess outperformed expectations, winning a huge following from audiences. The series told the story of an orphaned girl (played by actress Zhao Wei) who unexpectedly becomes royalty during Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1735-1796) in the Qing Dynasty. The drama had such a large fan base that when Hunan Satellite TV showed it again in July (for the sixteenth time), it still drew the biggest ratings ever recorded for daytime TV.

Over the years audience interest in imperial tales has stayed surprisingly robust. In 2011, actress Sun Li’s Empresses In The Palace, a costume drama about scheming concubines (also set in the Qing Dynasty), also smashed rating records. Similarly, Palace, a series about a modern-day protagonist travelling back in time to the Qing era, was a huge hit too.

This begs a question: why does the Qing Dynasty prove such a popular backdrop and why haven’t viewers become jaded by these costume dramas?

WiC has been sifting opinions on the matter. Partly, we suspect, it’s nostalgia for a golden period of Chinese prosperity and power. There is also an idealised view that strong, dynamic emperors fought social injustices and corruption. Importantly, audiences seem to see all the palace power struggles as instructive for how to get ahead in contemporary office politics too.

And sure enough, the Qing drama genre again hit new heights of popularity last week when two new series went head-to-head – with both again set during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong.

First, there was actress Zhou Xun’s highly anticipated Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, which is currently streaming on Tencent Video. It was originally supposed to be released last year but ran into delays at the hands of media regulators, only moving forward when Tencent Literature acquired the production company that made it. The show traces the life of Ulanara (Zhou) – known as ‘the Step Empress’ – and her romance with Emperor Qianlong.

Rival show Story of Yanxi Palace, which features starlets Wu Jinyan and Qin Lan, follows the story of a young woman who works as a palace maid as a means of investigating the death of her sister. Eventually she becomes one of Emperor Qianlong’s favourite mistresses.

With its focus on court intrigue Yanxi Palace has been dubbed ‘the battle of the concubines’ (Qing emperors tended to have several dozen in their harem, although getting Qianlong’s attention must have been an especial challenge, because much of his time was spent travelling the country or penning the 41,863 poems he composed over his lifetime).

Reviews for the 70-episode Story of Yanxi Palace have been positive. On Douban, the film and TV rating site, it scored 7.1 out of 10, and it has generated 14.5 billion views since its debut on streaming platform iQiyi last month, averaging out at 190 million views an episode.

iQiyi chief executive Gong Yu planned meticulously to make the series a success, the South China Morning Post reported this week. For instance, he brought in veteran producer Yu Zheng who then used Big Data analysis of viewer responses to similar shows in the past to boost the chances of a blockbuster hit.

Critics say one reason for its success is that it has struck a chord with white-collar women. “A lot of young women in the workplace look up to the heroines in the drama, thinking they can navigate their own power struggles and come out on top in their own careers,” says Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment blog. “They are inspired by the characters – like their abilities not to show emotion in adversity and forming alliances – and then deploy those skills in real life. That’s why a show like Yanxi Palace has such a loyal following.”

Ruyi is behind in the head-to-head rivalry, with a 6.6 rating on Douban and no more than a billion views online.

A lot of the criticism of the rival series surrounds the casting of Zhou. Audiences complain that the 43 year-old actress is “too old” to play the character Ruyi, whose story starts when she is a 15 year-old consort. “The amount of makeup they lather on the actors to make them look like teenagers is a big turn off for the audiences,” reckoned Entertainment Angel, a blog.

Other netizens complained that Zhou’s voice is “too raspy” and “mature” for a teenager.

“Compared with the traditional imperial drama, audiences seem to prefer the new way of storytelling as seen in Yanxi Palace,” observed Ping West, another TV critic. “Ruyi, however, is a traditional costume drama about a simple love story. That has gone out of fashion.”

“The problem with Ruyi is that it wants to differentiate itself from the other palace dramas by focusing on the romantic relationships between the leads. But what it has failed to notice is that audiences are bored of the story line and it is also historically inaccurate, so fails doubly,” agreed Phoenix News.

Yanxi Palace has done well enough in China for its production firm to sell the distribution rights to more than 70 markets worldwide, rendering it one of the most widely distributed Chinese production to date.

Hong Kong’s TVB has grabbed the rights for Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Malaysia, and similar deals have been struck with networks in South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

“Huge hit dramas in the Chinese mainland such as Story of Yanxi Palace and Legend of Fu Yao (see WiC415) are seeing great success in other areas of China, as well as in overseas markets. The rise in popularity of Chinese dramas among overseas audiences has been significant,” the Global Times celebrated triumphantly.

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