Ming the merciless

Costume dramas back in force, but one gets pilloried for historical errors

Tang Wei-w

Tang Wei: traded big screen for small screen with mixed results

China’s media regulators are difficult to please, with changing views on what constitutes acceptable content, even for TV dramas. In one case it was plotlines involving time-travel that got banned; in another it was scheming palace concubines that were deemed persona non grata. One of the most confusing things for anyone tracking China’s entertainment industry is keeping up with what has been firbidden from the nation’s screens and why.

In some ways that is a microcosm of China itself. Many things aren’t quite what they seem, including the directives from top media regulators. A bold, seemingly blanket ban comes out, only for some favoured channel or streaming site to find a loophole or grey area that permits it to go ahead with its own show in spite of the restriction. Screenwriters, directors and producers struggle with a system that’s always in a state of flux depending on shifting political whims or changes in their relationships with authority figures, particularly in periods of personnel change. Insiders know how to navigate the situation – for the most part – but even the most experienced can still be floored (witness the money Huayi Brothers has burned on its still unreleased summer blockbuster The Eight Hundred; see WiC457).

However, a directive released last August was more airtight than most, requiring that the entertainment content aired – across all platforms – ahead of the nation’s seventieth anniversary celebrations on October 1 had to be patriotic in tone. One casualty were the hugely popular costume dramas that studios pump out with great regularity. These dramas, it was indicated, would divert from the focus on the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Last month, the regulatory ban on these older period pieces appeared to get relaxed – a state of affairs evidenced by no fewer than seven costume dramas making their debuts on different streaming platforms. These included Youku’s Royal Nirvana (see WiC476) as well as Joy of Life, which (unusually) streamed on both iQiyi and rival Tencent Video – in spite of their fierce rivalry.

But the historical drama that’s been generating the most headlines is a series called Ming Dynasty. Even though the show completed its filming back in 2017, it was only recently given the green light for broadcast on Hunan Satellite TV and to stream on Youku.

The series, which is a biography of the Empress Sun (1399–1462), sees well-known actress Tang Wei play the Ming empress from a youthful 16 years-old to the age of 70. Born in Binzhou in Shandong province, Empress Sun was the daughter of a lowly-ranked civil servant named Sun Zhou. Chosen for her good looks, she was brought into the palace as a concubine of the crown prince Zhu Zhanji, the future Xuande Emperor (1399-1435), when she was about 18. And when Xuande became emperor in 1425, he grew so besotted with Sun that he promoted her to the title of Noble Consort. Two years later she gave birth to a son. As the empress at the time – Hu – was childless, she was made to abdicate, with Sun taking her place.

The series is the first foray onto the small screen by Tang, the actress, in 12 years. The starlet, who came to international fame through director Lee Ang’s sexually explicit 2007 spy thriller Lust, Caution, is better known for her roles in rom-coms like 2013’s Finding Mr. Right and arthouse fare such as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which came out in 2017. So when she announced her return to TV, fans expressed their anticipation.

However, reviews for the show have been fairly negative. As of the end of December, the TV series had generated almost 200 million tweets on Sina Weibo, with many complaining about the weak acting and poorly constructed script. On review site Douban, the series had a middling rating of just 6.6 out of 10.

A common critique of Ming Dynasty is that the screenplay is plagued with inaccuracies. In one scene, to charm Sun Ruowei (played by Tang), Zhu belts out a song from the play The Palace of Eternal Life, which originated in the Qing Dynasty, the monarchy that ruled after the Ming. “Does the male lead have the ability to time travel? Otherwise, how does he court a woman in the Ming Dynasty with a song that was written during the Qing?” a netizen mocked.

“For a big-budget production like this one, couldn’t the producers have hired a history consultant or given the screenwriters a crash course on Ming history? If the show respected history, its word-of-mouth would certainly be a lot better,” another opined.

Tang’s acting has also attracted flak, with some claiming her performance was so cringeworthy that every time she appeared on screen it felt like “a jolt of lightning”.

“Tang’s acting is so awkward. Sometimes she is so over-the-top but other times her expressions were too subtle,” another netizen wrote on weibo.

“Tang is probably better suited for arthouse films. After all, filmmaking is generally less fast-paced compared to filming a TV show [which typically make 60-plus episodes at a rapid clip], which means actors have more time to study for their characters and prepare for the scenes. So compared with Tang, it’s no surprise that Deng Jiajia [a seasoned TV performer who plays Sun’s younger sister] has managed to steal the show,” another offered by way of explanation.

Critics also believed that audiences may be starting to tire of female-centric plotlines. These have come to dominate the genre in historical dramas, typically featuring strong female leads, who overcome obstacles and humiliations.

“When it comes to storyline, Ming Dynasty is no different from The Legend of Mi Yue, The Princess Weiyoung and Beauty’s Rival in the Palace. It’s just old wine in a new bottle,” Tencent Entertainment complained.

Nevertheless, the same entertainment portal reckoned that the ban on costume dramas hasn’t disappeared entirely and that the efforts to “ration” their output will eventually lift standards in the genre at large. “In the foreseeable future, the release of costume dramas will be further narrowed. How to compete within a limited broadcast quota will lead to the survival of the fittest. From this perspective, audiences can look forward to lesser quantity but overall higher quality. So perhaps it is a positive development for the TV industry as a whole,” it wrote.

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