Age cannot wither it

Sun Li’s harem drama is still hugely popular a decade after it first aired

Sun Qian w

Sun Qian: plays the heroine’s confidante in Empresses in the Palace

Even though it ended seven years ago, the American version of The Office is still one of the most-watched shows on Netflix. More than 46 billion minutes of the series were streamed to viewers in 2018, for instance. Teen pop icon Billie Eilish, who admits to having watched the series 14 times over, even wrote a song inspired by it. In 2020, two of the most popular podcasts on iTunes and Spotify were hosted by former cast members talking about the hit comedy too.

A Chinese TV show has been enjoying a renaissance of its own a decade after it was first broadcast. This week marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Empresses in the Palace, also known locally as Zhen Huan Zhuan. On Sina Weibo, an official post about the anniversary soon garnered over 400 million views, rendering it one of the hottest topics on Chinese social media.

“A lot of my friends know about my obsession with Empresses in the Palace. The show has become something I watch almost daily, with my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t know how I could get through my day without it!” one ardent fan confessed.

“I can’t believe it has been 10 years since its release. I was taken aback. But for a lot of fans, Empresses in the Palace doesn’t feel ‘old’ at all. It is still fresh in our memory,” another added. “The screenplay is so tightly written, with so many twists and turns, and ups and downs, that it is impossible to be bored, even if you watch the episodes out of sequence.”

Based on an online novel of the same name by Liu Lian Zi, the plot in the series begins in 1722, at the court of the Yongzheng Emperor. The drama starts as the Qing Dynasty emperor chooses new additions for his imperial harem. Of the young women who are presented, the innocent Zhen Huan (played by actress Sun Li) is selected, along with two other women, who will become her close friends as she navigates the intricacies of palace politics.

Set primarily in the harem, most of the action focuses on the empress dowager, the chief consorts and the concubines (as Zhen Huan starts out), all of whom are jostling for power and position within the court.

The plot is littered with dramatic action. There are poisonings, drownings, beatings, false pregnancies and miscarriages. Zhen develops into the most calculating schemer after being pushed to her breaking point by other concubines.

Actress Jiang Xin plays Zhen’s arch-nemesis and Sun Qian takes on the role of her maid and confidante.

When the series first debuted a decade ago on Anhui Satellite TV and Dragon Satellite TV, the 76-episode drama was an instant ratings hit. But few could have predicted its enduring popularity. Long after its finale episode, Empresses in the Palace has been played repeatedly on other satellite networks and through online video platforms. After Youku purchased the rights to the series from the now defunct LeTV in 2018, the costume drama went on to attain new records from the platform with 160 million views within the first week, surpassing a range of newly-released and much-hyped dramas of the same year.

On Douban, the TV series and film review site, Empresses in the Palace has also maintained a staggeringly good score of 9.3 out of 10. Diehard fans have even started their own review pages, dissecting each scene frame by frame. Some of the more famous scenes have also been converted into much-admired gifs, which have percolated around the Chinese internet.

The success of Empresses in the Palace also gave rise to a wave of other concubine dramas featuring female leads. Ruyi’s Love in the Palace and Story of Yanxi Palace, both of which came out in 2018, took many of their cues from their illustrious predecessor, for instance, by dramatising stories about concubines advancing through the political world of the imperial court.

Other fans of Empresses in the Palace say that the reason for its success was its feminist take on womens’ roles through history and its inspiring tale of how young women – in this case the court’s concubines – have the capacity to survive and prosper in a male-dominated world. “The women on the show are also all victims of the patriarchy. Like Zhen Huan, they came into the court when they were young and full of ideas and imaginations about what their loves and lives could be. But they learned quickly that the emperor, who held the absolute power, was never the husband of anyone, or anyone alone. Meanwhile, their status in the palace and the fate of their families were closely linked to their positions in the court. It was survival of the fittest: they had to do whatever it took to consolidate their power and eliminate anyone that threatened their position,” ThePaper.cn mused.

Critics reckon that the enduring popularity of show comes down to a simple element of the story: even though the plot is set in ancient times, it reflects many of the realities of navigating complex hierarchies of power and influence in contemporary China.

“Although Empresses in the Palace is packaged as a costume drama and set in the Qing Dynasty, once that label comes off audiences believe it very well reflects what is happening today,” Poison Pen, a popular film critic, claimed.

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