Meet the she-EOs of the Song

Drama about female entrepreneurs contrasts with tycoon’s bankruptcy


The Mulan star is now helming China’s highest-rated drama of 2022

Before she became known around the world for her role in Disney’s remake of Mulan, Liu Yifei, 34, was popular in China for her roles in costume dramas. Her career started when she was just 15, becoming the breakout star in 2003’s Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, an adaptation of Louis Cha’s wuxia novel of the same title. Two years later she was tapped to play the lead role of Xiaolongnu, one of the female protagonists in Cha’s The Return of the Condor Heroes. With her angelic appearance, fans called Liu the “Fairy Sister”.

After a string of costume dramas, Liu then moved into films before trumping over a thousand competitors for the lead role of Mulan in 2020. Many thought she would continue her acting career in the United States, but she surprised the industry by choosing to appear in another Chinese costume drama, her first after 16 years.

A Dream of Splendour debuted last weekend and it racked up almost 600 million views on Tencent Video over the first five days of its release. On Douban, the TV series and review site, the show is scoring a very positive rating of 8.8 out of 10, rendering it the most highly rated TV series so far this year.

“It is clear that the production values of the show are very high. The screenplay too is very interesting. Liu Yifei has a really good eye for choosing winners. This time she has a lot of room to give depth to her performance,” one fan applauded on Douban.

“What’s impressive is that even though this is Liu Yifei’s first local period drama in 16 years, she becomes the focal point as soon as she appears on the screen,” another gushed.

A Dream of Splendour is a story of female empowerment, telling the tale of three women and their road to independent lives during the Northern Song Dynasty.

It follows Zhao Pan’er (Liu), a young woman from the bottom of the social hierarchy, as she and two friends Sun Sanniang (Liu Yan) and Song Yinzhang (Lin Yun) leave their village near Qiantang (today’s Hangzhou) to start a tea house in the imperial city. In the process she also meets and falls in love with Gu Qianfan (Chen Xiao), an imperial envoy.

The romantic relationship with Gu tells the story of love between two people equal in merit, although from different social classes.

In one of the scenes Zhao reminds herself not to rely on men, having been disappointed in them in the past. Instead her goal is self-reliance. “Promise me, always remind me to be clear-headed,” Zhao asks her pal Sun. “That’s why I have to pay off all my debt [to Gu]. Never let him look down on me. I also never want to look down on myself.”

This highly marketable message has struck a chord with many in the audience. “The show smartly uses the backdrop of ‘three ancient women starting a business in the capital’ to tell a story of the modern spirit of female empowerment. It also showcases women’s resilience, growth and friendship,” one critic applauded.

“The show respects my aesthetic. But more importantly, it respects my intelligence,” another added.

Also impressing viewers is the film-like cinematography, which feels at times like a tourism promotion video for Hangzhou (that said, Hangzhou Daily has pointed out that many of the scenes were actually filmed in Wuxi and Hengdian).

“Hangzhou has to be the biggest winner this time. After watching A Dream of Splendour, I really want to travel to Hangzhou,” another fan wrote.

Yang Yang, the director of the series, says she wanted to make a show about the women of today. “Even though A Dream of Splendour is a historical drama, it contains a lot of modern sensitivities. In fact, for me it tells a story about ‘beipiao’ [migrant workers in Beijing]. I hope it can bring some empathy to our audience: stand up strong whenever you want to give up, and never give in to bad luck.”

Messages like these will have been inspiring for many in the female audience and they might also have offered some comfort to businesswomen that have run into commercial trouble, like Zhou Xiaoguang, who has been back in the news recently.

Zhou became more widely known because of the TV show Feather Flies To The Sky, which was said to be based on her life story.

Born in 1962, Zhou got her start selling embroidery patterns. With her husband Yu Yunxin she thenstarted a business selling low-end jewellery in Yiwu, one of the country’s hubs for wholesale trading. But Zhou wanted to move upmarket into higher profit margins. Tapping into her showbusiness connections, she partnered with TV host Yang Lan and Celine Dion (the Canadian singer) to create a high-end jewellery line. But the collaboration failed to get much momentum and soon fizzled out so Zhou switched tack to real estate, acquiring the developer Zhejiang Wansha, which had plenty of commercial projects around Yiwu. She also expanded the developer’s reach by snapping up retail properties in Shanghai.

In 2016, she took her company Xinguang public through a backdoor listing in Shenzhen, renaming it ST Xinguang. In 2017, Zhou’s family ranked 65th on the Hurun Rich List with a total net worth of Rmb33 billion ($4.94 billion), also earning her the title of Zhejiang’s richest woman.

Zhou’s fall from grace began almost immediately after the company went public, when she ran into financial trouble.

“To expand so rapidly at scale usually comes at a cost: that is, relying heavily on leverage. Between 2010 to mid-2018, ST Xinguang’s assets grew by six times, but its liabilities also exploded by eightfold. At some point, as the saying goes, ‘three pot lids simply couldn’t cover eight pots’. The gap between assets and liabilities quickly widened,” concluded Da Mao Money, a financial commentator.

In 2018 ST Xinguang defaulted on two loans totalling Rmb3 billion, confirming growing speculation about the firm’s dire financial situation. Between 2018 and 2020, the company then racked up further net losses of over Rmb8.4 billion, forcing it to delist from the stock market. In a bid to save her firm Zhou sold cars and properties in her personal portfolio, although it wasn’t enough to prevent her company from defaulting on multiple loans.

Zhou this month became a hotly searched name again online when it emerged that she had finally been forced to declare bankruptcy…

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