China’s hugely successful period dramas could be facing increased scrutiny from the Communist Party and its ever-widening dragnet of cultural censorship.
In the spotlight is “Story of Yanxi Palace,” an epic 70-episode series about a maid’s rise to power in the court of the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China between 1735 and 1796.
To call the show a smash hit is an understatement. More than half a billion Chinese viewers watched it online in a single day last August, with the series streamed more than 15 billion times in total.
It was also a rare success for the country’s culture machine overseas, becoming the most Googled TV show on the planet in 2018 – a remarkable feat considering Google is blocked in China, meaning the achievement was almost entirely the product of foreign interest.
But despite its success – and months after it broke all viewing records on streaming website iQiyi – the influential state-run Beijing Daily suddenly published an editorial on January 25 saying the scheming and intrigues of the show’s concubines were “incompatible with the core values of socialism.” It also criticized the notion that characters in the show were more popular than communist heroes in state propaganda.
“(The show) made the emperor lifestyle’s fashionable and something to strive for, polluted modern society with the concubine’s back-stabbing mentality, beautified imperial China while ignoring the heroes of today, glorified luxury while attacking thriftiness and hard work,” the newspaper said.
The editorial also took aim at “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace,” another hit period drama of 2018 set during the rule of Qianlong.
Days after the editorial was published, the National Business Daily revealed that the planned rebroadcasting of both shows on a number of Chinese TV stations had been abruptly canceled.
Geng Song, associate professor at Hong Kong University, said the cancellation was unlikely to be a coincidence.
“It almost happened at the same time so definitely there must be some link between the two,” he said.
Song said the threat of censorship was a common problem in Chinese TV production.
“This has happened many times before,” he said. “People are saying that TV producers or TV stations are dancing with shackles on.
“So all these dramas like Yanxi Palace have generated a huge amount of revenue, but on the other hand … censorship is very heavy handed, and in the past for instance the time-traveling drama, the play about how you can travel to the Ming dynasty, Qing dynasty, was banned, anti-corruption genre was banned, and I think there was also state interference on singing contests.
“There’s a chance certainly there’s some decision from the top, from authorities, and you have to put off air certain types of drama. I think this happens a lot for Chinese TV programs.”
However Song said that didn’t necessarily signal the end for China’s period dramas, adding: “I don’t think there’s any sign that this there will be a crackdown on the palace struggle genre of TV drama.”
The past year has also seen authorities crack down on the country’s rap scene and live-streaming videos amid concerns they promote bad values.
Canadian-Chinese pop star Kris Wu once said his dream was to “take Chinese hip-hop to the whole world.” But China’s media regulator singled out hip-hop in January, with an edict saying that TV “should not feature actors with tattoos (or depict) hip-hop culture, sub-culture and immoral culture,” according to state media.
However some members of China’s cultural scene defend the strict government controls.
“Every entertainment industry, no matter what country, has a moral standard,” said Mo Jun, a long-time Chinese drama director.
“If the audience isn’t able to derive positive lessons from a drama, any negative influence on society should be avoided.”