What the popularity of a Qing dynasty drama, The Story of Yanxi Palace, says about China’s appetite for feminism
Haining Liu says underlying the runaway success of the Chinese TV series are regressive and patriarchal attitudes to women that persist even in the aftermath of China’s #MeToo movement
Actress Cynthia Nixon did not get very far in her recent efforts to become New York governor. Disappointing. But when she first announced she was running for office, I felt my virtual reality had finally coincided with real life. The strong-minded female lawyer Miranda, who Nixon played in the popular show Sex and the City , stepped off the television screen as an aspiring politician, thrusting the series that captivated audiences at the turn of the millennium into relevance again today.
In China, a different type of drama is dominating the screens of millions of viewers – stories of love and palace intrigue at the court of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796) during the Qing dynasty and featuring his many wives and concubines. The new champion is The Story of Yanxi Palace, which set a single-day viewer record on August 12 with 530 million people tuning in, and garnered over 15 billion views by its finale on August 27. About 82 per cent of those viewers were women, according to Yi En Data, a mobile-based application monitoring viewership.
What’s not to like? The residents of the Forbidden City looks fantastic in luxurious silk costumes with beautiful accessories. The series works even better if the female viewer imagines herself as the heroine, adored by the most powerful man, defeating every other woman to win his heart and being chosen as his favourite consort. The combination of love and power is intoxicating.
But every time I threw myself into watching the series, something didn’t feel quite right.
In The Story of Yanxi Palace and many similar Qing court dramas, a woman’s virtue is judged by how obedient she is to her husband, the emperor, and how many male offspring she provides him with. Her existence is defined by the status conferred on her by one man in exchange for her own identity. To be successful on this path, she must be pretty, fertile, gentle and resourceful, embodying perfection without being herself. On her deathbed, the first wife of the Qianlong Emperor is said to have yelled out, “Who am I really?”, offering an unusual feminist twist.
“Feminism” is not a popular word in China. Occasionally, when I try to strike up a conversation about women’s rights with family or in the workplace with male friends, I am greeted with a bewildered look, followed by the blunt question: “Are you a feminist?” The next question, which is also part of the argument, is: “Chinese women already have many rights. What more do you want?”
In theory, what Western women had to fight for over decades, such as the right to vote or access to education, was granted to Chinese women in one go. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, gender equality was written into the constitution. Chairman Mao declared that women in China should “hold up half the sky”.
But not having to fight for equality means we do not appreciate the value of it. The rights were gifted to us. Consequently, decades later, we are still living in the logic of Qing court dramas, inhabiting men’s worlds, abiding by their rules and defining our values against their preferences.
Take the marriage of JD’s founder Liu Qiangdong, who was arrested recently on suspicion of sexual misconduct in America. Liu wed socialite Zhang Zetian in 2015, when she was a fresh college graduate who gained online stardom as “Sister Milk Tea” after a photo of her holding a cup of tea went viral.
A year after the wedding, she gave birth to a baby girl and then became China’s youngest female billionaire at the age of 24. She is an example of “a winner in life” in the eyes of many, being young, rich and beautiful, having married up the social ladder and bearing a child. Being the “trophy wife” of one of China’s most successful men has so far been considered her biggest achievement.
Sound familiar? It is not evil if a woman chooses marriage as a shortcut to fulfilling material needs. Yet turning that into a social norm and letting the logic of Qing dynasty concubines influence our mindset today puts women in a very compromising position.
Since July, posts about sexual assaults in China’s charity, media and religious sectors have gone viral on social media. Very quickly, the names of some renowned male personalities and their “dirty little secrets” were made known to the public. Two months later, China’s #MeToo momentum seems to have faded. Sexual harassment or assault still remains taboo for women to talk about and is often regarded as shameful.
In everyday life, women who are very good at their jobs and who have strong personalities are often stereotyped as being tough or manly. You rarely see a man who is doing his job well labelled that way. Once past their mid-20s, single women are categorised as “leftover women”, literally, commodities left unwanted on the shelf whose value depreciates over time.
Some fundamental understanding of women in China needs to be changed. These Qing court dramas, entertaining as they might be, are not helping at all.
Watch: Speaking out against sexual harassment in China
But even in The Story of Yanxi Palace, the protagonist is also the most determined independent soul who dares to stand up to, and argue with, the emperor. If a fictional character from hundreds of years ago can do that, we, as modern women, should be able to take many steps further.
“Holding up half the sky”? Maybe. What matters more is how we do it – with courage, shoulder to shoulder with men.
Haining Liu is a journalist and aspiring author