Cleavage-cropping mainland censors trying to redress Tang dynasty's sexy norm, say experts

Although censors are cutting back on cleavage shots on mainland TV amid a clean-up of cultural works, historically China was tolerant of decolletage displays

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm

Shapely breasts, often more ample than Mother Nature bestowed, are objects of desire and status symbols in China these days.

Posters featuring buxom women touting the benefits of boob jobs, herbal supplements, creams or other methods to boost one's bust are frequently seen by anyone getting into a taxi or a lift in Beijing. "The happiest women can expose their proud, vital curves," says one advertisement. "Autologous fat breast enhancement can create a legendary breast."

It's a far cry from the time, a century ago, when many Chinese women bound their chests and feet in an effort to attain a more ideal femininity. Given such a shift in mainstream aesthetics, it came as a surprise to the public when a highly anticipated period TV drama, The Empress of China, also known as Legend of Wu Meiniang, was yanked off the air in late December, apparently because its 7th-century courtesans were showing more decolletage than government watchdogs found appropriate.

Days later, the 80-episode series, featuring A-lister Fan Bingbing as Empress Wu and produced at the extraordinary cost of nearly US$50 million, was back on Hunan TV after some surgical procedures, so to speak. But the censors' scalpel was hardly subtle: medium shots that previously showed the plunging necklines of women of the Tang dynasty (AD618-907) had been hastily converted to extreme close-ups that often cut actresses off at the neck.

Producers of the show announced via social media that "technical problems" were to blame for the hiatus, and even Xinhua could not elicit an official explanation from the tight-lipped State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), which polices China's airwaves. But the news agency noted that "many viewers speculated" that the suspension was due to the "revealing costumes", which led online commentators to dub the show's female characters "squeezed breasts".

The re-edited version has been met with derision, with critics rechristening the programme "The Legend of Big Head Wu". Viewers took to the internet to voice their displeasure, noting not only that ample breasts were au courant during the Tang era but also that the trims, which left hands and most other body parts below the chin on the cutting room floor, also made the action more difficult to follow.

"There was a scene where someone handed a fan to the other person, but I totally couldn't see the fan, only got to know what happened through the dialogue," wrote one viewer on the popular TV and film website

Raymond Zhou, a film critic and pop culture commentator for China Daily, says the censors can't logically argue that the degree of bosom exposure in The Empress of China is historically inaccurate. "All the paintings from the Tang dynasty show that ladies from that era showed a lot of cleavage," he says. "Actually, much more than in the [TV] costume drama."

Zhou says one rumour has it that some "old, retired officials" saw the programme and lodged a complaint. "It's possible," he says, "but you can never verify this kind of thing."

Zhou says older viewers, who may have previously watched Peking opera versions of the Empress Wu story, may have been conditioned to expect more modest costumes. That's because in Peking opera, men traditionally perform both the male and female parts, and often wear what Zhou describes as a "white, shawl-like thing that covers up their neck".

"Generations of Chinese were exposed to this and believe this is the way Chinese in the Tang dynasty wore their clothes," he says. "This is not true."

CCTV has run similarly revealing Tang dynasty programmes, Zhou says, but those did not "raise an eyebrow" with regulators. The added scrutiny this time, he says, may be because the series aired on the widely watched Hunan TV, which has a populist approach to programming and has run afoul of central government watchdogs before.

"Hunan TV has such a big audience, so it became an issue," he says. "If this series had been shown on any other channel, it wouldn't have become a problem because only a fraction of the audience would have seen it."

The bosom brouhaha comes as the mainland authorities, starting with President Xi Jinping, launched a vocal campaign in recent months to wipe what they deem vulgar and improper elements out of movies, TV programmes and other cultural works.

In the 21st century Chinese women are supposed to be modern … and yet at the same time uphold Chinese values and traditions

For example, SAPPRFT, the censorship agency, has vowed to impose stricter regulations on foreign TV shows and movies that are now streamed online, largely uncut, through video portals. Some popular shows, including The Big Bang Theory, were taken offline last year. Censors also demanded last-minute alterations in December to the highly anticipated 1920s period Chinese film Gone With the Bullets.

Xi, who has increasingly invoked Confucianism as a national cultural touchstone, gave a major speech to a gathering of artists last autumn, calling art and culture "an indispensable contributor" to the dream of national rejuvenation.

"Popularity should not necessitate vulgarity and hope should not entail covetousness," the president admonished the writers, actors and others in the audience. "Pure sensual entertainment does not equate to spiritual elation."

Wen Hua, an anthropologist and author of the 2013 book Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China, says the image of women has always been closely related to the image of the nation and now is no exception.

In terms of breast exposure, she says, the Tang dynasty was more open because of the influence of minority cultures, interchange with foreign visitors and a prosperous economy. But in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, she says, Confucianist culture had a strong influence on women's gender roles as well as the perception of beauty, and "effeminate and frail types" were prized. After the fall of the last emperor in 1911, the norms shifted again.

With official endorsements of Confucianism on the rise in the 21st century, Wen says "there is indeed increasing nostalgia and national sentiment of 'oriental beauty' to underline the features of Chinese beauty, in which beautiful Chinese women are supposed to be modern … and yet at the same time uphold Chinese values and traditions."

Still, contemporary efforts to diminish Empress Wu's ample bustline are up against not only centuries of history, but also stark geographical reminders. Wu - the only woman to rule China in her own name - was entombed upon her death in 705 next to her husband, Emperor Gaozong, about 80km northwest of the modern city of Xian. The tomb sits between two large hills, each topped with a watchtower.

British author Jonathan Clements, in his 2007 biography, Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God, takes note of the topography on Page 1 of his book. "Local legend," he writes, "claims the mounds reminded Gaozong of the breasts of the woman he risked his empire to marry."

Los Angeles Times