If period drama Yanxi Palace is gone, what’s the story for Chinese soft power?

  • Attack on historical dramas for their ‘negative influence on society’ could mean losing a popular cultural export
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2019, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2019, 10:35am

Chinese state media has attacked period dramas for their “negative influence on society”, but in doing so, the country could end up losing one of its most effective weapons of soft-power projection.

The record-breaking blockbuster Story of Yanxi Palace is the latest historical drama to be taken off the air after an article in state media on Friday criticised the genre for promoting negative values such as luxury and viciousness. Before Story of Yanxi Palace was cut, a state broadcaster replaced another period drama, Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, with a reality show.

The change in programming schedules came after an article in Beijing Daily magazine Theory Weekly called out the “sins” of imperial dramas, claiming they encouraged viewers to pursue the glamorous lifestyles of China’s past monarchs and promoted pleasure and luxury above the “virtues of frugality and hard work”.

Song Geng, a professor at the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong, said the move could be a setback for China’s soft-power ambitions.

“China wants to enhance its soft power through cultural products like TV dramas,” Song said. “But if historical dramas are banned, it could have a negative impact on China’s soft-power endeavours.”

When it was released last summer on video streaming site iQiyi, Story of Yanxi Palace broke all viewing records, and the 70-episode series has since racked up more than 5 billion views across Chinese streaming services.

Centred on the power struggle between back-stabbing Qing dynasty imperial concubines vying for the ruler’s affection, the series has been available in more than 70 markets globally and was translated into 14 languages, including English, Arabic and Vietnamese.

It was also dubbed into Cantonese to be broadcast on Hong Kong’s largest television channel. Last year it was the most searched topic on Google in Hong Kong.

Too lavish, too nasty: Chinese state media goes to war against Yanxi Palace and other period dramas

The growing popularity of Chinese television series like Story of Yanxi Palace has also played a role in improving Taiwanese views of the mainland. Many young people on the self-ruled island who used to seek out Japanese or Korean shows now want to watch shows from mainland China, as well as buy things from mainland shopping websites, Chuang Chia-yin, from the National Taiwan Normal University, earlier told the South China Morning Post .

In September, Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman An Fengshan even claimed that the success of Story of Yanxi Palace on the island was evidence of the “shared culture” of people living on either side of the Taiwan Strait despite tense relations between Beijing and Taipei.

Song said China had been spending more on soft-power efforts including opening Confucius Institutes all over the world and sponsoring the translation of Chinese literary classics while encouraging joint publishing ventures in the West. But he said none of these efforts had achieved the success of web fiction, on which many of the popular television dramas are based.

According to Song, fans of the shows who did not want to wait a long time for translations had even begun learning Chinese so they could read the web novels they were based on.

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Chinese period films have also had success overseas. Red Cliff, an US$80 million epic war movie set in the Han dynasty and released in 2008, earned US$250 million at the box office worldwide and broke the record for Chinese-language films in Japan, raking in US$53 million in November that year.

But if the campaign against period dramas continues, film and television makers will have to scale back productions in the genre, according to a director who gave her surname as Zhang.

“Film producers will only do what the government thinks is OK, such as scripts that glorify modern politicians and heroic figures,” she said. “There’s no point fighting the government and making films that no one is allowed to watch.”