China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty (618-907), was regarded as a monstrous anomaly by the Confucian elites of her era. Women were supposed to lurk behind the throne, not sit on it. Her tombstone was left blank, unlike those of all the other (male) emperors of the era. But she got the last laugh. One of the hit television series of 2014 in China was the 96-part The Empress of China , about Wu’s life, starring Fan Bingbing, now under a cloud but at that time the country’s fastest rising female actor. A despised female emperor had become a feminist soap opera icon, transfixing Chinese viewers more than a millennium after she had died. Too lavish, too nasty: Chinese state media goes to war against Yanxi Palace and other period dramas It is series like The Empress of China , or the more recent Story of Yanxi Palace , whose 70 episodes set in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) were another major hit, that have come in for criticism from the Chinese authorities. Last week, a scheduled episode of Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace was pulled and replaced with a contemporary drama. Speculation is rife that the highest authorities have these lavish series in their sights, after a newspaper article condemned the “sins” and extravagance shown in such dramas. Yet there is nothing new about Chinese drama falling foul of politicians. In the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), Han Chinese playwrights used drama to make pointed comments about their Mongol rulers. More recently, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was triggered by Mao Zedong’s furious reaction to the play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office , by Wu Han. Mao felt that the play, which recounted the tale of a righteous official who was fired because he refused to bow to the will of politicians, was a reference to Peng Dehuai, the general who confronted Mao over the horrors of the Great Leap Forward famine in 1959, and was expelled from the leadership soon afterward. The soap operas of today do not have the pointed political messages typical of the Cultural Revolution. But at a time when Beijing’s officials live in fear of being picked up by the National Supervisory Commission on corruption charges, and when rumours swirl about who’s up and who’s down in the leadership compound at Zhongnanhai, there is a certain piquancy to tales of powerful figures plotting at court, even if their antics are set a hundred, or a thousand years ago. Scheming power brokers living in luxury is not an on-screen image that evokes helpful political associations today. Instead, television drama is supposed to turn the viewers’ minds to higher things. In 2017, the show In the Name of the People was a major hit, with its theme of “untouchable” anti-corruption officers kicking the doors of dubious officials down and catching them in unspeakable acts with their lovers. This sort of macho ruthlessness was much more the kind of image that the Communist Party wants to purvey. This also accounts for the comment of one sardonic Weibo user noted by the South China Morning Post when the costume dramas were banned last week: “OK, let’s watch the anti-Japanese dramas they broadcast every day then.” Series about the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45 are a staple of evening television in China, as they hit the rare sweet spot of being politically correct and commercially viable. Gaunt warriors of the Eighth Route Army are, like anti-corruption inspectors, an image that the party is happy to propagate about itself. Unfortunately, even here, dark shadows can block the political light. Internal censorship documents over the past decade have grumbled, on occasion, that dramas make too much of the contribution of China’s Nationalist, or Kuomintang, troops during the war, and minimise the contribution of Mao and the Communist Party. While historically accurate, the stress on the Nationalist war effort is, in many ways, politically inconvenient. If period drama Yanxi Palace is gone, what’s the story for Chinese soft power? Television drama in China can also become entangled with Chinese diplomacy. When South Korea announced that it would deploy the US-sponsored THAAD missile system in 2016, one of the first signs of Beijing’s displeasure was the sudden ban on the highly popular South Korean soap operas on Chinese television, along with a block on K-pop bands and Korean holiday packages. Yet television references can also aid China’s cause. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the United States in 2015, he took care to declare that his anti-corruption campaign definitely was not like the US series House of Cards . The disappearance of these shows will disappoint many regular viewers. But their absence points to a greater weakness. China is desperately seeking soft power, a reach and confidence that will persuade the wider world that its influence is attractive and will match its growing economic and military power. Yet China’s media culture still worries about Qing dynasty concubines and Tang dynasty empresses. In the end, on screen and in the wider world, censorship and confidence do not go together. Rana Mitter is director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford, and author of ‘A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World’ and ‘China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival’.