How the back-stabbing imperial concubines of ‘The Story of Yanxi Palace’ helped China’s iQiyi set a viewership record

The online soap opera attracted more than half a billion views on August 12, setting a viewership record in China

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2018, 12:09pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2018, 3:02am

The Chinese sure love their palace intrigues.

A 70-episode period drama about a quick-witted maidservant investigating the death of her sister amid a group of back-stabbing Qing dynasty imperial concubines has set the single-day online viewership record in China. A total of 530 million viewers tuned in on August 12 to follow the scheming on iQiyi, the nation’s biggest streaming platform.

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Some other staggering numbers: The Story of Yanxi Palace, co-produced by iQiyi and Huanyu Film, has attracted a cumulative 5.6 billion views since its release last month, or an average of 130 million views per episode, according to Maoyan, an online ticketing and statistics provider.

The hit drama, set in the court of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), is available in more than 70 markets globally, making it one of the most widely distributed period series produced by China, according to iQiyi.

Hong Kong’s TVB recently bought the distribution rights for the show in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Malaysia. Similar distribution agreements have been made with TV channels and platforms in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In one particular episode, a jealous concubine schemed to destroy some lychee trees that the emperor had shipped from southern Fujian province to Beijing, so as to embarrass the empress, who was preparing to share the fruits at a tea party. The consort’s maidservant turned the tables on the concubine by making it seem like the latter’s Pekinese dog had caused the damage.

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In an earlier episode, a lower-ranking concubine hung herself after being humiliated by being repeatedly slapped in public. That punishment was meted out by the same vengeful concubine who destroyed the lychee trees.

That such a plot line can inspire hours of binge-watching among China’s couch potatoes underlines the continued interest in imperial dramas, a staple in Chinese TV fare alongside dramas about the Communist Party’s struggle against the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s.

Previous hit palace shows include The Legend of Zhenhuan in 2011, about an imperial concubine, which attracted 6.8 billion times of view online, and The Legend of MiYue, a 2015 production set in the Qin dynasty (221 to 206BC) that got 10 billion views.

Billions of dollars in advertising and other revenue are at stake. China is home to the world’s largest internet population, and the video-streaming market reached 95.2 billion yuan in revenue last year and is expected to hit 200 billion yuan by 2020, driven by membership fees, according to iResearch.

The surge in entertainment spending has also sparked a race among production houses and studios to secure the services of the most popular actors. The resulting inflation in fees has in led to cases of tax evasion and illegal offshore currency transfers, with multiple agencies recently initiating a coordinated crackdown targeting high-profile celebrities.

Over the weekend, the country’s three streaming giants – iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youkou Tudou – pledged to cap the pay of television stars at 1 million yuan (US$145,200) per episode and no more than 50 million yuan for an entire season. A government ruling in September mandated that fees to actors cannot exceed 40 per cent of the total production budget.

Two episodes of Yanxi Palace are being released a day on iQiyi platforms every Tuesday to Sunday. With the final episode slated to be aired on August 28 for fee-paying members, the plotting continues.