Fantasy and the Forbidden City12 min read

China’s most popular costume drama tells more about the present than it does about the Qing dynasty – Tobie Meyer-Fong

During the summer of 2018, The Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略), a soap opera set in the Forbidden City, mesmerized audiences with its sumptuous costumes and lavish sets. Media analysts celebrated the protagonist – a concubine rising within the ranks – as a bold female exemplar, and noted that it provided a promising vehicle for education about China’s cultural heritage both at home and abroad. The show was made and initially screened by iQiyi, a Chinese internet streaming company owned by Baidu, although it was later also broadcast on conventional and cable television channels. (A version with English subtitles can be found on YouTube.) It proved hugely popular, with episodes streamed over 15 billion times by Chinese viewers. The BBC online breathlessly announced that Yanxi Palace was the “most Googled TV show of 2018 globally,” even though Google is blocked in China.

Wei Yingluo, protagonist of Story of Yanxi Palace who rises in the ranks of palace concubines

The series portrays China’s dynastic past in ways consistent with other productions of the late 20th and early 21st century. It glorifies the expansive and multicultural empire of the High Qing period, which roughly coincided with the 18th century. It presents a courtly world filled with marvelous objects of exceptional value and expense. It reflects the muscular vision of China’s past currently promoted by the state, as well as the material aspirations of today’s rich and powerful. In particular, the show spotlights the magnificence of the Forbidden City, which itself has become a brand central to patriotic and consumer-friendly imaginings of the Chinese past – with specially branded cosmetics, elegant reproductions of palace artifacts, ticketed evening extravaganzas, a publishing house, and participation by palace curators and craftsmen in reality television shows. Yanxi Palace buys into an officially sanctioned and consumer-oriented vision of Chinese history, focused on power, wealth, and nationally-identified things.

And yet in January 2019 the Beijing Daily, the newspaper of the Beijing Municipal Party Committee, published an attack on Yanxi Palace and other popular costume dramas, enumerating the ways in which the television show promoted “negative behavior.” The show, it said, would lead young people to covet the lifestyle of the imperial family, and to prefer emperors and officials to communist revolutionary heroes. It also highlighted the threat that scenes of “palace intrigue” posed to honest social interaction, and that the portrayal of decadence and indolence threatened the “excellent virtues of industriousness and frugality.” Such trenchant criticism points to the ambivalent place of the Qing in contemporary China, and a renewed ascendance of revolutionary asceticism within the Party. And it reveals official anxiety about the corrupting effects of wealth and sex on the powerful at a time rife with rumors, many confirmed, of the sexual and pecuniary misdeeds of China’s present-day ruling elite.

The case of Yanxi Palace also suggests the limits of media censorship in the age of internet streaming. While the article in the Beijing Daily inspired concern among Netizens that the series had been or would be removed from the more tightly-controlled cable and broadcast networks, it never disappeared from iQiyi (or from the seatback screens on China Eastern Airlines, where it was available throughout the summer of 2019). It also continued to be discussed favorably on internet messageboards. The criticism in official media and its amplification in subsequent reporting might deter future directors from making spectacular court dramas in the short term, but it does not seem to have had much of an effect on public enthusiasm for these lavish productions.

Yanxi Palace buys into an officially sanctioned and consumer-oriented vision of Chinese history, focused on power, wealth, and nationally-identified things”

Set in the rear palaces of the Forbidden City, Yanxi Palace tells the story of Wei Yingluo, a humble palace maid who achieves passionate dreams of family vengeance and imperial love by means of her impulsive bravery, skillful craftsmanship, and sharp mind. Yingluo enters the palace seeking revenge for her older sister’s rape and murder. She begins service in the embroidery workshop, where she fends off the sniping of other maids and single-mindedly pursues justice: first for her sister, and then for the Empress, who befriends and teaches her. She falls in love with the Empress’s brother, who then marries the Empress’s lady-in-waiting, the perfidious Erqing, at the Emperor’s command. The palace is a treacherous place, and can perhaps best be understood as a microcosm of China’s hypercompetitive society. The loveliest, most virtuous-seeming ladies turn out to be vipers in lipstick and silks, who compete for the Emperor’s indulgence with vicious, even murderous, intent. Very few characters are what they seem on the surface. After the Empress’s death, Yingluo wins the heart of the Emperor with her directness, intelligence and persistent loyalty, but only at the cost of her freedom and true love. In short, it is a royal and romantic fairy tale, but not a feminist one.

The characters in the series are loosely based on historical figures – nearly all of their names also appear in biographical dictionaries. Emperor Qianlong, on screen as in real life, esteems his first empress and is devoted to his long-lived and indomitable mother. His second empress, Hoifa Nara, appears in the series as the ultimate hypocrite. She presents herself as virtuous, capable and self-sacrificing, yet she engineers the downfall or death of those above and around her. The character Wei Yingluo is based on one of Qianlong’s favored consorts, known by the title Lingfei, who was the mother of the Jiaqing emperor. Officials and bannermen in the series speak of actual historical events. Famous paintings make cameo appearances, as do other artifacts famously housed in the Palace collection. But the plot is pure fantasy, making the show part of a longer tradition of fanciful palace romances centered on the sex and scheming of women.

The palace is a treacherous place, and can perhaps best be understood as a microcosm of China’s hypercompetitive society”

The conflation of sexual morality and political rectitude, seen in both the show and its critique, has both contemporary resonance and historical roots. In the early 20th century, popular books branded as “secret histories” gave broad circulation to colorful and gossipy rumors about the Qing. These authors exposed (or invented) sexual malfeasance, and emphasized material and moral decadence, to excoriate the Qing rulers as ethnic and political Others, unfit to rule China. They featured salacious stories about the emperors’ bedtime habits, or the bathing practices of a semi-imaginary Uighur consort known as the “Fragrant Concubine 香妃.” These publications enjoyed as much popularity in their time as Yanxi Palace does in ours.

For example, Xu Xiaotian’s Romance of the Qing Palace in Thirteen Reigns (清宮十三朝演義) was reprinted in at least thirty editions. (Xu Xiaotian not only wrote “secret histories” of the palace, he also romance novels in the ‘Mandarin Duck and Butterfly’ style popular in the 1920s.) The author’s preface from 1926 suggests, however, that his book should be read not only as a palace romance, but in relation to the lingering anti-Manchu sentiment of his day. The gossipy tales, for example of incestuous love between the pre-conquest emperor Hong Taiji’s consort Bumbutai and his half-brother Dorgon, are matched with commentary explaining the long-term consequences of this (historically unattested) incestuous relationship for the ruling bloodline. Xu also recollects the humiliating treatment of Han women by Manchus in the city of Hangzhou during the last years of the dynasty. Sex, violence, race, morality and politics mingled at the interstices of history and fantasy, bringing the politics of the past to life.

Salacious representations of the Qing court began to appear in newspapers just before the 1911 Xinhai revolution. They circulated in novels, poems and operas during the 1920s, and in films beginning in the 1930s . These supposedly true stories reflect a fanciful past as imagined by early 20th century Han nationalists, and continue to circulate in more recent re-imaginings of the Qing court, including Yanxi Palace. For example, in one scene of the show, eunuchs deliver a concubine to the Emperor’s bed, naked and wrapped in a comforter, after he selects her card for ‘bed service.’ The series also suggests that the Empress Dowager was not the Qianlong emperor’s biological mother, implying a Han bloodline for the quintessential Manchu. Episodes like these are not historically attested, but allow for an extravagant fantasy of violent scheming and forbidden love fed by earlier tales. (The Uighur Fragrant Concubine, so popular in the early 20th century, proved too sensitive for the show; she was renamed and her ethnic identity blurred for political reasons.)

Early 20th century authors exposed sexual malfeasance, and material decadence, to excoriate the Qing rulers as ethnic and political Others, unfit to rule China”

Palace associations in early 20th century print media were not only political, but commercial. Advertisements from the time referenced the Forbidden City and its inhabitants. Art deco fonts and illustrations marketed ‘Fragrant Concubine’ cosmetics in the 1920s and 1930s. An advertisement for the ‘Fragrant Concubine Bathhouse’ from the 1940s even cited its foreign masseuses as an attraction. These kinds of advertisements – marketing hidden lifestyles to ordinary consumers – continue today and seem aimed specifically, if not exclusively, at women. Shoppers caused a run on Forbidden City branded cosmetics in December 2018. The list of works published by the Forbidden City publishing house includes romantic titles such as The Loves and Hates of Ming and Qing Empresses and Consorts (明清后妃的爱恨往事) as well as lavishly illustrated coffee table books on the costumes, jewelry and possessions of palace women and daily life at court.

Yanxi Palace is only the latest in a long genealogy of television soap operas set in the palace, made in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China. Often termed “palace fight dramas” (gong dou ju), such programs generally emphasize conflict among the concubines. Yanxi Palace was not even the only such drama streaming in 2018; it competed for viewers with Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace (如懿传), a similarly lavish production set in the same period, made by Tencent Video. Along with 2011’s Empresses in the Palace (甄嬛传), it drew similar ire from the authorities. Palace dramas depict a secret world of China’s historical rich and famous, while also implicitly or explicitly criticizing their moral failures. Some portray emperors with superpowers; one series from Taiwan featured a flying Qianlong Emperor. Such shows generally emphasize the treachery and violence of the imperial harem, focusing on the strategies (sometimes homicidal) of concubines to advance the fortunes of their sons and themselves. They juxtapose the feminized space of the harem with the serious responsibilities of state handled by the Emperor and his officials – the tensions between inner and outer, male and female.

Identification with cultural heritage in contemporary China often has a material or sartorial dimension. Even as the Chinese government presents frugality as a leading traditional value, luxury items loom large in official renditions of historical wealth and power.  Part of Yanxi Palace’s popularity came from how viewers within and beyond China commented on the material artifacts shown on screen. With gorgeous sets, costumes and furnishings – said to have been carefully crafted at great expense – Yanxi Palace celebrates luxury, beauty, and Chinese heritage style. The show’s costumes have been breathlessly described in global fashion media, and costumes inspired by it can be purchased on Chinese online shopping sites. Online discussions focus on the consorts’ and empresses’ skincare and cosmetic regimens. There is even an app that allows users to remaster their selfies with Yanxi Palace hair and makeup.

Shows such as Yanxi Palace tell us more about the time and people doing the imagining than about the object of their fantasy”

Yanxi Palace portrays the Forbidden City as either a luxurious prison from which ethical characters wish to escape, or as a potentially deadly world, rife with opportunity for the intrepid and sharp-witted. It is as a fantasy Forbidden City for our time – amoral, luxurious, hypocritical, dangerous, and unequal. Consorts devour each other out of spite, jealousy, and to protect their own interests and those of their children (the two being linked). Eunuchs and maids hover on the sidelines, waiting for their chance to be promoted, while anxiously worrying that a misstep will lead to their downfall. The Qianlong Emperor takes seriously his position as head of state: he values competent officials and seeks to rule virtuously over an empire that his military has greatly expanded. At the same time, he seems oblivious to the machinations of women that he sees as beautiful and virtuous, but for whom he is an instrument for upward mobility.

Why has this series captured the imaginations of millions of viewers in China and around the world, as well as the negative attention of official media? And why have fantasies set in the Forbidden City, especially those that center on empresses and consorts, and the objects around them, proven so enduring in their popularity? Such tales inevitably have contemporary, often political, resonance. Anti-Manchu nationalists in the early 20th century framed their animus in racial and gendered terms, through salacious stories of illicit relationships at court. Bestselling author Jung Chang more recently wrote a biography presenting the Empress Dowager Cixi as a feminist modernizer and a role model. In Yanxi Palace, the Forbidden City allows for a cynical critique of an amoral world in which the rich and powerful pursue ever more wealth and power.

In Yanxi Palace, audiences simultaneously encounter the lifestyles of the rich and famous and their reprehensible moral failings. Its fairy-tale plot traces the rise of a clever and brave heroine to the pinnacle of (dependent) power in a tightly constrained environment. She defeats her enemies, yet she is not at liberty to leave the palace. Is her access to beautiful things worth the price of her freedom? Shows such as Yanxi Palace tell us more about the time and people doing the imagining than about the object of their fantasy. We learn little about the real lives of court women, even as the on-screen representation may shape what we think we know about them. And yet, by considering the reception of the show and its fantasy antecedents, we learn a lot about official anxieties and popular obsessions when it comes to China’s imperial past. ∎