Fantasy and the Forbidden City

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.

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.


Imagining Empresses

Tobie Meyer-Fong reviews the exhibit Empresses of China’s Forbidden City

An older woman with a strong nose, auspicious ears, finely arched brows and a tight, subtle smile looks out from the cover of the exhibition catalog of Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912. She wears a richly embroidered blue vest over an imperial yellow robe, both decorated with sinuous dragons. Soft sable fur trims her hat, collar, and the distinctive hoof-shaped cuffs of Manchu imperial costume. An abundance of pearls from the Manchu homeland completes the ensemble. Her attire denotes status and ethnic heritage, and hints at the possibility of power. Her gaze suggests the opportunity for a direct encounter.