A Vietnamese website broke the Internet when it released 57 episodes of the hit TV series The Story of Yanxi Palace, which put it eight episodes ahead of IQiyi, the Chinese broadcaster. The Qing Dynasty drama has become so popular that it already spread across the ocean. According to one actress, the series has set foot in more than 80 countries and attracted the attention of HBO.
Whether you are aboard the subway or on an airplane, it’s not hard to spot someone watching the series on their phone, and most of the viewers are young women. South China Morning Post reported 530 million viewers tuned in on August 12 to follow the series. But becoming a cultural phenomenon requires more than a high view count. The show spawned numerous Internet memes like “big pig’s feet,” a phrase used in the show to tease the Qianlong Emperor (1735–1796). The phrase refers to a capricious man who keeps changing his mind and failing to fulfill his commitments.
That feminist twist on a historical setting has much to do with the show’s popularity.
Qianlong, one of the most renowned emperors in Chinese history, had 41 concubines and three empresses during his life. In the modern age, it’s equivalent to having “three marriages.”
In history, the royal concubines were treated like canaries imprisoned in the Forbidden City. They lived lives of happiness and grief in the few yards behind its red high walls. Once wedded to the emperor, their only goal was to make him happy: their value was determined solely by the emperor, and they had no opportunity to disobey or assert their individuality.
The Story of Yanxi Palace takes a different approach.
Set in the same historical period, romance novelist Chiung Yao’s Princess Returning Pearl achieved massive success some 20 years ago with its TV adaptation. That show has been replayed on TV almost every summer for the past decade. Some barrier-breaking characters at that time were already hugely influential, such as the emperor’s illiterate bastard daughter and frigid foreign concubine, who later betrayed him and fled with her lover.
Interestingly enough, in 2014, Chiung Yao sued the producer of The Story of Yanxi Palace, accusing him of plagiarizing another period drama called Palace 3: The Lost Daughter.
But Princess Returning Pearl is different in that it is really romantic – unrealistic even – in terms of destiny and mindset. Characters who do evil get what they deserve and every Jack has his Jill. In the end, the son and daughter of the emperor abandon their noble identities and go on to live happily ever after with their spouses.
The Story of Yanxi Palace, by contrast, emphasizes from the very beginning that a good person who does not know how to protect himself will come to harm. In the first few episodes, an innocent young palace maid is beaten to death when she is framed for stealing a precious peacock silk. The real world is dark, cruel and absurd.
The literal translation of the Chinese title is “Yanxi Strategy.” Apart from their complicated emotional entanglements, it’s how they plan their survival that makes the female characters so alive and energetic.
For an impressive character, one need look no further than the empress.
Tender, kind, loving and understanding, she has almost all the good traits one could want in a wife. However, her eagerness for an unconstrained life causes her unbearable anguish. Perfection is not in her nature, but her noble position requires her not to be jealous or furious when challenged by arrogant and wilful concubines. She is not even supposed to mourn for her dead children for long.
It is only years after her death that the emperor begins to regret his “cruel” treatment. “Rongyin (first name of the empress) has been my principal wife since she was 15 years old. I just let her wither like a blossom in the Forbidden City,” the emperor says. His guard comforts him by saying, “Your highness, you are shouldering all the expectations for the people of the Qing Dynasty. It’s not easy for you to care for all the delicate sentiments of the concubines?”
It’s one of the most delicate scenes of the series, and it invokes the contradiction of modern marriage. A husband will neglect his wife when he is occupied with work, but if he only has eyes for love he will never be able to support a family.
Before the empress dies, she holds her dead child in her arms and cries out, “Tell me who I am!” It’s a moment of madness and emancipation. From a feminist perspective, it emphasizes the awakening of a women’s individuality. A woman has a right to be both strong and weak.
‘White Lotus’ to ‘Resourceful and Cunning’
In Chinese, white lotus refers to the pure-hearted and unblemished female character of novels and dramas. It is metaphoric, for “the lotus grows in mud yet is never contaminated by it.”
Since the series began, heroine Wei Yingluo has been the topic of heated online discussion. Unlike the pure and innocent “white lotus” seen in previous film and TV series, she is resourceful, cunning, manipulative and dubbed “Sister Wei” by online fans. It is a reflection of the changing tastes of Chinese audiences over the years.
From the era of Pearl Returning Princess 20 years ago to the Legend of Zhen Huan in 2011, it seems Chinese viewers have an increasing interest in unconventional female characters. ‘‘No matter whether she’s in the embroidery house or Sin Jeku (a place for guilty servants), Wei always strives for something bigger, which is not bounded by her situation. If only she was a man,” the second empress said, describing “Sister Wei.” It’s a fair comment from one of her biggest enemies.
Wei’s title granted by the emperor is “Ling,” which in Manchu means “smart and wise.” The word also correlates with a quotation from Confucius: “Honeyed words and flattering looks seldom speak of human-heartedness.”
Unlike the other consorts, her primary motive is never merely to win the love of the emperor: she only wants revenge for her sister and is using the emperor as a ladder. She even uses her old flame to stir up jealousy and possessive feelings in the emperor’s heart. “Since then, she is not just the emperor’s favorite lady, but a woman he truly holds dear,” her former lover says before Wei becomes Consort Ling.
“They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love… illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is,” the character Petyr Baelish says in the Game of Thrones. He would be at home in The Story of Yanxi Palace.
Wei may be the first female character I’ve heard accused of “discarding behaviors” in a period drama. It’s not that they encourage women to be capricious or unfaithful, but it stresses the idea that under the modern context, women are no pleasers or wombs by default. Women can actually alter the course of history with their determination.
The series is now coming to an end, and replacement for my after-hours entertainment remains to be seen. Maybe something less realistic and feministic?