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Costume Dramas (Almost) Banned on the Chinese Internet

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Have imperial period costume dramas — once a staple of Chinese prime time TV — joined hip hop, time travel, and Winnie the Pooh in supposedly being banned from China’s entertainment mainstream? That seemed to be the case following an especially terse government proclamation earlier this week, but then the plot thickened….

Ancient costume dramas have long been an important part of evening prime time in China, from 18th-century literary epic Dream of the Red Chamber to martial art chivalry shows — dramatic performances adapted from works by literary martial arts masters such as Jin Yong. More recently, the time-traveling TV dramas Jade Palace Lock Heart and Treading On Thin Ice, which premiered on Hunan TV in 2011, have led an upsurge of TV series telling stories about a modern protagonist accidentally traveling hundreds of years backwards in time, and being forced to survive in the midst of a capricious emperor and envious concubines.

Another type of costume drama — known as “palace drama” (宫斗剧) in Chinese, and typically involving competition between queens and concubines — gained a prominent position in contemporary pop culture for its intrigue-filled and suspenseful plot lines. 2011 series Empresses in the Palace is one of the best in this sub-genre, and launched its lead actress Sun Li towards an Emmy nomination in 2013.

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The characters in these dynasty-spanning dramas — some real, some imagined, all placed within dramatized and sometimes ridiculous story lines — now attract huge audiences around China. But naturally, with more viewers comes more attention from the authorities.

Regulations preventing time-travel and palace drama series from airing on television have been in place since 2012. Another rule specifies that the genre of historical costume dramas as a whole can comprise no more than 15% of a TV network’s overall programming. Despite these rules, costume dramas have steadily continued to gain viewers on video streaming platforms like iQIYI, which produces one of the most popular shows in the genre, The Story of Yanxi Palace. These online video platforms have been able to skirt the regulations in place for television (see also: the “hip hop ban”; iQIYI is also behind The Rap of China). As a result, production budgets have grown bigger, and more A-list actors have jumped on board.

Following the breakout 2018 success of The Story of Yanxi Palace and Tencent Video series Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace — both internet series set in the Qing Dynasty Forbidden City — the fever for costume dramas spread even more rapidly. That is, until an unprecedentedly strict regulation on the genre came out a few days ago:

1. From today until the end of June, all costume dramas are regulated. All currently airing programs should be taken down from the homepage, and the ones that have not aired will not air.

2. From now, “costume dramas” refers to martial arts, fantasy, historical, mythical, time-traveling, biographical, and imperial palace dramas.

The main reason for this regulation is that in the first quarter [of 2019], no party fully adhered to the existing regulation, so it has to be strictly implemented in the second quarter.

This terse bulletin might be connected to criticism published by government-backed newspaper Beijing Daily in January. The paper published an article listing “5 negative influences of costume dramas,” including promoting worship of the royal family’s lifestyle, deteriorating the current social media ecology, and weakening positive spiritual development.

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Regardless of the logic behind it, the regulation was real. On March 21, the official Weibo account of iQIYI’s newest costume fantasy, The Legend of White Snake, announced that the series’ March 27 premiere would be postponed. Rival streaming site Youku also took down original series Eastern Palace from its homepage following the government announcement.

2018 was tough enough for the film-television industry. This second strike in 2019 could kill a lot of production companies. But surprisingly, days after the draconian regulation was announced, it was reversed. It seems that the people’s cries were heard.

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On March 26, Sina Entertainment posted a source showing that the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA, the central government body overseeing these media) interviewed the three major video streaming platforms (iQIYI, Youku and Tencent Video), and approved the release of costume dramas in April, citing “intense reaction and public sentiment.” The video platforms pledged to report their release plans on a monthly basis, to limit the costume drama portion of their overall programming, and to not schedule or promote dramas without a required permit. That same day, The Legend of White Snake announced that it would premiere on iIQIYI on April 3.

chinese costume drama ban iqiyi

Youku and Tencent Video should be feeling similarly relieved. The Longest Day in Chang’an, co-produced by Youku and starring TF Boy Jackson Yi alongside well-known actor Lei Jiayin, is on track to premiere in the first half of 2019, as is Tencent co-produced Qing Yu Nian, an adaptation of an internet novel spanning the martial artists and historical fantasy genres. According to industry-watching Weibo account Jingxiang Yule, at least 29 more costume dramas are expected to be released on these three online platforms in 2019.

While producers and distributors cheer along with lovers of historical drama and fantasy, the uncertainty of China’s regulatory environment and the system’s indiscriminate censorship will continue to cast a long shadow over China’s film and television industry.

Cover image: Tencent Video series Ruyi’s Royal Life in the Palace

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van