China’s wildly popular soap operas are disappearing.
Two of the three most successful Chinese television series in 2018 — “Story of Yanxi Palace” and “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace” — revolved around Emperor Qianlong, an 18th-century ruler who oversaw expanding territories and a flourishing economy. Combining “House of Cards”-type power games with “The Bachelor”-style cat fights, these two dramas satisfied Chinese audiences’ appetite for over-the-top imperial extravaganza. “Yanxi Palace” was streamed more than 18 billion times, “Ruyi’s Royal Love” more than 17.5 billion.
Then in late January 2019, they vanished from TV screens around the country — both were suddenly taken off air after the state-owned newspaper, Beijing Daily, accused such dramas of being “incompatible with core socialist values.” Their “sins,” according to the editorial, were that they “made a fetish of imperial lifestyle” and “idolized emperors and officials of the feudal past.”
Why did the soap operas trigger such a dramatic response? Because in China, a television drama about Qianlong is never just a television drama about Qianlong. In a culture with a long tradition of using history to debate the present, historical soap operas are often read as commentaries on the current regime. Indeed, the soaring popularity of period dramas set in the Qing dynasty in recent years indicates Chinese audiences share a keen interest in using China’s glorious past as a guide for China’s future. But for Chinese viewers and their government, “Making China Great Again” through this version of Qianlong could create real political problems.
That’s because Qianlong is both a reminder of Chinese primacy in the world and an embodiment of the imperial past that the modern Chinese state was created to overcome. The problem? Those narratives contradict each other, revealing a hard-to-reconcile tension within China’s vision of again becoming a “great power.”
The Qing Empire was a period of tremendous demographic and economic growth. Under Qianlong’s reign, territory almost doubled after the conquest of Dzungar Khanate (today’s Xinjiang), Mongolia and other Inner Asian countries. He also commissioned the largest collection of books in Chinese history, “Siku quanshu” (“Emperor’s Four Treasures”), which shaped the Chinese cultural orthodoxy. His reign was the pinnacle of imperial autocracy. In older Western accounts, he has often been compared to the Sun King, Louis XIV of France.
For Chinese nationalists of the 1910s, however, he was an arrogant Manchu conqueror. He suppressed the majority Han people with suffocating literary inquisitions and indulged his corrupt administration to suck the country’s thriving economy dry. These early 20th-century revolutionaries used these negative images of Qianlong to remind citizens that Han Chinese were oppressed under his reign and that his refusal to open door to European trade led to the imperialist aggressions in the 19th century.
After 1949, the Communist regime rewrote Chinese history according to their Marxist and anti-traditionalist framework: Imperial China was a feudal society, they claimed, and emperors were the embodiment of the oppressive landlord class. As one of the most “successful” emperors, Qianlong was a chief class enemy deserving no courtesy. To drive home the point, revolutionaries stripped him of his title: in history books he was called simply by his name, Aisin Gioro Hongli.
As Mark Elliott points out in his recent biography of Qianlong, it was not until the late 1990s, when China emerged as an ambitious global power, that Chinese mass media started to depict the emperor positively as a hardworking ruler, caring father and charming lover.
Now, Qianlong’s reign is styled as the good old days, before Western imperialism brought the so-called a hundred years of national humiliation — military defeats, foreign concessions and economic exploitation. It is remembered as the last glorious age in Chinese history, when the Qing empire was the superpower of the world.
But there is a problem with this memory. The Communist Party’s long-standing anti-feudal ideology, on which its legitimacy was built, makes it impossible to openly embrace Qianlong’s “glory” days as the inspiration for China’s future. Praises for Qianlong’s imperial magnificence could easily be read as a nostalgia for the feudal past, thus a criticism of the socialist revolution. Or even worse, a sign that many want the People’s Republic to become a new empire.
The result is an ambivalent and sometimes conflicting attitude toward Qianlong the emperor. In 2013, when the Economist featured President Xi on its cover in the imperial robe of Qianlong with the headline “Let’s party like it’s 1793,” the magazine was immediately censored in China. Yet four years later, during President Trump’s state visit to China in 2017, Xi chose to receive him in the Forbidden City, the home of Chinese emperors for six centuries, and, among all places, he chose to meet Trump at the Qianlong’s personal study — an unmistakable message to Xi’s domestic audience, if not his American guest.
Fictional stories about Qianlong reflect and fulfill a popular fantasy encouraged by the current regime’s geopolitical ambitions but not, apparently, under the authorities’ full control. To officials, the magnificent life presented in these two targeted dramas is too decadent and too monarchist, and the portrayal of the palace struggles is too close to today’s political reality. This is why such soap operas are both seductive and threatening.
Openly admiring or criticizing Qianlong has become risky for television producers, audiences and even the party itself. “Yanxi Palace” and “Ruyi’s Imperial Love” are still available on the online streaming platforms, but comments on China’s popular social media site Weibo defending their positive “values” were marginalized. To avoid trouble, many television stations have pulled similar period dramas from their 2019 programming slate. In late March, China’s National Radio and Television Administration issued a further temporary ban of all historical dramas, though it is also rumored that the ban was quickly modified to allow some to continue after stricter review.
A vision of Chinese greatness inspired by Qianlong’s reign is popular but politically problematic. But there is no doubt that the emperor’s shadow looms large over China’s dream to make itself great again: He is the secret lover the Chinese cannot admit.