Monday, May 16, 2022

A Good Thing: The Popular Feminist Concubine Drama That Irritated The Chinese Communist Party

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Shreya Christina
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It only takes a few minutes for Story of Yanxi Palacethe amazing 2018 Chinese historical palace drama, for the side wheels to fly away.

Besides our heroine, Wei Yingluo (Wu Jinyan), the audience is dropped in the middle of a complicated society with clandestine rules and labyrinthine social codes: the Forbidden City. Ruled by the real-life Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong, and built around the wiles and maneuvers of his many concubines, the 18th-century city exudes opulence and ornate luxury, but is also teeming with duplicity and danger.

Unlike the audience, however, Wei Yingluo is prepared.

The story begins with a group of humble embroidery girls, all new to the palace, meeting a group of skilled noblewomen on their way to meet with the emperor. After one of the noblewomen bullies them, Wei Yingluo, a new maid, intervenes and smoothes things out. Yingluo appeases the noble lady’s anger by showing her a unique trick that makes her footsteps walk like roses – thus sending her off to meet the Emperor with a special advantage over the other potential consorts.

So far, so good: our hero is a humble, demanding girl who knows how to flatter to keep the peace.

Or not.

The moment the emperor (Yuan Nie) sees the roses that the girl has dragged behind her, he realizes that she disobeyed the emperor Manchu Decree Against Foot Binding – a huge offense. He immediately puts her and her entire clan to shame.

We realize that this is what happens when one crosses Wei Yingluo: a cunning, subtle form of sabotage that relies on the perpetrator’s own mistakes to ultimately damn them.

That’s how we go to the races. Over the course of 70 episodes, our humble palace maid faces an endless onslaught of power plays and manipulations, all amid a steady, unprecedented social climb through the ranks of the court. While watching it I kept getting reminded The Queen’s Gambita show where the appeal of the story is the satisfaction of seeing a capable woman who is capable, while all the men in her life support her, shy away from her or live to repent of their mistake when they tried to possess her.

Be reassured, Yanxi Palace also has all the betrayal, backstabbing, murder, epic love affairs and tragedy any fan of other grittier genres and shows, such as Game of Thrones or press chinese xianxia drama the untamed, would like. Promised, palace dramas like this one usually has a lot of stark tropes, but I wasn’t prepared for how much violence and bloodshed came with a clear focus on women’s storylines. Memorable performances from the massive cast seal the deal – especially Wu Jinyan as Wei Yingluo, a heroine among the heroines. Cunning, reckless, stubborn, but also kind, a little crazy and a little insecure, she never gives up control over her own life, no matter how much life in the Forbidden City dictates female submission.

Loosely based on an actual historical figure (to tell you who would be a spoiler, but if you must know, here’s a hint), Yingluo quickly becomes a troublemaker in the palace: an unruly, outspoken rule-breaker who narrowly avoids a certain shame by being three steps ahead of everyone around her. Yingluo’s only weapons may be etiquette and embroidery, but she wields them with such skill that she quickly becomes a threat to the palace’s intricate social hierarchy — and a thorn in the side of the Emperor himself.

The palace is a lion’s den of social etiquette.

However, Yingluo’s deliberate social climbing is not because of ambition; her real goal is to find the person who murdered her sister, a palace girl who was disgraced after a dark scandal, only to be strangled shortly afterwards. Convinced that her death was not suicide, Yingluo enters the Forbidden City to work as a maid to search for the culprit. What she finds is a palace full of tripwires and subterfuge, with concubines vying for power, willing to do anything they can to win the Emperor’s favor, including sabotage, betrayal and even murder. Within such a power structure, true friendship between women is the hardest prize of all – but it can also be Wei Yingluo’s ultimate secret power.

So far, this may sound like a typical palace drama, full of superficial scheming and social class structure at play. But even for longtime fans of Chinese historians, Yanxi Palace stands out for its puzzle-box plotting, infinitely bingeable pace – 70 episodes may sound like a slog, but there are points where it’s nearly impossible to stop watching – and addictive characterizations. We watch Yingluo level up, shounen anime protagonist style, as she defeats opponent after opponent, relying on a combination of practical skills and psychological strategy. In addition to these maneuvers, she must learn to navigate a series of romantic entanglements: striking a delicate balance between the affection she has for the young palace guard Fuca (Xu Kai), her friendship with the backstabbing eunuch, Yuan (Wang Maolei), and her numerous indicted clashes with the Emperor.

Yanxi Palace‘s showrunner is the scriptwriter of the veteran palace drama Yu Zhengput one loud feminist twist on tropics he knows well. The palace concubines fight for agency and autonomy in an oppressive patriarchal society. The show also fixes on the relationship between power and influence. Yingluo’s enemies constantly weaponize virtuous concepts to manipulate perceptions of truth and use them to ruin lives. The more powerful they are, the harder it is to discover the ‘real’ truth.

Legendary Hong Kong actress Charmaine Sheh is especially memorable as Consort Xian, a concubine with a legitimate story about the origins of villains, born of her realization that the meekness, decency, and gentleness she has displayed throughout her life have only left her weak and powerless. Consort Xian admits to trusting no one, while Wei Yingluo is driven by loyalty to the trusted women in her life. Their separate strategies evolve throughout the series before finally coming into direct conflict, and the payoff is epic.

Very little is known about the life of Wei Yingluo’s historical counterpart or most of the show’s other historical analogs; beyond some key background details, the plot is completely fictional. (Another palace drama that followed Yanxi PalaceRuyi Zhuanpresents Charmaine Sheh’s historical figure as the heroine.) Yanxi Palace also serves up an authentic piece of Chinese history, thanks to its exquisite production design.

Lan Qin as the empress who becomes the patroness of Yingluo. Yanxi PalaceThe $45 million budget went primarily to richly detailed sets and costumes.

The series landed in the midst of a huge craze for historic palace dramas (many of which are on Netflix, if you get a yen for more), and it had a huge budget, Reportedly about $45 million. Luckily for us, most of it seems to have gone into production design, and the faithful, meticulous recreation of cultural and historical details. If you’re a fan of historical dramas but disappointed by the gaudy, insubstantial feel of shows like The Gilded Age or Bridgertonthe pure physicality of Yanxi Palace‘s production details can make a refreshing change. The show is full of intangible cultural heritage crafts, some of which the concubines and their maids practice, such as rare embroidery and jewelry techniques. The costumes and accessories are often remnants of genuine Qing dynasty palace clothesthat the show rented real Forbidden City relic recreation specialists to make. Individual dresses had exorbitant price tags, and a single crown worn by one partner reportedly cost nearly $150,000.

The investment has paid off enormously. Yanxi Palace straight away won rave reviews from the public, critics and cultural experts for restorative care. Once the show had the audience’s attention, the plot dragged them along: the show became the most googled show of 2018, despite Google being banned in China. It too increased museum visit in China along with tourism in the Forbidden City.

And, in what is arguably the greatest feature of its cultural impact, its massive success made the Chinese Communist Party… speech that palace dramas had a “negative impact”† Luckily it looks like few audience members agree

The Story of Yanxi Palace is available for free on Youtubefree on Vikiand free on iQiyi and the iQiyi App† I recommend looking at Viki, where the English subtitles include translators’ notes for added context. While the main series is not on Netflix, a short sequel featuring several returning cast members, including Wu Jinyan, is exclusively on Netflix. Yanxi Palace: Princess Adventures follows Yingluo’s daughter as she navigates a palace that – thanks in large part to her mother – is a little kinder to all the women in it.

For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good case archives.

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