Blockbuster drama about scheming concubines heralds growth of Chinese cultural influence abroad

The success of a Chinese historical period drama about scheming imperial concubines in a Qing dynasty palace has been celebrated by China as a breakthrough in the spread of its cultural influence across Asia.

The Story of Yanxi Palace, a 70-episode tale of a sharp-witted maidservant investigating the death of her sister in the backdrop of the treacherous royal court,  last week reached a record-topping 530 million viewers on streaming platform iQiyi, sometimes called ‘China’s Netflix’.

The popularity of the show has now been hailed for its wide reach abroad, where China’s strong-arm diplomacy is dominant but its soft power cultural exports often struggle to break through over South Korean and Japanese influence.

“Huge hit dramas in the Chinese mainland such as The Story of Yanxi Palace and Legend of Fuyao [a period romance] are also seeing great success in other areas of China as well as in overseas markets,”  Global Times, an influential Chinese tabloid, known for its nationalistic tone said as it boasted amid the soaring viewing figures.

“The rise in popularity of Chinese dramas among overseas audiences has been significant, especially over the past two years, which in turn has increased demand for these shows in overseas markets,” it continued.

A still from the popular Chinese TV series Empresses in the Palace

In the absence of English subtitles the paper said fans have been leaving comments under the programme’s YouTube trailers begging for translations.  

Cumulatively, The Story of Yanxi Palace has generated 5.6 billion views since it was released last month, reeling in an average of 130 million views per episode with plot lines including a jealous concubine destroying the emperor’s lychee trees and blaming it on a rival’s Pekinese dog, reported the South China Morning Post.  

By contrast, House of Cards had an average viewership of 4.6 million in September last year on Netflix.

The Story of Yanxi Palace is  set in the 18 th century court of Emperor Qianlong, is one of the most widely distributed Chinese productions and available in more than 70 markets globally.

Hong Kong’s TVB recently bought its distribution rights for Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Malaysia. Similar deals have been struck with TV channels and platforms in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

However, Vietnamese pirates who have got hold of episodes before their official release, will only let viewers watch them if they say Vietnam controls disputed islands. 

Yanxi Palace commands around 130 million views per episode 

Viewers are given the question “Which country do the Paracels and Spratly Islands belong to?” They must select "Vietnam" – not China – from a list of options . 

A recent editorial in Taiwan’s Taipei Times suggested the popularity of primetime Chinese dramas, with lavish sets and A-list stars, was an extension of Beijing’s “soft power” that was already shifting the public’s perception of China in a more positive direction, despite political tensions between the two countries.

In a previous interview with The Telegraph, Chuang Chia-yin, an associate professor and sociology expert at the National Taiwan Normal University predicted that China’s cultural influence would soon advance  far beyond the Taiwanese Strait.

“I think maybe in five or ten years time, Chinese popular culture will dominate East Asian society. Their market and production are so big,” she said.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan, director of China Programmes at Nottingham University’s Asia Research Institute, said the regional dominance of Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese cultural products had been a “source of angst” for Beijing, which in 2006 identified “soft power” as a part of “comprehensive national power.”

Chinese TV series The Prince of Lan Ling has been a big hit in Taiwan

While many Chinese cultural products were “lost in translation,” historical dramas could become more influential, he suggested.

“It is plausible that they could resonate across the region, especially if historical distance is able to finesse the differences of opinion China has on lots of things with its North East Asian neighbours,” said Dr Sullivan.

The genre had long been a staple of the media and creative industries, he added, “but I suspect that the state’s narrative around the "rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation" has encouraged more exploration of historical themes to support the notion of Chinese greatness.”

The production of period dramas, say experts, is a delicate balance between the forces of creativity and commercialism and the state’s affinity for censorship and using Chinese history as a useful pedagogical tool.

Plunging necklines in earlier popular dramas have previously met the wrath of state censors.

Last week The Global Times, which has been accused of reflecting the Chinese government’s views, reported that there was still a long way to go before China’s dramas could parallel the popularity of South Korean shows.

One of the major obstacles was length, with viewers giving negative feedback “dragging storylines,” it said, citing Rena Liu, vice president of DramaFever, a division of Warner Bros Digital Labs.

"Chinese dramas typically exceed 50 episodes. This creates a very challenging barrier of entry, since Western audiences who watch with subtitles often prefer more efficient storytelling," said Ms Liu.

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