The Spectacle of the Chinese Historical Drama


Flip through the channels on a TV in China, and you might come across something like this: attractive women and men dressed in the elaborate costumes of the Chinese imperial court, speaking in riddles and plotting against each other. On a recent evening in Shenzhen, China, I saw four historical dramas of the sort playing on different TV channels. Visually, these shows are strikingly different from news channels, game shows, reality TV, infomercials and other types of dramas. Sometimes grouped under the category of “costume dramas,” the characters usually dress up in colorful, beautifully embroidered clothes and headgear of bygone eras. They provide a vision of China’s past, complete with antiquated settings and forms of speech. But some shows take historical accuracy less seriously than others. In fact, time-travel dramas, in which a modern person is somehow transported back a century or more, became popular enough to attract the attention of Chinese government officials, who decided the category was too “frivolous” for public consumption back in 2011.

A distinction should be made within the category of historical drama that separates costume dramas from a very different sort. The latter is exemplified in the currently running series Mao Zedong. The show began late last year as part of the celebrations for the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth. It commemorates his life in a paltry 90 episodes (apparently a gold statue just wasn’t enough). After watching a few segments from different episodes, I concluded that the show was, ironically enough, nothing revolutionary. Mao is shown as a benevolent role model. Peasants, soldiers, and colleagues alike hang onto his every word. The propaganda-esque show is also accompanied by a legion of dramas about the Sino-Japanese Wars. These tend to demonize Japanese forces while idolizing Chinese soldiers, and have already been criticized by netizens for their well-known tendency to exaggerate.  Shows of this sort, notable for their unabashed promotion of Communist Party values, are a far cry from the historical dramas mentioned earlier, disclosing imperial courts and involving the private lives of social elites.


Take 2011’s Startling By Each Step (步步惊心), also known as Scarlet Heart. A popular time-travel drama, it was based on the premise of a modern girl that is transported back to the later years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) through a freak accident. She finds herself inside the body of one of her previous incarnations, Maertai Ruoxi, the daughter of an important general. In her new identity, she meets several handsome imperial princes and quickly becomes entangled in the politics of the court. The series showcases a mix of romance, history, and melodrama, along with some distinctly modern values. For instance, Ruoxi balks at the idea of becoming the concubine of one of the princes since it doesn’t fit in with her ideals of monogamous marriage.


Zhen Huan Zhuan (后宫甄嬛传), translated as The Legend of Zhen Huan, is another prime example of current Chinese TV trends. Within the last few years, it’s been one of the most popular and influential shows among historical dramas. Its impressive 76 episode-long run began in late 2011, and by 2012 it ranked as one of the most popular TV series of the year. It also gained popularity outside of the mainland, capturing the attention of audiences in Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia. Based on the plot of a popular internet novel by the same name, the show follows the rise of a young concubine named Zhen Huan in the harem of Emperor Yongzheng (who reigned from 1722 to 1735). The main action takes place as she struggles against the empress and other concubines. Through deception and betrayal, Zhen Huan eventually rises to the top.

The fictional story of Zhen Huan has proven so compelling that it has practically spawned its own subculture. In online conversations, fans imitate the antiquated expressions and the slyly indirect way of speaking used by characters on the show. Viewers have also praised its depiction of a world without ethics as analogous to contemporary Chinese society, which is rife with cutthroat competition in the workplace and government corruption. In light of the scandals that have emerged in the past few years, who’s to say that their claims don’t hold some truth? Just look at the case of Bo Xilai, an important official who was convicted last fall on charges of embezzlement, covering up murder, and accepting millions of dollars in bribes. His story may stand as proof that real life can be as strange as fiction.

In looking at the feedback generated by The Legend of Zhen Huan, we get some insight into the appeal of the historical drama. At first glance, it seems like the genre is mere escapism. The eye-catching costumes, the clever ways of speaking, the luxurious lifestyle of a social elite—all might serve to distract us from the troubles of the modern era.

But as netizens’ comments may prove, historical dramas have the potential to recast our take on the contemporary. After all, our viewings of the past are always firmly embedded in the present. Indeed, in light of government censorship and a subsequent lack of social criticism (at least in public areas like print media and TV), even a TV drama may prove to be an unexpected focal point for those worried about the state of Chinese society.

It may be that historical dramas like “Startling By Each Step” and “The Legend of Zhen Huan” are more progressive than they first appear. Surely it’s no coincidence that both of these popular shows featured a strong-willed female protagonist using her wits to influence her own surroundings. However, although both female and individual empowerment are running themes in these dramas, they are presented only in a limited sense. The heroine of Startling By Each Step tries to change the fates of those around her, only to discover that her actions are self-defeating and have trapped her in a historical dilemma of her own making. And while Zhen Huan eventually succeeds and (spoiler alert!) schemes her way into becoming the empress, by the end of the show she is plagued by guilt as a result of her wrongdoings.

Similarly, at the visual level, it is apparent that the women in these historical dramas function more as spectacles than as subversive role models. They don headdresses bedecked in jewels and flowers in addition to silky robes with fancy embroidery. Walking around ornamental gardens and beautifully designed interiors, they delight the eyes. Viewers are drawn in by the appearance of these shows and the entertainment that they provide. Ultimately, historical dramas are limited by the constraints of their own genre. But that doesn’t mean they can’t offer a small ray of hope, as well as hours of viewing pleasure.

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