China’s Favorite Villainess

Why Chinese TV Viewers Can’t Get Enough of a Qing-Era Concubine

Many U.S. viewers identify with serial killer Morgan Dexter of Dexter, inveterate womanizer Don Draper of Mad Men, or family man turned meth kingpin Walter White of Breaking Bad—however morally bankrupt they may be. Now, China has its own anti-hero, one that citizens love—and authorities merely tolerate. Concubine-turned-Empress Zhen Huan is the protagonist of Empress in the Palace, a fictitious television drama series set during the Qing dynasty reign of Emperor Yong Zheng, who assumed the throne in 1722. The show is a hit; not only has it set viewership records for some of the many local networks that broadcast it, it’s also a web sensation, with over 4.4 billion total views on Letv, a Chinese video-streaming site.

While China’s leaders have sought to promote an optimistic worldview with slogans like the “Chinese Dream” and an emphasis on “positive energy,” Zhen epitomizes everything but. Her rise to power is nasty, brutish, and rapid. In the first episode, which aired in November 2011, the seventeen-year-old Zhen is uninterested in politics, and does not even wish to join the emperor’s retinue; nonetheless, she is eventually selected as a concubine because of her beauty. Over the course of the seventy-six-episode series, now complete, Zhen’s outlook darkens, and she ascends the palace hierarchy by destroying those who stand in her way. Zhen poisons a friend-turned-enemy, causing the woman to miscarry. Later in the show, she frames the empress for causing Zhen herself to miscarry—and uses that to usurp the empress’s throne.

The show’s web-savvy viewers have taken Zhen’s machinations to heart. Many feel the series reflects contemporary Chinese society, in which the unwritten rules of a system based more on connections and corruption than merit often force a choice between success and integrity. And Zhen has taught them that the quickest path to success is a willingness and ability to be more manipulative than anyone else. Zhen’s journey, one web user wrote, “makes people aware that society is dark, a society that makes bad people worse, and good people bad.”

Television antiheros have been popular in places like the United States for decades, but in China, where the government sits in final judgment on the moral correctness of television content, Zhen is something new and potentially threatening. Chinese censors have not moved to quash Empress in the Palace: the show is a “historical drama,” a permitted typology unlike “time travel” dramas, which are banned for their “frivolous” treatment of history.

Zhen is anything but frivolous, but to a Communist Party trying to promote positivity she may simply be too nasty. On September 19, the newspaper People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, published a widely discussed op-ed by Tao Dongfeng, a professor of cultural studies at Beijing’s Capital Normal University, critiquing Empress in the Palace for its potential to negatively impact social mores. Tao maintained that television should serve as a “vehicle” by which to bolster a culture of integrity. “Artistic works should be superior to reality,” he wrote. “They should not simply copy it.”

Many Chinese, or at least those with an Internet connection, disagree. In an ongoing survey conducted by Sina, one of China’s largest Internet portals, only about twenty-nine percent of 219,000 respondents thus far agree that “shows and movies should transmit positive energy; Empress in the Palace, which encourages an ethical race to the bottom,” is not worthy of promotion. The majority, about sixty-eight percent, felt that “a gap between art and reality” leads to “fake and monotonous” work. The masses have spoken, and they want their anti-heroes.