Imperial court drama thrills Taiwan, dismays China
This undated photo released by Videoland Cable Network Taiwan shows Chinese actress Sun Li, second from left, in costume with her supporting actresses on set of the TV series 'The Legend of Zhen Huan' in mainland China. (AP Photo/Videoland Cable Network)
Annie Huang, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, December 4, 2012 7:12AM EST
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- A television series about imperial palace drama in the 17th century has captivated viewers in Taiwan, but its emphasis on the dark side of human nature has made it less popular with cultural authorities in China.
"The Legend of Zhen Huan" has a Qing dynasty setting and its main characters are fictional concubines vying for the emperor's affection. The lead role is witty Zhen Huan, who transforms from an innocent 17-year-old into a scheming dowager empress over decades in court. Initially victimized after rivals abort her baby by using poison, Zhen Huan learns to fight back and avenge the wrong she has suffered.
In Taiwan and on the mainland, fans of "Zhen Huan" see the dialogue as insightful on how to advance in the modern workplace. "If you want to live in this court, you must know the emperor's likes and dislikes, and if you want to survive, you must know those of other women" is one frequently quoted line.
Liu Lianzi, 28, wrote the 76-episode drama series based on her 2007 novel. "Zhen Huan" could easily be a metaphor for her experiences striving for success among thousands of young Chinese writers on the Internet. In the cauldron of China's voluminous online literature market, the mostly female devotees are ruthless in determining whether aspiring authors succeed or fail.
"The Internet has liberated all the external factors that have for long restrained women at work ... and no one had anticipated that a woman, when breaking the silence, would have told a story that should totally distort our look at history," Chinese writer Tzeng Yuan wrote recently in Taiwan's China Times daily.
Taipei office worker Chiu Ying said she was enthralled by the court struggles depicted in the drama series "that are not unlike nasty office politics anywhere."
"Zhen Huan has learned to rise up to the top the hard way, having to first deal with a jealous and wicked empress and then serving a suspicious and cruel emperor," Chiu said.
The drama has also impressed fans with its luxurious costumes and court scenery, while imparting lessons on Chinese classical poetry, court etiquette and herbal medicine preparation. Perfume sales in Chinese stores are said to have plummeted at one point because characters in "Zhen Huan" used perfume-enhanced herbs to cause abortions.
The success of the series has spawned a number of Chinese copycats, which may have dismayed Chinese authorities.
Lin Hsi-hui, head of Taiwan's Multimedia Production Association, said mainland associates told him the authorities there fear young viewers would get distorted work ethics from the series.
Authorities also feared the struggles might be seen as hitting too close to home in the midst of China's just-completed once-in-a- decade power transition, Lin said.
Partly because of "Zhen Huan," Lin said Chinese authorities had decided to limit historical dramas to just 10 percent of the total of next year's complement of TV series.
China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television did not immediately reply to a request for comment about the existence of the new restrictions.
But administration official, Wang Weiping, was quoted by the People's Daily website as characterizing discussion of them as "speculation."