“Dramas Must Feature Goodness”: The CCP Launches Renewed Efforts to Control Themes in Popular Culture

A still image from the popular Chinese television program The Story of Yanxi Palace, which was abruptly removed from state television in late January 2019.

“Yanxi Palace” and Other Dramas Run Afoul of the Authorities

In the last week of January, many television watchers in China were surprised and disappointed when two popular historical dramas—Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace (Ruyi Zhuan, 如懿传) and The Story of Yanxi Palace (Yanxi Gonglue, 延禧攻略)—were both abruptly withdrawn from the line-up on state television channels (South China Morning Post, 29 January). Both dramas feature prominent female characters and lavish production values, and depict ruthless court intrigues during China’s last imperial dynasty. These and similar programs have grown in popularity in recent years, to include broad success with international Chinese audiences. However, the new restrictions on such programming herald a renewed effort by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda authorities to impose the Party’s preferred narratives on popular entertainment.

Prior to its sudden disappearance from television in late January, Yanxi Palace had appeared to enjoy some measure of official favor. State media noted in late 2018 that it was the world’s most searched-for drama program on Google (ironic praise, as the use of Google’s search engine remains restricted within the PRC), and praised the “toughness, independence, and determination” of the show’s principal female protagonist (People’s Daily Online, December 27 2018). As late as January 22nd, the show was further praised for its “traditional cultural elements [that] create a new historic angle for foreign audiences to know more about Chinese history… [offering] creativity and passion into historical scenarios with inspiration from modern reality” (People’s Daily Overseas Edition, January 22).

However, this official approval experienced a volte-face with the publication of a January 25th editorial in the official Beijing Daily News. The editorial, titled “With ‘Yanxi’ and ‘Ruyi’ and Other Such Court Dramas, Negative Influences Cannot Be Ignored,” attacked such programs on five counts:

  • The dramas “make it a popular fashion to hanker after an imperial lifestyle;”
  • They “depict detailed plots of ‘court struggles,’ [which has] worsened contemporary society;”
  • They “unstintingly glamorize the emperor and his servants, while ignoring the glories of today’s heroic models;”
  • They “spread the ways of extravagance and pleasurable living, thus affecting industriousness and frugal virtue;”
  • And they are guilty of “narrowly pursuing commercial interests, while weakening positive spiritual guidance.” [1]

A subsequent editorial in China Daily reiterated the dangers that such dramas present to impressionable young people, asserting that “dramas must contain goodness,” and that they “should not simply entertain people, they should also lead them up the right path, which is the cornerstone of social progress” (China Daily, February 20).

The Sensitive Place of History in Popular Entertainment

Historical dramas have long been subject to controversy and censorship in the PRC, especially when their content has had allegorical connections to contemporary issues. The play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office (Hai Rui Ba Guan, ), for example, which depicted a virtuous official being sacked for bringing unwelcome truths before the emperor, was made subject to official criticism in a political campaign that kicked off the Cultural Revolution in 1966. This has continued into more recent times under Xi Jinping: official directives in 2017 and 2018 clearly indicated that dramas must conform with the CCP’s approved versions of history, avoiding “vulgar and falsified plots” and “historical taboos” that might conflict with officially-sanctioned themes (Xinhua, July 5 2017; Radio Free Asia, June 19 2018).

The reason for late January’s sudden official shift against Yanxi Palace and similar dramas is unknown. However, it may be connected in part to a broader political campaign launched by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping in a series of speeches and meetings in January. In these meetings, Xi and other senior leaders directed CCP officials working in the security and propaganda bureaucracies to take more forceful and proactive efforts to prevent social unrest, and to further increase the Party’s control over public discourse. As a component of this, Xi stated on January 21st that officials managing media and propaganda must ensure that “all the people [are] tightly united by [the correct] ideals, beliefs, values, concepts, and moral principles” (China Brief, 20 February).

It is unknown whether senior-echelon CCP leaders ordered the affected programs off the air, or whether nervous mid-level officials in the media sector were seeking to demonstrate their ideological zeal and compliance with general directives coming from above. The fact that the drama series are reportedly still available on popular internet streaming platforms such as iQiyi (Channel News Asia, January 29) suggests that it may be the latter. But whatever the case, it is clear that these historical dramas—which depict Chinese political circles as filled with Machiavellian scheming, and portray arrogant elites who bully those below them in the social hierarchy—contain themes that are making at least some in authority nervous, and which run afoul of Xi’s drive to inculcate Neo-Maoist ideology throughout modern-day Chinese society (Journal of Democracy, July 2016; China Brief, March 5 2018).

“The Wandering Earth” is Promoted to International Audiences

In contrast to official condemnation of Qing Dynasty historical dramas, the recent roll-out of the Chinese science fiction film The Wandering Earth (Liulang Diqiu, 流浪地球) has demonstrated a story much more to the liking of PRC propaganda authorities. The film, adapted from a novella by Hugo Award-winning author Liu Cixin, tells the story of a future effort to move the Earth to another solar system when it is threatened with destruction by the expansion of the sun. In the story, the international effort to save the world is spearheaded by heroic Chinese scientists and astronauts. The film, with a reported budget of over 50 million dollars, represents one of the most ambitious efforts yet by a Chinese studio to produce the sort of big-budget, special effects-intensive blockbusters that have been a mainstay of Hollywood in recent years (Hollywood Reporter, January 30). The film opened to big box office receipts in China, and has also received a release in 29 North American cities through China Media Capital (Xinhua, February 15). The film has received mixed but generally positive reviews in its limited U.S. release. [2]

A promotional poster for the science fiction film The Wandering Earth, which opened to both domestic and international audiences in February 2019. In the film, heroic Chinese scientists and astronauts lead an international struggle to save the world from destruction.

PRC state media outlets have been effusive in praising and promoting The Wandering Earth, on grounds that it has “amazed moviegoers with its bold imagination” and high-quality visual effects (Xinhua, February 15). However, the most striking element of official coverage has been decidedly unsubtle commentary to the effect that the film demonstrates China’s superior vision of international order. A China Daily article headlined “The Choice Between Chinese and Western Values” notes that the film displays “the collective political and social spirit of the Chinese people—which is conducive to building a community with a shared future for humankind” (China Daily, February 12). A commentary in the Global Times noted that the film presents the common concerns of all humanity for the fate of the Earth, and that “Different from the U.S. sci-fi blockbusters which advocate individual heroism, The Wandering Earth proposes China’s collective spirit… This is in line with how people see today’s global affairs… China is making contributions to global development with its own strength and its own way” (Global Times, February 18).

Conclusions

The starkly contrasting official treatments of these two different forms of popular entertainment are revealing of the narratives that the CCP wishes to present to the world—as well as the anxieties that preoccupy PRC leaders at home. The Wandering Earth, which presents courageous, selfless, and tech-savvy Chinese characters at the forefront of global leadership, is apparently very much the narrative that PRC media and propaganda officials wish to promote both at home and abroad. By contrast, the historical dramas that vanished from television in late January may have held up an uncomfortable allegorical mirror (whether intentionally or otherwise) to continuing problems within both the party-state hierarchy and Chinese society writ large. PRC media institutions continue to function as the mouthpieces of the state, and they tack their sails according to winds that blow from above; as the Xi administration continues to tighten the screws ever-more firmly over public discourse in China, popular entertainment is likely to feel increasing pressure to “feature goodness” as defined by the propaganda apparatus of the CCP.

John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. Contact him at: [email protected]

Notes

[1] See: “With ‘Yanxi’ and ‘Ruyi’ and Other Such Court Dramas, Negative Influences Cannot Be Ignored” [《延禧》《如懿》等宫廷剧霸屏 负面影响不容小觑], Beijing Daily News (北京日报), January 25, 2019, http://ent.sina.com.cn/v/m/2019-01-28/doc-ihqfskcp1161992.shtml. The five categories in which the shows are allegedly at fault are: “Making it a popular fashion to hanker after an imperial lifestyle” [热衷追崇皇族生活方式,使之成为流行时尚]; “By depicting detailed plots of ‘court struggles,’ [they have] worsened contemporary society” [精心演绎“宫斗”情节,恶化当下社交生态]; “Unstintingly glamorizing the emperor and his servants, while ignoring the glories of today’s heroic models” [不吝美化帝王臣相,淡化今朝英模光辉]; “Spreading the ways of extravagance and pleasurable living, thus affecting industriousness and frugal virtue” [宣扬奢华享乐之风,冲击克勤克俭美德]; “Narrowly pursuing commercial interests, while weakening positive spiritual guidance” [片面追逐商业利益,弱化正面精神引导]. The translations offered here, which could be subject to slightly differing interpretations, are solely the responsibility of the author.

[2] As of March 3rd, the film review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes registered a 77% positive rating for The Wandering Earth in both the critic and audience categories.