A popular Chinese costume drama from the late ’90s is back on the small screen, igniting a wave of nostalgia and fresh commentary from millennial viewers who grew up with the show.
On Saturday, central China’s Hunan TV began rebroadcasting “Huanzhu Gege,” or “The Return of the Pearl Princess,” the hit comedy-drama series that made international stars of its young actresses, Zhao Wei, Ruby Lin, and Fan Bingbing.
Adapted from a novel by Taiwanese romance writer Chiung Yao, “Huanzhu Gege” tells the story of Xiaoyanzi, a vagrant orphan who accidentally becomes a princess after she is mistaken for Ziwei, the illegitimate daughter of the Qianlong Emperor. The show made its mainland debut on Hunan TV 20 years ago, and on Saturday, it again landed top ratings for a show airing on provincial television, Sina Entertainment reported.
Chen Jiali, a 31-year-old journalist based in Beijing, told Sixth Tone that she remembers how her family skipped the Spring Festival gala to watch the show during the Chinese New Year holiday in 1999. “The entire family watched it together,” Chen recalled. “Even my grandmother who was in her 70s watched the show with us.”
The television series became a thread of connection between young and old, Chen said, and even her elderly relatives could immediately recognize the stars when they appeared in other programs. “It’s not easy for them to remember the stars of our generation,” she said.
Reruns of “Huanzhu Gege” used to screen every summer and winter holiday until 2014, when Chiung Yao withdrew her screening rights from Hunan TV because of a plagiarism dispute over another show on the network, which in 2015 was ruled to have violated her copyright. On Saturday, Chiung explained that she had authorized the station again as part of her new Zen outlook. “Writing a book on life and death, I have nothing that I can’t let go of,” the 79-year-old author wrote on Facebook.
For millennial viewers like Chen, this year’s broadcast gives them an opportunity to re-evaluate an old favorite. “Back then I liked Ziwei, but now I feel like she’s a bit fake,” Chen said. “I find her too thoughtful and selfless, which isn’t realistic.”
These days, Chen said, she can’t help but think of what the actors are up to today. “For Xiaoyanzi [played by billionaire actress and investor Zhao Wei], I will think of her now being chubby and doing business,” Chen explained.
Shi Wenbo, 28, said he also views the show differently compared to when he watched it before. “As a child, I thought good people were only good, and bad people were just bad,” he said. “Now I feel that no one is a good person, and no one is a bad person.”
Though his favorite character was once Xiaoyanzi, Shi said now he looks forward to seeing Er Kang, Ziwei’s lover, who has become a source of memes because of his dramatic facial expressions. Chen agrees: “When Er Kang appears, it will be totally nuts.”
Despite his own affection for the show, Shi believes few people will watch the rebroadcast because of the poor image quality and outdated plot. But Ge Xiaohu, a postgraduate student in Shanghai, thinks it’s a savvy choice from the network.
“This rebroadcast produces a sense of nostalgia,” Ge told Sixth Tone, “while guaranteeing strong ratings during the Spring Festival period as families reunite, and as we recall the past and welcome the future.”
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: A woman watches ‘The Return of the Pearl Princess’ in Shanghai, Feb. 8, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)