It’s not even October, but already the 70-episode Chinese soap opera “Story of Yanxi Palace” is poised to be one of the biggest Chinese pop culture phenomena of the year. Since its first episodes were uploaded to the Chinese streaming platform iQiyi less than three months ago, the series has drawn more than 15 billion total views, making it one of the most-watched TV shows in Chinese history.
In terms of content, “Yanxi Palace” is typical of the sudsy Chinese genre known as “palace dramas,” which has origins in the 2004 Hong Kong TV series “War and Beauty.” As the name suggests, palace dramas are generally centered around the vicious court struggles of imperial China, and set against lush, opulent backdrops. Although this description may call to mind Western dramas such as “The Tudors” or “Game of Thrones,” palace dramas are unlike these shows in that they are distinctly female-oriented — they focus not on the deeds of brave knights or ambitious lords, but the emotional entanglements and political power struggles of royal concubines as they vie for the emperor’s affections.
Yet while “Yanxi Palace” clearly draws on this genre for inspiration, its runaway success is at least partly due to the way the series innovates structural conventions found in palace dramas. These tweaks have resulted in a show so addictive that netizens have coined a new word to describe it: shuangju — a term that roughly translates to “a show that demands to be binge-watched.”
The word shuangju is actually an adaptation of a literary term: shuangwen — a binge read. Shuangwen are common in China’s massive internet fiction industry, in which binge-ability is a key element of the business model. Popular internet novels such as “Fighter of the Destiny” and “Martial Universe” tell the tales of hot-blooded young men from the bottom rungs of society who, with the help of fate, are able to master mystical martial arts and transform themselves into legendary warriors — one chapter at a time. These novels — some of which have been adapted into shuangju of their own, though none as successful as “Yanxi Palace” — keep their readers engaged by offering up a steady stream of villains for their heroes to defeat as they rise through the ranks and eventually bring peace and prosperity to all the land.
Shuangju follow a similar pattern. By focusing relentlessly on the rise of an audience-insert underdog character, they give watchers frustrated with their own lots in life a chance to live vicariously through the action onscreen. No matter how banal or unremarkable our real lives may be, these bingeable stories offer an escape to a world in which the heroes — us — always win, and the villains — the people in our lives with power and authority over us — get what’s coming to them, swiftly.
This last point is key. What makes shows like “Yanxi Palace” so addictive is the immediacy and frequency with which they provide viewers the emotional high of vicarious victory. In classic palace dramas, protagonists suffer frequent defeats. Their triumph is a long and incremental process, delaying viewers’ sense of gratification until the very end of the series — if it comes at all. In “War and Beauty,” for example, the emperor’s concubines continue to scheme and fight, even as rebels storm the castle walls. In the end, they are all either driven from the palace or killed. It may be cathartic to see them get what’s coming to them, but it’s not particularly empowering.
Scenes from the 2004 Hong Kong TV series ‘War and Beauty.’ IC
“Yanxi Palace” dispenses with these narrative conventions in favor of an almost video game-like structure, with the show’s audience-insert character — Wei Yingluo, a young woman from a good, though not particularly high-status background — jumping quickly from one level to the next. From the moment she enters the palace on a quest to avenge her murdered sister, hardly an episode goes by without her outwitting or outfighting one of her many rivals — the show’s equivalent of a boss fight. It’s an intoxicating formula, and one that lets viewers live out their own fantasies of empowerment and social mobility.
Unlike other popular genres — such as China’s star-power-driven “idol dramas” — while “Yanxi Palace” has romantic subplots, it never loses sight of this central conceit. The show seems to recognize that its biggest draw — and what keeps viewers coming back for more — isn’t romance, but Wei Yingluo’s rise to the top.
Not everything about “Yanxi Palace” is new, however, and at times the show’s palace-drama DNA betrays itself. Although the Chinese government has recently evinced concern over the morals and values being espoused by popular television programs, the characters in palace dramas in particular can be almost aggressively amoral. Although good — personified in this case by Wei Yingluo — always triumphs over evil, justice on these shows bears a distinct resemblance to eye-for-an-eye mentalities, and Wei is just as likely to poison her enemies outright as to try and get them arrested.
Also indebted to the conventions of palace dramas are the show’s sexual politics. Although, like many palace dramas, the cast of “Yanxi Palace” is almost entirely female, many of the women on the show are depicted as conniving sex objects, constantly bickering with one another in their attempts to win male attention and approval. Even Wei Yingluo falls into this trap at points: Once her sister is avenged, she becomes just another concubine fighting for the emperor’s affections.
A still frame from the TV series ‘The Story of Yanxi Palace.’ From Weibo user @电视剧延禧攻略
What’s more, for all the ways the show indulges in wish-fulfillment and empowerment fantasies, it never actually considers that Wei Yingluo could work her way to the true top of the food chain. She may be able to win over the show’s avatar for patriarchy, but she’ll never supplant him. And the show never even considers that she might not want to struggle at all, but rather leave the palace entirely and live out her own life in peace.
For those wondering how a show with such retrograde sexual politics could be so popular with modern viewers, it may be because they can sympathize. In “Yanxi Palace,” the emperor is the ultimate authority: He has the power to make or break anyone at any time. The only way for the women of the palace to acquire a share of this power is to win the emperor’s affection — most often by forcing their rivals out of the picture. While this may sound antiquated, it’s not all that far-removed from the reality of modern Chinese society. In the workplace, for example, men dominate the managerial ranks, while women are often hired or promoted based on their looks and willingness to entertain their bosses’ advances as much as for their professional qualifications. And with so few management slots open to non-male applicants, competition between women can be cutthroat.
Yi Zhongtian, an author and scholar of ancient Chinese literature at Xiamen University, once pointed to classic Chinese works ranging from “Zuo Tradition” to “Dream of the Red Chamber” as evidence that China has historically had a fascination with infighting — whether among the rich and powerful or the family next door. The days of true palace intrigue may be in the past, but these struggles clearly still resonate with Chinese audiences who see in them shades of their own experiences.
Young people in China can sometimes feel like crabs trapped in a bucket: stuck, and unable to get out without someone else pulling them back down. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that both male and female viewers alike have found something to admire in Wei Yingluo’s ruthless competence. Since “Yanxi Palace’s” premiere, there has been a wave of online articles claiming to teach readers how to apply lessons from the show in the workplace or the dating scene.
The incredible success of “Yanxi Palace” is sure to spawn a raft of imitators. Some of these will be good, some will be bad; but as long as many Chinese feel vulnerable and disempowered in their real lives, there will continue to be an audience for escapist fare that lets viewers imagine, if only for an hour or two — or 70 — that they’re the hero of the story.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still frame from the TV series ‘The Story of Yanxi Palace.’ From Weibo user @电视剧延禧攻略)