In 1967, not long after the start of the Cultural Revolution, an influential literary critic named Yao Wenyuan published an essay about one of his rivals, titled “On the Two-Faced Counter-Revolutionary Zhou Yang,” in a publication called Red Flag. Yao was a member of the Gang of Four—the infamous group led by Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife—and his writings helped drive a decade of sociopolitical upheaval and purges. In the essay, Yao also took umbrage with “Sorrows of the Forbidden City,” a commercially successful movie that was released in 1948—a year before the Revolution—and centered on the power struggle between the nineteenth-century Empress Dowager Cixi and her nephew, the Emperor Guangxu. But Yao’s true target in that instance was Liu Shaoqi, China’s head of state, who, along with Deng Xiaoping, the Party’s secretary-general, was seen as something of a reformer. The film was indisputably counter-revolutionary, Yao wrote, and he strongly implied that Liu was one of its most ardent admirers. (Little evidence has been found for that claim.) Therefore, he concluded, Liu was a traitor. Not long afterward, Liu, who had previously been seen as a successor to Mao, was jailed. The film’s director, Zhu Shilin, who lived in Hong Kong, had died of a heart attack the day he read the essay. Yao soon became known as “the killer by pen.”
Fifty years later, tales of the imperial court have again incurred the wrath of the Communist Party. In late January, a piece in Theory Weekly, a magazine affiliated with the state-run Beijing Daily, condemned certain entertainments for being “incompatible with the core values of socialism” and exerting a “negative influence on society.” Specifically, the article took aim at “Story of Yanxi Palace” and “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace,” two dramatic series that débuted last summer and which, in both plotlines and production values, might be considered direct descendants of “Sorrows of the Forbidden City.” Like the film, they are set during the Qing Dynasty and tell of courtiers’ ruthless struggles for power. (Many of the stories involve a good-hearted young woman who must contend with scheming concubines and rises to become the most powerful among them.)
“Ruyi” first aired on the site Tencent Video and was streamed more than fifteen billion times. “Yanxi” was released on iQiyi, the Chinese Netflix, and broke all viewing records. More than half a billion people streamed it in a single day. It was reportedly the most-Googled show on Earth, despite the fact that Google is blocked in China. Both series also aired on television, but, after the Theory Weekly article was published, the Beijing Daily followed up with an editorial that attacked “Yanxi” in particular, and a planned rebroadcast of the shows on state television was abruptly cancelled.
In the People’s Republic, it has long been understood that culture should adhere to Party policy. In fact, that doctrine was established before the Revolution, when Mao convened the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, in Communist-held China, in 1942. Since then, a large part of Chinese civic life has been a long experiment in the conscription of popular culture in the service of ideology. Over the past few years, media censorship has grown to encompass everything from foreign TV series to televised rap competitions and shows that, according to the state, promote a “Western life style.” The cancelling of “Yanxi” and “Ruyi” shows that the Party remains unswerving in its vigilance.
Yet, while imperial dramas have remained basically the same over the decades—palace intrigue, after all, never gets old—China has not. Its vertiginous transformations have a cinematic quality of their own—and they present a challenge to the Party’s efforts to police the screen. Take, for example, the Beijing Daily’s accusation that “Yanxi” and “Ruyi” fetishize luxury and ignore “values like thriftiness and hard work promoted by state-sanctioned role models of today.” Such charges may be in keeping with old-line Party orthodoxy, but they sound very strange coming from a political system that jettisoned the socialist economy four decades ago in favor of a market capitalism that has taught the population to prioritize self-interest, material wealth, and class status above all else.
The country’s prosperity has amplified social inequalities and stoked competition in all realms of life. “Yanxi” and “Ruyi” may be set in a previous century, and may be intended to provide a transporting distraction from real life, but the stories of palace life have tapped into contemporary China’s most urgent preoccupations. After the release of “Yanxi,” a number of Web sites posted listicles of “golden words of advice” from the show, intended to be taken as tips for “survival in the workplace.” Some seem directly inspired by Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”: “The time you spent on waiting is actually spent on accumulating power, once the time is right, you can then give your enemy a fatal blow.” A few—“Being powerful is better than relying on those in power,” for example, or “If managed well, all threats can become stepping stones”—wouldn’t be out of place in “The Prince.”
These lessons are presumably the opposite of what the Communist Party intended, which, according to the latest memo from the National Radio and Television Administration, which oversees all media content, is to encourage work that showcases “people’s happiness” and celebrates important Communist Party landmarks, such as, this year, the seventieth anniversary of the Revolution, and, coming up in 2021, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Party. In 2018, the administration announced that five thousand theatres across the country would periodically screen pro-Party programming. A prime example is “Amazing China,” a documentary extolling the nation’s achievements and singing unequivocal praise of Xi Jinping. The film appeared to be a runaway hit—China’s top-grossing documentary of all time—but it turned out that state-run companies and other government entities had handed out free tickets to pad the box-office numbers.
For decades, under Mao’s leadership, China’s insularity kept it backward and poor, but it also facilitated the Party’s methods of control. China in the digital-information age is increasingly turning outward, and its newfound cosmopolitanism is upending the Party’s objectives. How does a state wage war on reality? The problem is especially acute if, as fans of “Yanxi” seem to think, the public is catching onto the idea that “being in power is better than relying on those in power”—and that information is power. The state under Xi Jinping is intensifying its vigilance, but the effort feels increasingly like a game of Whac-A-Mole. And, in China, it is always difficult to predict who the winners will be.
When the Cultural Revolution came to an end, after Mao’s death, in 1976, the essayist Yao Wenyuan was arrested. He was said to have admitted to falsifying evidence that led to the purge of Deng Xiaoping. Yao was sentenced to twenty years in prison. In 1978, Deng become China’s top leader and, with his program of “reform and opening,” introduced capitalist market models to the economy and lifted the nation out of poverty. Two years later, Deng issued the “Resolution on the Rehabilitation of Comrade Liu Shaoqi” and declared him “a great Marxist and proletarian revolutionary.” But, by then, Liu, who had been forced to endure regular beatings and public shaming, had been dead for eleven years.