Sex and the (Forbidden) City: Concubine Drama “Yanxi Palace” Becomes Smash Hit in the #MeToo Era

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12:58 AM HKT, Tue August 28, 2018 3 mins read

The Yanxi Palace was originally constructed in the year of 1420 in the Forbidden City, during the Ming Dynasty. From the Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty, many forgotten concubines lived and died there. Shortly thereafter, a Chinese plane dropped a bomb on the Palace, dooming the residence to oblivion.

Yet now Yanxi Palace is on the lips of millions of Chinese across the country and the site where it once stood has become the most popular area to visit in the Forbidden City. It’s all because of The Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略), a 70 hour-long episodic drama set during Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1711-1799). The final episode was released this past weekend on iQIYI, the so-called “Netflix of China”, and the show has broken a world record for garnering more than 500 million views in a single day (on August 12).

In total, it’s topped 10 billion views and iQIYI has inked deals to sell the drama to 70 countries worldwide.


So why has this historic drama replaced The Rap of China as the biggest hit of the summer? Primarily, the plot — and its tackling of some very modern day storylines.

The Story of Yanxi Palace is adapted from historical texts and emphasizes the personal goals of concubines aside from simply sleeping with the Emperor. Since this drama is teeming with pretty contemporary conversations, much of the audience can see parallels with modern day office politics, as the concubines strive for promotions while sabotaging their rivals’ prospects.

Wei Yingluo, the heroine of the show, was born in a low-class Han family and is expected to be humble and obedient. However, she is just the opposite. She entered the Manchu-dominated Forbidden City as an intelligent seamstress, sharpening her skills and fighting against backstabbers head-on. Through myriad palace intrigues, she cleverly exposes the scheming of the show’s villainous characters amid a powerful narrative of revenge, as Wei looks to find the man who raped and murdered her sister in the City.

Image courtesy iQIYI

Meanwhile, unlike other servants in the Forbidden City, she never sees herself as simply a meek slave of the royal family, and attempts to fight her way to a position of power in the harem, even tangling with the Empress herself.

“Yingluo is like a young woman in contemporary society who relishes challenges,” says Tiffany Li, a graduate student at Peking University. “She shows how women at the time were able to use whatever means at their disposal to take advantage of men’s weaknesses – namely, their obsession with beautiful faces.”

Yanxi Palace billboards in Beijing (photo by Huang Sizhuo)

The way the show tackles traditional gender roles has not gone unnoticed in media commentaries either. “Yanxi indicates the popularity and evolution of feminism in China,” comments a recent article from DWNews. “Women don’t have to grin and bear it as they used to be but are able to think critically and independently.”

Hence, Yanxi Palace’s Yingluo Wei has become a symbol of getting rid of traditional hierarchy and challenging the patriarchy, which aligns with its main audience – young women with passion and courage to fight for their own dreams independent of men. The show echoes some of the social currents of the day, with an increasing number of Chinese women bravely disclosing their adversities in the workplace. Despite government attempts to censor it, the #MeToo movement in China is now gaining traction.


After intermittent accusations and some sustained censorship as Hollywood and subsequently broader society in the West were rocked by #MeToo scandals, China’s own movement has seen a resurgence since accusations made by Luo Qianqian at the start of this year. Beginning in academia, the movement has spread to other areas of society, with more and more women speaking publicly about their harassment.

In July, one alleged victim published an article on the internet about workplace harassment by Zhang Wen, a celebrity in the philanthropic circles. His wrongdoing was corroborated by female intellectuals such as Jiang Fangzhou and Yi Xiaohe. Yet in his response, Zhang stigmatized the girl by arguing that she is not a “good girl” and what happened was only a one-night stand.

Yanxi Palace‘s run has therefore coincided with misogynistic attitudes and traditional gender stereotypes being thrust into the public spotlight with some very real-life consequences. These discussions are also giving women the power to realize that they do not have to regard themselves as a taciturn and vulnerable second sex. And now, they’re seeing this perspective echoed on a smash hit TV drama.

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