'Yanxi Palace' censored in China, explained

The show got too popular for its own good.

Kayla Wong| February 09, 04:06 AM

China recently took its most popular drama series, The Story of Yanxi Palace, off air.

The cancellation of the show was abrupt, and followed an editorial by state-run Beijing Daily, which criticised the show for "polluting modern society".

Chinese audiences, however, can still watch the show on iQiyi, the online video platform that is known to foreigners as China's Netflix.

iQiyi is also the platform the show was first produced for and shown, according to BBC.

Yanxi Palace got too popular for its own good

Stanley Rosen, a China expert at the University of Southern California, told the BBC, that Yanxi Palace was seen by Beijing as "promoting incorrect values, commercialism and consumerism".

And these are not the socialist core values that Beijing wants to promote.

But even so, "censors tend to turn a blind eye to entertainment programmes of frivolous nature", said Zhu Ying of Hong Kong's Baptist University's Film Academy.

So, why the spotlight on Yanxi Palace in particular?

Its popularity among the Chinese is the main factor.

Zhu says the palace-intrigue drama series is a "perfect example" of a show that has become so popular it can potentially "threaten social norms, morally and ideologically".

Authorities are not pleased either with the online debate that ensued after the editorial was published.

Manya Koetse, editor-in-chief of What's on Weibo, told the BBC that online discussion of the authorities' decision to censor the show has been forcibly put to an end.

"The fact that most comment sections have been locked or shut down for now is quite telling."

Beijing wants to control the message it puts out to the world

According to the BBC, Beijing wishes to control the narrative of both the country's past and present.

So, although the show has great potential to help promote Chinese soft power abroad due to its massive following in other countries, if the message the show sends is not what the central government wants, they would rather it not be sent at all.

And unfortunately, Yanxi Palace and its main plot line about scheming and backstabbing concubines, does not exactly fit into the image China wants to portray to the world, which is that of a "peaceful rise", said Rosen.

Being self-conscious works against oneself

Such concerns over the kind of image it is exhibiting works against China more often than not.

China has a couple of films that stand a good chance of getting nominated for an award in the Oscars foreign movie category, such as 2017's Angels Wear White and 2018's Dying to Survive, due to the international acclaim they have received.

The former delved into the topic of child molestation, while the latter told the story of a leukemia patient who smuggled medicine from India.

However, these films ultimately did not get picked as they were seen to reflect negatively on China.

Rosen told the BBC:

"If they tolerated a little bit more criticism, they could be much more successful when it comes to soft power.

But they worry that once they open the floodgates, they won't be able to retain their control anymore."

Censorship a commonplace in China

Rosen also said censorship in China is "getting tighter", and that the target is not confined to just drama series or movies.

For instance, the Chinese government banned hip-hop culture and artistes with tattoos from appearing on TV back in January last year, citing objectionable values as the reason.

The move, however, is not really about hip-hop itself, according to Magpie Digest.

"As with most censorship in China these days, what is really being managed is the scale of people coming together outside of the government’s control."

And perhaps that's another reason why Yanxi Palace was censored.

Top image via Weibo