Fantasy and the Forbidden City

China’s most popular costume drama tells more about the present than it does about the Qing dynasty – Tobie Meyer-Fong

During the summer of 2018, The Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略), a soap opera set in the Forbidden City, mesmerized audiences with its sumptuous costumes and lavish sets. Media analysts celebrated the protagonist – a concubine rising within the ranks – as a bold female exemplar, and noted that it provided a promising vehicle for education about China’s cultural heritage both at home and abroad. The show was made and initially screened by iQiyi, a Chinese internet streaming company owned by Baidu, although it was later also broadcast on conventional and cable television channels. (A version with English subtitles can be found on YouTube.) It proved hugely popular, with episodes streamed over 15 billion times by Chinese viewers. The BBC online breathlessly announced that Yanxi Palace was the “most Googled TV show of 2018 globally,” even though Google is blocked in China.

The series portrays China’s dynastic past in ways consistent with other productions of the late 20th and early 21st century. It glorifies the expansive and multicultural empire of the High Qing period, which roughly coincided with the 18th century. It presents a courtly world filled with marvelous objects of exceptional value and expense. It reflects the muscular vision of China’s past currently promoted by the state, as well as the material aspirations of today’s rich and powerful. In particular, the show spotlights the magnificence of the Forbidden City, which itself has become a brand central to patriotic and consumer-friendly imaginings of the Chinese past – with specially branded cosmetics, elegant reproductions of palace artifacts, ticketed evening extravaganzas, a publishing house, and participation by palace curators and craftsmen in reality television shows. Yanxi Palace buys into an officially sanctioned and consumer-oriented vision of Chinese history, focused on power, wealth, and nationally-identified things.


Taiwan Too

How the suicide of a female author sparked Taiwan’s Me Too movement – Jessie Tu 

In February 2017, indie-press Guerrilla published a novel by 26-year old Taiwanese author Lin Yi-Han, Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise. The story follows a young girl who is raped by her cram school teacher over a period of five years, beginning from the time she was 13 years old. The book sold more than 200,000 copies in Taiwan, and has been translated into Korean, Japanese and Thai. Speculations arose that the novel was based on the author’s own life when, two months after publication, she died by suicide.

Despite Lin’s public denial before her death that the novel was not autobiographical, it was widely reported that she’d attempted suicide several times before her death, and that the cause of her depression was the years of abuse she suffered at the hands one male teacher. Before her death, Lin was an outspoken advocate for mental illness and had been admitted into psychiatric clinics since the age of 16. In an interview with an online critic before her death, Lin said: “I don’t want people to think of Si-Chi (the protagonist in the novel) as just another fictional character. I want people to sympathise with her.” The preface of the book reads: “The characters in this novel were adapted from real people.” 


The Chinese Intellectual Memorialized in Oxford

Chiang Yee and England’s wartime circle of Chinese literati – Paul French

Anyone who has lived in or visited the UK will likely be familiar with the Blue Plaque scheme: permanent signs on buildings across the country, commemorating the link between that location and a culturally significant person or event. To qualify for a Blue Plaque, nominees must be regarded as eminent within their field; that is, their achievements have made an exceptional impact or deserve national recognition. Nobody is quite sure how many Blue Plaques there are – it’s rather a hotchpotch system administered locally – although London alone has about 900.

Until recently, Britain only had two Blue Plaques commemorating the lives of Chinese people: one to the writer Lao She, and another to Dr Sun Yatsen, “Father of Modern China.” 


Letters Home From Chinese Migrants

Rachel Leow reviews Dear China by Gregor Benton and Hong Liu

In the opening scene of Ang Lee’s 1994 movie Eat Drink Man Woman (飲食男女), a silent father caresses a banquet into being. Moving amidst bubbling soups, smoking oils and steaming baskets, he lavishes upon the array of dishes a tenderness he will go the whole movie without once matching in words. The diners to whom this feast is borne – his three daughters – meet it with a different quality of silence: blank looks, tinged with boredom, even exasperation. They sit to eat. Conversation stutters. Family news is stiffly exchanged: wretched, half-spoken words. Dinner is cut short by a phone call, an abrupt exit. At any rate it had been criticized – “father, the ham is over-smoked.” We learn only later of the daughters’ fears for their father’s deteriorating health, marked by his declining sense of taste – fears that ran so deep that they could hardly be spoken at all.

This scene captures an emotional core to what many would recognize instantly as Chinese family life. 


Hong Kong’s Sickness

Hong Kong writer Hon Lai-chu on a city dividedtrans. Andrea Lingenfelter

Translator’s note: Hon Lai Chu, an award-winning writer from Hong Kong, wrote this essay at the end of August. At that time, her neighborhood of Tsuen Wan was the scene of violent clashes between police and demonstrators. In early September, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the extradition bill that initially sparked the protests would be withdrawn, yet the gesture was seen as too little too late, and it was not until October 23 that the bill was formally withdrawn. Demonstrations continued, and the situation has become increasingly volatile, with Polytechnic University under siege in mid November, and a December 8 march drawing an estimated 800,000 participants.

In her essay, Hon Lai Chu writes of the loss of public trust, and references one of Hong Kong’s formerly most beloved and reliable institutions, the MTR metro system, which has periodically closed stations to make it more difficult for people to reach demonstrations. There have also been numerous documented instances of police brutality, as well as organized attacks on protesters by members of organized crime, while police have turned a blind eye. As Hon Lai Chu observes, like teargas residue (which left this writer with a headache and watery eyes after a brief visit to a shopping mall in Mongkok), the after-effects of this conflict will linger long after the crisis has been resolved. – Andrea Lingenfelter

Hong Kong these days is like a body afflicted with a malignant tumor: the mind is unwilling to acknowledge the tumor’s existence and only wants to clean up the annoying but superficial daily signs of disease; yet the heart is plagued by unease. Illness is an ongoing struggle in the body, and only a healthy person has the strength to withstand the battle between good cells and bad cells. Whether we’re talking about one person or an entire city, a bout of sickness represents an opportunity for deeply seated problems to be cured. Although a body that has never known illness may continue to function normally, when toxins accumulate and cannot be easily expelled, the condition can be fatal.