A review of the rating charts for Chinese television series over the last couple of years shows what seems to be a magic formula: feature a scheming harem involved in a back-stabbing power struggle in ancient China.
Many series on this theme involve intricate plot lines in which concubines forge alliances and cliques that end up fighting each other in the hope of gaining favor with the emperor.
The soap operas appear to resonate in the hearts and minds of some viewers by reminding them of office politics. Some have even compiled their own interpretations of the shows, saying the stories set in ancient times allude to various social abuses that can also be found in the modern world.
The Legend of Zhen Huan, one of the latest hits, has been viewed more than 30 million times on a video website letv.com. On an online forum on baidu.com, fans have posted nearly 3,800 discussions and more than 44,000 comments have been written.
The finale of the show garnered 10 percent of the viewing public in Shanghai, ranking it top of the chart.
Critics note that viewers’ enthusiasm for such TV shows is rooted in China’s thousand-year culture of connections and relationship networking. Viewers love to pry apart and analyze what’s happening behind the scenes of the power conflicts.
The success of the “palace-infighting” shows dates back to the 2004 series War and Beauty produced by Hong Kong’s TVB. The characters deceive, manipulate and betray each other to get what they want. Their ruthlessness was seen as a metaphor for today’s office politics.
Over the past year there has been an explosion of such shows, including The Palace, The Emperor’s Harem and Curse of the Royal Harem. The most popular is the The Legend of Zhen Huan.
Adapted from a novel, the show revolves around Zhen Huan, a newcomer to the emperor’s harem. An innocent and pure girl at the beginning of the series, Zhen finds herself caught up in fierce infighting among the concubines.
Using her wits and sometimes unscrupulous methods, Zhen fights her way into the emperor’s heart, eventually becoming the empress.
Fans see the show as a metaphor for “survival in today’s professional world.” They see Zhen as a white-collar professional dressed in an ancient outfit.
One review posted online compared the emperor to a typical workplace boss, and the concubines to employees who are willing to try any means to win their boss’ favor.
“Everyone can find an example of their own experiences in the show. Some characters may be sitting in the office next door,” said Zhang Nan, an office worker.
Zheng Xiaolong, the TV series’ director, likened the heroine’s story to a college graduate who finally becomes CEO of a company.
Li Yin, a senior consultant with the headhunting consultancy RMG Selection, told the Global Times that just like today’s professional world, concubines in ancient times were also ranked, and could be promoted and demoted.
“The show tells us about rules in the professional world. For instance, one shouldn’t become arrogant once he or she finds favor in a company; otherwise, it will affect their performance and cause their career to nosedive,” Li noted. “This is particularly important in some State-owned enterprises, where there is a sense of hierarchy based on the country’s long feudal history.”
“The show also tells us that “fence sitters” won’t win the heart of any party in a company, including the boss,” Li said.
Not without criticisms
Despite its high ratings, The Legend of Zhen Huan has also stirred controversies.
Some argued that the metaphor for office politics is simplified demonizing of the professional world.
Wei Min, a human resources specialist with a foreign-owned enterprise, told the Global Times that she regards The Legend of Zhen Huan as a favorite pastime, and does not over-interpret its relevance to today’s professional world.
“There are some tips you should remember, but scheming and power struggles are not that prevalent in an office as some viewers suggested,” Wei said.
“If you follow the fans, you will start to assume your colleagues are rivals and waste your energy on infighting,” said Li.
Meanwhile, an opinion piece in the People’s Daily lambasted the TV series featuring palace infighting, calling for an end to such shows.
It criticized the programs for promoting the rule of the jungle and back-stabbing that magnify the evil side of human nature. It fears the dramas will twist young people’s perception of social relationships.
A portrayal of real world
The New Weekly magazine suggested the palace infighting dramas portray some social problems that plague today’s real world.
The concubines in the shows are often backed by wealthy and influential families, which many people believe is pretty much a necessity to get ahead in the world today. The New Weekly compared the imperial harem to a miniature social network.
Zhang Yiwu, a professor of cultural studies at Peking University, said that China’s youth over-estimate the complexity of the real world and are taking the dramas as their bible.
“When young people leave school and go out into the professional world, they are unsophisticated, like a blank piece of paper. They might sometimes imagine the worst of society, and such dramas cater to them,” he said, adding that such shows won’t necessarily cause a negative impact on the society.
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