Enfilade

Story of Yanxi Palace

Posted in films, today in light of the 18th century by Editor on June 1, 2021

Still from Story of Yanxi Palace (2018), with the empress wearing a replica of a fengguan (phoenix crown) now in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

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I’m at least two years overdue with this posting—the series appeared in 2018—but I learned of it only recently thanks to Isabella Smith’s essay in the May issue of Apollo. I’m just three episodes in, but totally entranced. CH

Isabella Smith, “An Audience with the Qianlong Emperor, via the Small Screen,” Apollo Magazine (May 2021).

It’s like Game of Thrones, but with art instead of sex. I’ve found myself repeating that summary frequently while evangelising about Story of Yanxi Palace (2018), a Chinese period drama loosely based on historic figures in the Qing dynasty court of the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799)—and one of my lockdown obsessions. The tale begins in 1741, when our Cinderella-like heroine Wei Yingluo (Wu Jinyan) enters the Forbidden City, ostensibly to work as an embroidery maid at the palaces, but with a secret mission: to uncover the perpetrator behind her beloved sister’s rape and murder. It’s a suitably knotty start to a narrative as labyrinthine as it is long; the series comprises 70 episodes at 45 minutes apiece.

Besides the intricacies of its intrigues, what has kept me enthralled is the sheer spectacle of the thing. From its heavily embroidered robes and carved jade to lavish lacquerwork and pottery, Story of Yanxi Palace is a feast for the eyes. In 2018, the show was streamed more than 15 billion times on the Chinese video platform iQiyi, before falling foul of government censors and being pulled from TV screens. The charge? Its ‘negative influence on society’, promoting admiration for imperial China and its luxurious lifestyles, an argument initially set out in Theory Weekly (a magazine affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper, the Beijing Daily).

What sets Story of Yanxi Palace apart from similar historical dramas—and China boasts a rich roster of such shows—is its devotion to the decorative arts. . . .

The full essay is available here»

For the wider media context of the series in China, see Jiayang Fan’s essay, “In China, Shows Like ‘Story of Yanxi Palace’ Go Viral, and the Party Is Not Amused,” The New Yorker (23 April 2019).

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