Lately, No Award has been watching Empress of China, a 2014-15 serial about the life of Wu Zeitan, the titular empress. Fan Bing Bing is both star and producer, and we love her quite a lot.
We also love:
- Wu Zetian
- trashy historical drama
- costume drama
- boarding school stories — wait, what?
I did not come into this expecting hilarious boarding school hijinks, but then, I’ve never watched a Chinese drama before, let alone an historical Chinese drama. Maybe this is standard for the genre, and I need to put lots more of these shows in my face.
(Steph interjects: you need to watch so many of these shows, I cannot even.)
Obviously the harem — a word I strongly dislike using in any context, given its overtones of Middle Eastern orientalism and western exploitation thereof, but it’s what the subtitlers have gone with and I can’t think of a good alternative — of the Emperor of China is not a boarding school in the strictest sense, but it does feature a large group of young women living together, studying and competing for glory. Only, in this setting, “glory” is being chosen by the Emperor — as one of his four consorts, if not the empress.
(I also don’t know how much realism there is in the portrayal of the four consorts, because Wikipedia is not very forthcoming on the dynamics of the Tang Dynasty court, and I haven’t had a chance to look elsewhere yet. Which is ridiculous, because I’ve just remembered there is a whole book on my shelves about palace women, including Chinese courtiers of various eras. I am an idiot, and will no doubt revise this paragraph heavily before posting.)
(ETA: as it turns out, that book doesn’t cover the Tang Dynasty at all, although it’s otherwise fascinating and highly recommended.)
ANYWAY, what I am saying is that this is kind of a boarding school novel, but set in a murder harem.
YES, THERE IS MURDER. Because this is a series that is mostly about women, and the politics of women, and there’s a lot of poison going around. Not to mention “helpful” deliveries of white fabric (with which the grateful recipient can hang herself — actual thing Wu Zetian did, by the way). And also blackmail.
The set up:
A year after the death of the saintly Empress Wende, tiny adorable Wu Ruyi becomes one of the emperor’s new concubines. She’s forthright! Questioning! Honest! Spunky!
Naturally, that brings her to the attention of both the emperor — who is intrigued by her bluntness — and also Consort Wei, who has been seeking professional advancement — from consort to empress — via blackmail and murder, and also by owning a really excellent cat.
- The four consorts are colour-coded for the convenience of those of us who are bad with faces and take a while to remember names — Wei (evil) is pink; Yang (manipulative and clever) is red-orange, later switching into pale blue; Yin (pious and pathetic) is dark blue blue; Liu (pregnant and short-lived) is green.
- Wu has a BFF who is loyal, brilliant and kind, which makes up for the fact that so much of this series is about women competing for a man.
- Said BFF, Xu Hui, is based on a real woman who — SPOILERS! — was one of the great female poets of China.
- Also, pretty much any scene featuring men, they’re talking about women, or advancing the women’s storylines.
- THE COSTUMES, HOLY SHIT, apparently the actresses suffered bleeding scalps and migraines as a result of the wigs and headpieces they had to wear, and who can blame them? TOTALLY WORTH IT.
- Among Wu’s rivals is Consort Wei’s niece, played by Sun Jia Qi. She basically spends every scene mugging for the camera, and at first I hated her, but now she’s my fave. I call her Pop Star because her gestures and facial expressions are straight out of an Asian pop video.
- Wu spends a year in prison, but her fake eyelashes are more perfect than ever.
- Seriously, this is like they looked at The Tudors and went, “Yes, but what if it was EVEN TRASHIER and also had no sex scenes because China.”
- This show has a strong anti-birb agenda and I love it.
- I’m not sure how long it can get away with Wu being a wide-eyed ingénue who is shocked and appalled and amazed every time someone does something terrible. Like, sooner or later we get to the bit where she murders her daughter and frames her rival for witchcraft*, right?
- The whole “competing for the Emperor” bit does get dreary — on the other hand, “competing for the Emperor and also the long-term benefit of your family” is pretty great. It’s like Game of Thrones, except without graphic sex scenes. Or kissing.
- How does the emperor not see that Wei is evil? She is basically followed around by a giant flashing sign that says VILLAIN.
- I am not entirely sure that bejewelled fake eyelashes were a major part of Tang Dynasty culture.
- The Chinese censors took exception to all the historically accurate cleavage on view, so CGI fabric has been added to all the women’s chests. It’s fairly seamless, but still a distraction if you know it’s there. So I’ve spoilt it for all of you, I guess.
* Okay, that probably has as much historical basis as Anne Boleyn’s extra finger, but it makes a good story.
THE SYMBOLISM THOUGH.
When Consort Liu hangs herself, she’s found by her maid and we see her like this:
DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS?! This is a lady ready and able to BE A GHOST AND MURDER YOU, look at that framing like it’s a ghost hat! She is CLASSIC. Sadly I’m pretty sure she doesn’t actual reappear in the text as a ghost but I WISH.
I am super duper into this series, but aside from giving a historical overview of Wu Zetian which you don’t need because she’s literally the most famous woman in Chinese history, I’m about six episodes behind Liz and she’s covered all the important things.
Things to note:
- I can’t WAIT for the bit where she marries her own stepson.
- I recommend Empress by Shan Sa, if you want to read an exaggerated biography that includes a first person POV birth scene.
- ‘Empress Regnant’ is such a GREAT TERM.
- There is a reason why there are so many series set in the Forbidden City, it is SO BEAUTIFUL. Why do we have to spend so much time watching Regency dramas when we could be watching 600 years of palace shenanigans? White person oppression.
- I love the Empress who’s pious. Every time she goes to pray I feel a frisson of delight.
- This has been great for my Mandarin, because learning the word for assassin (“stabbing guest”, 刺客) has been a DELIGHT.
- I thought this would be more high brow; how wrong I was!
- Come back after I’ve seen more of the episodes and have more feelings beyond ILU FAN BING BING.
- Oh, my confusion because I’ve been watching a version with Cantonese theme songs was pretty hilarious but mostly incomprehensible to Liz.
If you want to join us for the ongoing SRS BZNS HISTORICAL DRAMA PARTY, we’re watching Empress of China here. So far — Liz is up to episode 15 — the subs are okay. You get a few typos here and there, and remnants from having been run through an automatic translator of some kind, but on the whole, they make sense.