Tea Leaf Nation

China's Favorite Villainess

Why Chinese TV viewers can't get enough of a fictitious, Qing-era concubine.

Many U.S. viewers identify with serial killer Dexter Morgan of Dexter, inveterate womanizer Don Draper of Mad Men, or family man turned meth kingpin Walter White of Breaking Bad -- however morally bankrupt they may be. Now, China has its own anti-hero, one that citizens love -- and authorities merely tolerate. Concubine-turned empress Zhen Huan is the protagonist of Empress in the Palace, a fictitious television drama series set during the Qing dynasty reign of emperor Yong Zheng, who assumed the throne in 1722. The show is a hit; not only has it set viewership records for some of the many local networks that broadcast it, it's also a web sensation, with over 4.4 billion total views on Letv, a Chinese video-streaming site.

While China's leaders have sought to promote an optimistic worldview with slogans like the "Chinese Dream" and an emphasis on "positive energy," Zhen epitomizes everything but. Her rise to power is nasty, brutish, and rapid. In the first episode, which aired in Nov. 2011, the 17-year-old Zhen is uninterested in politics, and does not even wish to join the emperor's retinue; nonetheless, she is eventually selected as a concubine because of her beauty. Over the course of the 76-episode series, now complete, Zhen's outlook darkens, and she ascends the palace hierarchy by destroying those who stand in her way. Zhen poisons a friend-turned-enemy, causing the woman to miscarry. Later in the show, she frames the empress for causing Zhen herself to miscarry -- and uses that to usurp the empress's throne.

The show's web-savvy viewers have taken Zhen's machinations to heart. Many feel the series reflects contemporary Chinese society, in which the unwritten rules of a system based more on connections and corruption than merit often force a choice between success and integrity. And Zhen has taught them that the quickest path to success is a willingness and ability to be more manipulative than anyone else. Zhen's journey, one web user wrote, "makes people aware that society is dark, a society that makes bad people worse, and good people bad."  

Television antiheros have been popular in places like the United States for decades, but in China, where the government sits in final judgment on the moral correctness of television content, Zhen is something new and potentially threatening. Chinese censors have not moved to quash Empress in the Palace: the show is an "historical drama," a permitted typology unlike "time travel" dramas, which are banned for their "frivolous" treatment of history.

Zhen is anything but frivolous -- but to a Communist Party trying to promote positivity, she may simply be too nasty. On Sept. 19, the newspaper People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, published a widely discussed op-ed by Tao Dongfeng, a professor of cultural studies at Beijing's Capital Normal University, critiquing Empress in the Palace for its potential to negatively impact social mores. Tao maintained that television should serve as a "vehicle" by which to bolster a culture of integrity. "Artistic works should be superior to reality," he wrote. "They should not simply copy it."

Many Chinese, or at least those with an Internet connection, disagree. In an ongoing survey conducted by Sina, one of China's largest Internet portals, only about 29 percent of 219,000 respondents thus far agree that "shows and movies should transmit positive energy; Empress in the Palace, which encourages an ethical race to the bottom," is not worthy of promotion. The majority, about 68 percent, felt that "a gap between art and reality" leads to "fake and monotonous" work. The masses have spoken, and they want their anti-heroes.  

Fair Use/Weibo

Tea Leaf Nation

'The Renminbi Is Failing the Chinese People'

Now even Chinese people -- not just U.S. congressmen -- are hating on China's currency.

U.S. government officials have long complained that China's currency, the renminbi (RMB), is undervalued. In April 2010, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) accused China of keeping its money cheap in order to make exports attractive, and thus "steal jobs" from the United States. During the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly complained that China was manipulating the value of its currency. But as the RMB has appreciated -- from roughly 6.8 to the dollar in 2010 to 6.09 today -- the issue has dropped from most U.S. agendas. Now, some of those Chinese "job stealers" are the ones grousing about the "redback."

During the Third Plenum, an important Communist Party meeting held in mid-November, China's state-run China Central Television interviewed Beijing residents about the conclave. CCTV generally tries to imbue important political events with a positive glow. But when a CCTV journalist asked a young man what he thought needed to be changed in China; he responded, "The RMB is failing the Chinese people." The station didn't censor the comment from its taped program, and the clip went viral on the Chinese web, with more than 240,000 views on the online news portal Ifeng. A search for the phrase "The RMB is failing the Chinese people" returned more than 820,000 recent results on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter; most of the responses sampled by FP criticized government policy.

In one widely-shared post, Weibo user Xu Shaolin, who frequently comments on finance matters, complained to his 357,000 followers, "U.S. consumers buy cheap goods produced in China, but the Chinese government takes away the dollars" to buy U.S. bonds. This leaves Chinese people "with more and more RMB that is worth less and less." Other Weibo posts under the same hashtag lament everything from the price of housing to the price of pigs' feet, a popular Chinese snack.

Yes, netizens oversimplify the complicated relationship between the value of the RMB and the quality of their daily life. But that doesn't mean their complaints are specious. Housing prices, for instance, continue to reach record highs -- the cost of a new home in China jumped 9.6 percent year on year in October -- while food prices are rising the fastest they have since May 2012. By ensuring an oversupply of RMB, one user wrote, the government is lowering the currencies' value and "stealing money from people's pockets." Though it may not be what Romney had in mind, that's what "currency manipulation" means to some Chinese. 

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