Why a Hit Chinese TV Show About a Vengeful Concubine Is Causing Fans to Swarm the Forbidden City’s Palace Museum

But not every visitor has been a satisfied customer.

A velvet flower ronghua from the Palace Museum in Beijing was reproduced for the character Empress Fuca in Story of Yanxi Palace. Photo courtesy of iQiyi.
An elaborate "money tree" velvet flower ronghua from the Palace Museum in Beijing was reproduced by artisan Zhao Shuxian for the character Empress Fuca in Story of Yanxi Palace. Photo courtesy of iQiyi.

A wildly popular Chinese TV drama has become an unexpected boon for the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Visitor numbers are reportedly up at the Forbidden City thanks to this summer’s hit television show Story of Yanxi Palace, which is set in what is now the Palace Museum. A tale of courtly intrigue set during the 18th-century Qin dynasty, the series centers around a young girl who enters imperial court as a maid, becomes a concubine, and rises rapidly through the ranks while seeking revenge for her sister’s death.

The show has been likened to the popular HBO series Game of Thrones—minus the nudity, of course—and The Crown, the Netflix show about the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. But it is way more popular than either of them. As of September, the 70-episode series, an example of China’s popular gong dou ju, or palace scheming drama, had received an astounding 17 billion streams, with as many as 700 million on a single day.

The show draws heavily on Chinese history, with authentic period costumes based on real garments from the Palace Museum collections, like the replica of an elaborate “money tree” velvet flower ronghua made by artisan Zhao Shuxian for the character Empress Fuca.

The Yanxi Palace in Beijing's Forbidden City today. Photo courtesy of the Palace Museum.

The Yanxi Palace in Beijing’s Forbidden City today. Photo courtesy of the Palace Museum.

But while the series has worked hard to replicate the look and feel of imperial China, visitors should be aware that the original Yanxi Palace from 1420—the name means “Palace of Lasting Happiness”—burned down in the 19th century. It was rebuilt as a warehouse in 1931, the only modern concrete building in the Forbidden City.

This has left some superfan visitors disappointed. “The palace doesn’t look like what I had imagined. I didn’t expect a Western-style architecture,” a visitor named Lin admitted to ChinaDaily.

The palace as seen in the drama exists only as a stage set in Hengdian World Studios, in Dongyang in Zhejiang Province, which is open to the public. Nevertheless, Chinese media outlets claim there has been a significant uptick in Yanxi Palace attendance this year.

A scene from Story of Yanxi Palace. Photo courtesy of iQiyi.

For stateside fans of the show, a trip overseas isn’t necessarily in order: treasures from China’s Palace Museum, some never exhibited before, are on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in “Empress of China’s Forbidden City,” through February 10, 2019. The show, which illustrates how Chinese imperial fashions reflected the strict hierarchies of the emperor’s court and the ways in which women rose to power by bearing male children, will also appear at the Smithsonian’s Freer Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC, from March 30 to June 23, 2019.

The exhibition particularly spotlights the impressive political career of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908). She postdates Story of Yanxi Palace, but her fashion choices clearly influenced the show, which recreated a stunning pearl cape worn by Cixi in a portrait by Katharine A. Carl that was given as a gift to President Theodore Roosevelt.

Katharine A. Carl's portrait of the dowager empress Cixi features a pearl cape like that worn by a character in <em>Story of Yanxi Palace</em>. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution/iQiyi.

Katharine A. Carl’s portrait of the dowager empress Cixi features a pearl cape like that worn by a character in Story of Yanxi Palace. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution/iQiyi.

Coproduced by online video platform iQiyi and Huanyu Film Works, Story of Yanxi Palace was first released on July 7, with the series finale dropping on October 4.


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