What this historical TV show reveals about China today

What this historical TV show reveals about China today

The Story of Minglan is a TV phenomenon in China, gaining 400 million views in just three days. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong finds out why it’s so popular.

One of the most eligible bachelors in the Northern Song dynasty capital of Kaifeng, the sweet and handsome Qi Heng, has lost his handkerchief while visiting the Sheng household, triggering widespread chaos. Everyone in the household – which includes dozens of people of varying status, from elders to concubines to servants – is looking for it or whispering about who may have taken it. Ten minutes of flurried activity and wild speculation ensue, culminating in a servant being beaten for stealing it.

More like this:

–       Israel’s surprise hit TV show

–       Why the Danish love Rita

–       The gritty Aussie drama gripping the US

But the clever young woman Minglan – the sixth daughter of one of the household’s concubines, far from a favoured position – quickly deduces the real culprit. It was one of the court’s other young women who snatched it in the fit of a crush, then schemed to plant it on someone else. Qi Heng overhears Minglan whispering her deduction to another young woman and vows to set things right, while also falling for her. The resulting love affair will be one for the ages – or at least for about 17 episodes of television.

What this historical TV show reveals about China today
View image of The Life of Minglan

Small incidents often spin off into household-wide dramas on the Chinese series The Story of Minglan. While political drama often frames the stories (who will be named the emperor’s heir?) and higher-stakes interpersonal trials occasionally punctuate them (what will become of the younger Minglan after her mother dies?), the most revealing moments come from these tiny events that turn into dramatic ordeals, often because of characters’ scheming to ratchet their way up the status chain or knock someone else down. Sobbing, beatings and pleading can erupt at any moment and turn the plot in a new direction.

The show reached 400 million views over three days when it was first released

The 73-episode series, available on YouTube, premiered in China in December 2018 on Hunan TV. Based on a novel by Guanxin Zeluan, it offers a detailed look at everyday life for those of the ruling classes and their large households during the Northern Song Dynasty period of 960 to 1127 CE. It stars the popular actress Zhao Liying in the title role; Zhu Yilong as her first love, Qi Heng; and Zhao’s real-life husband Feng Shaofeng as her eventual on-screen husband, who becomes a high-ranking official and marks her formal rise from concubine’s daughter to ranking wife. The series has become a phenomenon in China and on Chinese social media, reaching 400 million views over three days when it was first released. It has even helped further a revival of traditional Chinese clothing that has its own current political implications.

‘A modern twist’

Journalist Xu Fan, who writes about entertainment for China Daily, points to the series’ lush, historical costumes and sets, as well as its historic underpinnings, as some of the reasons it’s become a hit with Chinese audiences. But, Xu says, perhaps even more important is that the lead actress, Zhao, has a huge fanbase, having starred in several TV shows. (She came fourth on the 2017 Forbes China Celebrity List of the country’s highest earners in entertainment.) The actress’s breakthrough, in fact, came playing a character with a trajectory similar to that of Minglan in a more updated setting: as regular girl-turned-female prime minister on 2013’s Legend of Lu Zhen. 

What this historical TV show reveals about China today
View image of Zhao Ling

Though the story is Minglan’s, covering several decades of her life, the show’s cast is sprawling and involves several large households with intricate politics. We meet her father, scholar Sheng Hong; his mother, his wife, and multiple concubines, including Minglan’s mother. There are many siblings and many servants. The pacing is slow, with exceptionally long scenes, and at times it’s hard to follow the series’ intricacies, with so many characters and relationship subtleties that aren’t clear to modern audiences. Much of the drama hinges on family and personal honour or the ways a member of one class might rise or be cast down in this specific society. (This confusion is at times complicated by the imperfect English subtitles provided on YouTube.) But it’s also pleasing to watch, with beautiful cinematography, good acting and the highest of production values. Despite the high drama and historical resonance, it’s also very funny at times. (A helpful overall guide to the series is available on the blog Dramapearls.)

The Story of Minglan has contributed to a trend that fits nicely with President Xi Jinping’s agenda

The drama might be hard to follow, but it’s steeped in real Chinese history and culture, allowing modern audiences to get what feels like an authentic glimpse of a time when honour was more important than life itself, concubines were the norm for certain classes, and corruption and thirst for power did battle with morals and empathy. And, as Xu tells BBC Culture, its appeal lies in the modern twist: it’s told from a female perspective. “The story is about an independent, strong woman who uses her wits and courage to overcome a number of obstacles to win true love and help her husband become established in the royal court,” she says. “Such a theme is appealing to a female audience, now probably outnumbering male viewers in terms of the [Chinese] TV market.”

What this historical TV show reveals about China today
View image of Hanfu

There’s also another way it meshes well with currents in today’s Chinese culture – albeit currents toward looking back at the past. As China’s communist President Xi Jinping rallies the country’s citizens into nationalism, The Story of Minglan has contributed to a trend that fits nicely with that agenda, according to Agence France-Presse: a return to more traditional Chinese clothing. An April conference of the Communist Youth League of China celebrated traditional dress just like the gorgeous costumes of The Story of Minglan. The style of dress is called Hanfu and dates from the time of Confucius through to the 17th Century, when the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty outlawed it. Some activists have been agitating for a return to such clothing since the 2000s, though others object to its elitist roots in a strict and destructive class system.  

In fact, The Story of Minglan is proof that sometimes looking at the past is the most pertinent way to comment on the present – but the message that comes through is in the eye of the viewer.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.