Li Hongzhang negotiating loans with interest to foreign representatives. / Towards the Republic Ep. 4

Anthropology: How China Brings Its History to Life Through TV Shows


Historical Television in China

China has a rich historical legacy. It’s so rich that there will be an endless supply of plotlines for history-themed TV dramas. Among the innumerable series produced, there are some popular premises. There are historical series, inner palace series, and others.

Historical series tend to center on the emperor, but also on court politics and schemes in general. The inner palace premise focuses on concubine squabbles, and their desperation to ensure their own livelihood by birthing a male heir for the emperor. One of the most popular of both as of late was Yanxi Palace.

Yanxi Palace / Rakuten Viki
Yanxi Palace / Rakuten Viki

It’s quite different from the historical television series which we will look at in this article.

Our focus on Ancient China

Here, I’ll introduce 2 Chinese-produced series which offer dramatic portrayals of politics and culture in Ancient China. The first will focus on the Jiajing Era of the Ming Dynasty. The second focuses on the twilight of the late Qing Dynasty. The accuracy of these shows also feeds into wider discussion on the benefits of producing history immersion media.

Before we begin, we must note 2 points:

  • Neither the shows nor my selection of them give an accurate history of China.
  • The value of immersive history-themed media in China and everywhere is up for open debate.

Ming Dynasty 1566 (大明王朝1566 – dà míng wáng cháo)

"Ming Dynasty 1566" China DVD cover art / Wikipedia
“Ming Dynasty 1566” China DVD cover art / Wikipedia

This 2007 series opens with grave suspense in the year 1566 of the Ming Dynasty. Outside the Forbidden City of China, eunuchs interrogate the court astrologer with torture. When the astrologer persists in accusing the Court of committing sins, the eunuchs cane him to death.

One of the most important questions explored throughout the series is: who told a mere astrologer about vital court expenses? Who revealed the treason to the astrologer? Who allowed him to accuse the Court with such precision?

Torturing the Court astrologer of Ming China / Credit: YouTube Channel: ChineseShowsTranslated -
Torturing the Court astrologer of Ming China / Credit: YouTube Channel: ChineseShowsTranslated –

Opening Crisis in Eastern China

Jiangsu and Zhejiang (red) in China / Economics, my dear Watson
Jiangsu and Zhejiang (red) in China / Economics, my dear Watson

The main crisis in the show is the alarming deficit of the Ming Dynasty Court. Unaccounted excessive spending on war and infrastructure leaves the Court bankrupt in the millions. In real history, this deficit is part of a remarkable, early globalized economy. China was using large quantities of silver from Potosí in Bolivia.

Potosí supplied enormous quantities of silver to Ming China / Aeon
Potosí supplied enormous quantities of silver to Ming China / Aeon

To address the deficit, the Emperor and officials devised a plan to convert farms in Jiangu and Zhejiang provinces for silk production. Selling valuable silk to foreign traders ensured a net profit to replenish the court treasury. The taxes on the silk fields were going to be the same as those of regular farms (lower).

It all seemed too good to be true. It was a swift, paternalistic remedy to a dilemma which before was making officials tear into each other.

All goes wrong

Chinese Ming Dynasty 1368 -1644

The plan became a deadly catastrophe from the start. The peasants helplessly watched their crops get trampled by officials. They did this in preparation for the “farm conversion” policy. In these moments, we get clues about the sheer distance between the average farmer peasant, and the centralized hierarchy of Ming China.

A general named Qi Jiguang asks a peasant, “do you know who this (official) is”? The peasants knew he was an important viceroy. However, the fact that he asked the question is telling in itself.

General Qi Jiguang of Ming China / Wikipedia
General Qi Jiguang of Ming China / Wikipedia

Later, the life-saving weirs along the Yangtze river mysteriously collapse. Entire countries flood, uprooting whole communities of peasants. They are no longer helpless casualties in this political game. Some of them begin to take matters into their own hands.

However, the people continue to suffer throughout the series. The silk farm – flood double-issue mutates over time into a complex that eventually shakes the Imperial Court itself.

Son of Heaven

Jiajing Emperor of Ming China / Credit: (Wikipedia)
Jiajing Emperor of Ming China / Credit: (Wikipedia)

I interpret this series as showing how a nation suffers when a leader isn’t accountable. Of course, there’s far more to it than that. From the start, we get hints about the Emperor’s neglect, greed, and partiality. Traditional Chinese society revered the Emperor. The show portrays the Emperor (Jiajing) as even more inaccessible than absolute Western kings.

All cower before him. His anger is a divine punishment from Heaven. The emperor’s own puppets, the Yan clan, scramble when he “simply” admonishes them for their transgressions. Imperial authority feeds on a whole world of superstitions and religious beliefs.

Good vs. Evil?

Painting of wokou raids on China / Wikipedia
Painting of wokou raids on China / Wikipedia

This isn’t saying that the show is full of brainless sycophants. Quite the contrary. Everyone is out to save themselves in the most conniving ways possible. We occasionally see gestures of loyalty, dedication, and compassion to the afflicted people. However, we’re never sure if it’s really there, or if it’s just a ploy. Others, who we thought were heartless, turned out to be collateral casualties in a vicious, elite crossfire.

The broken dams immediately destroyed the livelihoods of the provincial peasants. In addition, the viceroy of the province, General Qi Jiguang, must continue fending off vicious wokou (Japanese and Chinese) pirates on the east coast.

Who’s to blame?

Xia Yan of Ming China / Wikipedia
Xia Yan of Ming China / Wikipedia

The emperor is absolute. Questionable orders from the top-down make everyone sweat with fear. Unable to bring the issue up to anyone above, they turn on those below. Their fear is exacerbated by the knowledge that they are pawns in the larger strife between the Yan clan and their opponents.

The Yan clan itself must hold onto the support of the Emperor. The Emperor himself must be careful to know what’s best for him. The show’s in-world history devolves into a sad cycle of extermination.

Towards the Republic (走向共和 – zǒu xiàng gòng hé )


"Towards the Republic" China DVD cover art / Wikipedia
“Towards the Republic” China DVD cover art / Wikipedia

“Towards the Republic” was a 2003 CCTV historical series. It depicts China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It begins with luscious preparations for Empress Dowager Cixi’s 60th birthday. The show leads up to the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War, and the collapse of the Qing monarchy. The series is quite long (original 60 episodes). Each episode is 40 minutes to an hour long.

At first, the show centers on its protagonist, Viceroy Li Hongzhang. He is a battle-hardened but elderly official. Li uses blood, sweat, and tears to steer an ailing, outdated China into the modern, Westernized world. The key to this is an advanced navy. His brainchild is the Beiyang Fleet, one of 4 navies that guard China’s east coast.

Beiyang Fleet at Weihaiwei / Wikipedia
Beiyang Fleet at Weihaiwei / Wikipedia

The Beiyang fleet guards the northeastern coast close to the capital. In addition, the Beiyang fleet defended against Japanese imperial ambitions. A heavy contrast is shown between China and Japan. Everyone in China cowers before Empress Dowager Cixi. Both peasants and princes cry and beg on their knees for mercy from the narcissistic Cixi. Her desire for an extravagant 60th birthday party drains the nation’s war resources.

Sucking China dry.

Li Hongzhang / Wikipedia
Li Hongzhang / Wikipedia

A cost of 30 million silver taels and more was the requisite amount. This money all went towards renovating the Summer Palace gardens (Yuanmingyuan) for Cixi’s “retirement”. The show gives us a polarized funding dilemma. How could there be a choice between the gardens and national defense?!

Empress Dowager Cixi of Qing China / Wikipedia
Empress Dowager Cixi of Qing China / Wikipedia

In the show, Viceroy Li was under endless pressure to show progress to both ignorant Chinese officials and Western diplomats. To this end, he resorted to faking a display of the Beiyang Fleet’s power. We will cover more on this later.

On the other hand, Japan pools all national resources around the selflessness of its forward-looking emperor. The Japanese people are shown as grieved that the emperor gave up his personal salary and meals for the underdog nation’s military funds.

Japan's Yoshino cruiser / Wikipedia
Japan’s Yoshino Cruiser / Wikipedia

In almost no time, the Japanese government purchased the foreign-made Yoshino battleship with success. The speedy Yoshino allowed Japan to get even with China. It’s the David to China’s foreign-made Goliath, Dingyuan.

“Our Bismarck of China”

Photo of Li Hongzhang / Wikipedia
Photo of Li Hongzhang / Wikipedia

In the show, a Western journalist called Li Hongzhang “our Chinese Bismarck”. This was, among other points, a reference to Li’s political skill and pragmatism. The characterization of our Chinese protagonists by foreign observers is indeed of interest. Through this, we see tension between traditional Chinese culture, and the forces of modern capitalism.

What did it take to earn foreign favors and support? The fact that such support was needed evidenced both the erosion of the old Chinese order, and China’s need to adapt to survive, at home and abroad.

In episode 4, Li Hongzhang negotiated with bank representatives from Germany, France, and Britain to compete among themselves. Whoever offered a loan with the lowest interest rate to Li ensured profitable cooperation in future times.

Bank negotiation by Li Hongzhang in China / Towards the Republic Ep. 4 (YouTube channel: ChineseShowsTranslated)
Bank negotiation by Li Hongzhang in China / Towards the Republic Ep. 4 (YouTube channel: ChineseShowsTranslated)

The depth of each character will have to be judged by the viewer. Of course, there are points in the show where Chinese “characters” are glorified. The protagonist, Li Hongzhang, is portrayed as the sole figure in the entire court who understands Western customs and diplomacy. The viewer may feel him/herself banking everything on his success.

Li Hongzhang the Hero

In addition, sometimes Li Hongzhang escapes blame by finding a (non-deliberate) scapegoat. There’s a whole backstory to why Li Hongzhang faked the Beiyang Fleet’s power display. Sometime before, he discovered that the funds for missiles were stolen, and the crates filled with rocks. For a long time, no one noticed. When Li Hongzhang learned about this, it was too late.

Hence, Li Hongzhang swooped in to save the day via an orchestrated display in front of the Chinese court and foreign ambassadors. However, his part in the dutiful administration of missile storage was unaddressed by everyone.

Sun Yat-sen / Wikipedia
Sun Yat-sen / Wikipedia

Other historical characters, like Sun Yat-sen and Yuan Shikai, show acumen in politics and the military. These are sometimes set off by personal flaws which aren’t material to the show’s plot. Throughout the episodes, they engage in sketchy choices of collaboration and resource compilation. However, these choices seem to portray them as men willing to do whatever is necessary for what’s “right”.

Yuan Shikai / Encyclpedia Britannica
Yuan Shikai / Encyclpedia Britannica

It’s as if nothing compares to the stench of the Imperial Court.

The show’s impact in China

Some parts of the show were censored in China. The final 60th episode was cut. Other episodes were cut shorter.

The apparent reasons don’t have to do with portraying China’s backwardness, and its defeat by Japan. Instead, the censorship was a response to the revisionist portrayals of Li Hongzhang and Empress Dowager Cixi. Traditional historiography draws them as the bane of the Chinese nation. Their machinations and negligence led to China’s handicap against Western powers and westernized Japan.

In contrast, this show gives them nuance. They’re both instilled with a duty and purpose towards strengthening China. In this show, Cixi is both the woman who sucked China dry for her birthday, and the woman who most supported Li Hongzhang. To some viewers, this nuance may come across as meaningless. Anyone can scream with frustration upon thinking about what those 30 million silver taels could’ve funded.

Was the effort worth it?

Tongzhi Emperor / Wikipedia
Tongzhi Emperor / Wikipedia

The fact that Cixi occasionally supported her more reform-minded son, the Tongzhi Emperor, did little to compensate for the extravagance of her birthday expenses.

In addition, viewers familiar with parental narcissism may spot “gaslighting” and “guiltripping” in Cixi’s character. At the topmost level of Chinese society, personal distractions were anything but negligible. In ancient Chinese cosmology, everything at the top was a reflection of Heaven’s temperament.

However, what’s even more interesting is how the Chinese elites react and adapt over time to the impression of Western ideas.

The poisonous effects of personal shortcomings and an antiquated system ran rampant in the show’s plot. Once again, whether the same can be said for China’s history must be evaluated outside of this article. Nevertheless, this show provoked debate among intellectuals regarding China’s historical burdens.

Cultural Significance in China and Anthropology

Queen Dido / Pinterest
Queen Dido / Pinterest

An examination of historical television series from China can give insight into the value of historical media in other countries and cultures. Is the production of these shows worthwhile in an era of heavily digitized education?

Some producers see potential in the historical premise, but not in accuracy. Is it acceptable to compromise on historical faithfulness? Should these stories be spiced up to appeal more to teenage audiences? To cultural trends?

There is a popular justification that these shows can first get people interested in the topic. Then, they may be motivated to research more reliable sources on their own. Ancient societies themselves did this all the time. They depicted ancient charismatic characters in their own contemporary fashion and cultural styles.

A well-known example of this is Queen Dido of Carthage. In medieval French manuscripts, artists depict both her and Aeneas in French elite fashion. It certainly kept aristocrats interested, for a long time thereafter. Perhaps we can simply leave the avenue open to those who could benefit from it.

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