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Chinese TV Dramas

No ‘Novoland’: This Really Is a Tough Year for Chinese Costume Dramas

After the sudden cancellation of the much-anticipated ‘Novoland’ premiere, Chinese fantasy costume dramas are facing grim prospects.

Manya Koetse

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With 1,4 billion views on its Weibo page, the Chinese fantasy drama Novoland: Eagle Flag was one of the most-anticipated series of the year. This week, the show was suddenly canceled twenty minutes ahead of its premiere. The incident is indicative of recent tensions within China’s TV drama industry, where some costume dramas have apparently failed to win the support of official regulators.

Just a week ago, What’s on Weibo reported about the Chinese fantasy drama Novoland: Eagle Flag (九州缥缈录, Jiǔzhōu piāomiǎo lù) being one of the most anticipated TV dramas in China this summer. On June 3rd at 21:40 CST, however, just twenty minutes before the drama’s much-awaited premiere on Tencent, Youku, and Zhejiang TV, the show was suddenly canceled.

Novoland: Eagle Flag, which has been called China’s answer to Game of Thrones, is a costume drama that tells a story of war, conspiracy, love, and corruption in a fantasy universe called Novoland. It is based on a popular web fantasy novel series by Jiang Nan (江南), and produced by Linmon Pictures. Production costs reportedly were as high as RMB 500 million ($72 million).

Why was the show’s premiere suddenly canceled? The only reason given for it on June 3rd was that there was a ‘medium problem’ (“介质原因”).

China’s English-language state tabloid Global Times reported on June 4th that their official sources also did not know the reason for the withdrawal, although they did admit to having received an order from “higher level,” which would come from China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA,国家广播电视总局).

In March of 2018, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), the former top regulatory body overseeing television productions, was officially abolished and replaced by three different state administrations in the ideological sector.

The NRTA is responsible for media control on radio and TV, and falls directly under the State Council. It is led by Nie Chenxi (聂辰席), who is also the deputy director of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China. This appears indicative that the Party now has more direct influence over this industry, as also recently suggested by Global Policy Watch, SupChina, and Variety. Under the NRTA, the regulation and censorship of Chinese TV dramas are as strict, and arguably stricter, than under the SAPPRFT.

 

Costume dramas: not enough “spiritual guidance”?

 

The strict control of the NRTA over China’s TV industry is especially visible this year. As reported by CCTV News, China’s regulatory body started to severely crack down on the rising popularity of Chinese costume dramas (古装剧) in March of 2019.

Regulatory rules were supposedly issued for costume dramas with ‘themes’ (题材) such as martial arts, fantasy, history, mythology, or palace, stating that they should not air or were to be taken down from online video homepages. The strictest crackdown would allegedly last until July.

From early on in 2019, it was already rumored that Chinese costume dramas would face a tough year.

On January 28 of 2019, Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the CPC Beijing Municipal Committee, published a critical post on its social media account listing negative influences of court-themed TV dramas (宫廷剧).

The critique included arguments such as that the imperial lifestyle was being hyped in these dramas, that the social situation of the dynastic era was being negatively dramatized, and that these productions are just aimed at commercial interests while weakening China’s “positive spiritual guidance.”

In February of this year, two weeks after the Beijing News post, Eduardo Baptista at CNN.com reported on the abrupt cancelation of the planned rebroadcasting of two costume dramas that were also targeted by Beijing News, namely the super TV drama hit Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略) and period drama Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace (如懿传).

Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace

Other costume dramas such as iQiyi’s The Legend of White Snake (新白娘子传奇) or The Longest Day in Chang’an (长安十二时辰) were also withdrawn (or postponed) in March. Investiture of the Gods (封神) was replaced by another drama on Hunan TV this month.

“Historical dramas in many cases twisted the narrative of the country’s past and the image of historical figures,” TV critic Shi Wenxue was quoted by Global Times recently: “[they are] having an adverse effect on teenagers who may regard such fictional stories as real history.”

 

A state and marketplace collusion

 

With China being the world’s largest consumer of TV dramas in the world, the drama industry is a powerful channel for spreading Party ideology.

The political and cultural agenda is especially apparent in those TV dramas that are official propaganda productions. But since the TV drama industry has become increasingly commercialized and TV dramas became more market-oriented in the 1990s, their programming is no longer a mirror reflection of ‘Party narratives.’

The number of profit-driven productions has grown over the past 25 years and has skyrocketed with the arrival of video streaming sites such as iQiyi or Tencent Video.

Although non-official productions are ultimately still regulated and overseen by the relevant state departments, they also have to compete for viewer ratings in a highly competitive (online) media environment.

There are many visible trends in China’s TV drama industry. There have been peaks of popularity in those TV dramas depicting rural struggles or urban family life, for example, but historical costume dramas (especially dynasty dramas) have consistently been popular and rising since the mid-90s.

One reason for the growing popularity of these historical or fantasy costume dramas is that official censors initially had different standards for them than for more contemporary storylines, resulting in more creative freedom for scriptwriters (see Zhu et al 2008, 7).

Yongzheng’s Dynasty (1999)

There also have been many popular Chinese dynasty dramas that were commercial successes while also serving as propaganda tools.

As pointed out by Shenshen Cai in her work Television Drama in Contemporary China (2017), for example, TV drama serials such as Yongzheng Dynasty (雍正王朝) or The Great Han Emperor Wu (汉武大帝) promoted the ideal of strong central government, harmonious relations between the fatherly ruler and his devoted people, or the exemplary ruler cracking down on corruption – these narratives contributed to the leadership agenda in “stabilizing and re-energizing the dominant moral order” (Cai 3-4; also see Schneider 2012).

But more recent historical dramas have taken a fantasy route that, apparently, resonates with viewers but does not successfully appropriate the official propaganda apparatus.

The sudden withdrawal of new costume dramas is actually not about costume dramas at all. It just shows that although China’s TV drama industry is no longer the propaganda machine it once used to be, it still needs to adhere to those narratives that are in line with Party ideology.

‘Novoland: Eagle Flag’ (2019)

Even if their scripts and productions were apparently given the green light in earlier stages, the official supervision bodies still have the power to intervene until the last moment before airing – even if that, apparently, means that moment is twenty minutes ahead of the grand premiere.

 

“Things don’t look too optimistic”

 

For Chinese drama fans, the recent cancellations have been a real slap in the face. The Novoland: Eagle Flag TV serial was super popular before it even aired: its hashtag page has a staggering 1.4 billion views on Weibo.

“I cried,” one ‘Novoland’ fan comments: “Why such a sudden and abrupt withdrawal?”

“When can we finally see this show?” others wonder.

For now, the show’s premiere has officially been “postponed” and is “waiting for specific broadcasting time.” Whether or not the 55-episode series will be allowed to broadcast after June is still to be seen.

On Twitter, the fan account of Liu Haoran (刘昊然), one of the show’s main stars, writes: “You’re going to see rumors of tentative dates flying around this week, but note that it’s more of a deadline to get things sorted, not an air date. As of right now, things don’t look too optimistic. We’ll just have to be patient!

More: For an overview of all of our articles on Chinese TV Dramas, please check this list.

By Manya Koetse

References

Cai, Shenshen. 2017. Television Drama in Contemporary China: Political, social and cultural phenomena. London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Schneider, Florian. 2012. Visual Political Communication in Popular Chinese Television Series. Leiden and Boston: Koninklijke Brill NV.

Zhu, Ying, Michael Keane, Ruoyun Bai (eds). 2008. TV Drama in China. Hong Kong University Press.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Op-Ed ⎪ Cyber Bullying and Fake News: What You Should Know About the Zhang Zhehan Story

Opinion: Zhang Zhehan is still being punished every day for a crime he never committed.

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Along with several other celebrities, Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan has been a hot topic in the media this year ever since photos of him taken at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine went viral online. Not only does Zhang not deserve his recent blacklisted status, Jessica J. argues in this op-ed contribution for What’s on Weibo, he is also a victim of online fake news propagation and cyberbullying. 

 

Those following Chinese entertainment news may have read about the string of celebrity crackdowns and cancellations this year, including big names like pop star Kris Wu, actress Zheng Shuang, and actor Zhang Zhehan.

However, Zhang Zhehan’s inclusion among Chinese ‘blacklisted artists‘ is raising some eyebrows and has also drawn the attention of Li Xuezheng, the Vice Chairman of the China TV Artists Association and Director of the Golden Shield Television Center.

Among those ‘canceled’ artists, Kris Wu was arrested on suspicion of rape, Zheng Shuang was fined for tax evasion – but Zhang Zhehan did not violate any laws and, according to Li, “was not officially banned or deemed immoral by government bodies” (Drama Panda).

Instead, Zhang was swiftly canceled when old vacation photos of him near the Yasukuni Shrine surfaced in August 2021, despite apologizing quickly for not knowing the significance of the buildings in the area.

[For context, read: Chinese Actor Zhang Zhehan Under Fire for Yasukuni and Nogi Shrine Photos – Ed.]

One of the photos featuring Zhang Zhehan, causing controversy in 2021.

After digging a little deeper, it becomes apparent that there is much more nuance to Zhang’s incident than can be captured in a single sentence such as “Zhang visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine” or “Zhang posed for photos at the Yasukuni Shrine.”

 

Yasukuni Shrine is a Cherry Blossom Destination

 

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is notorious for enshrining “1,068 convicted war criminals, 14 of whom are A-Class (convicted of having been involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war).” The shrine is of great significance when it comes to Sino-Japanese history, as many of Japan’s war dead enshrined at Yasukuni committed atrocities against the Chinese, including during the ‘Nanjing Massacre‘ which started in December 1937 and came to be known as the most notorious Japanese atrocity of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

However, what many people think of as the Yasukuni Shrine only concerns the shrine’s religious structures, including the prayer and worship halls. These are the places where Japanese prime ministers go to pay respects to this day, resulting in recurring controversies.

The Honden Main Shrine, where nearly 2,5 million Japanese war dead are enshrined as ‘divinities,’ is usually inaccessible to the general public. No photography is allowed at the courtyard of the Haiden Main Hall, which is where people pay their respects.

Yasukuni Shrine Main Prayer Hall.

Outside of these structures, the Yasukuni Shrine grounds include an open park area famous for its cherry blossoms. In fact, it houses a “benchmark” cherry tree, which Japan’s Meteorological Agency uses to officially announce the start of the cherry season (NBC News). It’s important to note that Zhang’s photos were taken in this prime cherry blossom viewing area, and not inside the shrine itself.

When searching for “Yasukuni Shrine Cherry Blossoms” on Google, one will find many travel guides and blogs showcasing the lively atmosphere and the sea of people that come to visit during the blossom season. As recently as March 2021 (Phoenix News), Chinese media have included the area around the Yasukuni Shrine as a popular cherry blossom viewing destination. See examples from China Daily, People’s Daily, and China News. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV even covered the benchmark tree in March 2018, the same year that Zhang’s photos were taken.

Many articles that came out around August this year claimed that Zhang “posed in front of the Yasukuni Shrine” (see examples from Radii, Business of Fashion). This is false because the building in Zhang’s photo is actually labeled “斎馆” (Saikan) and is an administrative or office building on the park grounds.

The building behind Zhang Zhehan is actually an administrative building.

The cherry blossoms are clearly the main focus in all of Zhang’s photos. In 2018, there were over 31.19 million international tourists to Japan, including over 8 million Chinese visitors. Each year Japan attracts almost 3 million visitors during cherry blossom season alone.

Zhang was just one among thousands of Chinese tourists coming to view Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. If this is considered an act that hurts national sentiments, then what about the millions of other Chinese citizens that came for the same reason, not to mention the Chinese media that recommended this place as a tourist destination?

 

Signs of Coordinated Smear Campaign

 

The three-year-old photos of Zhang surfaced on August 13, a sensitive date leading up to the August 15th Victory over Japan Day, the day on which Imperial Japan surrendered in World War II.* In addition to the timing, other accusations against Zhang, including those around a wedding he attended in Japan, rest on blatant misinformation and falsified Baidu entries. (*The Chinese Victory over Japan is commemorated on September 3rd when the signing of the surrender document occurred. )

To a lesser extent than the cherry blossom photos, Zhang was also condemned for attending a friend’s wedding at the Nogi Shrine in 2019 and taking a photo with controversial figure Dewi Sukarno, one of the wives of the former Indonesian President Sukarno.

Netizens soon noticed that the Baidu entry for Nogi Shrine was created the night before on August 12. Similarly, Baidu entries for Mrs. Dewi and Nogi Maresuke, the general whom Nogi Shrine is named after, were both edited on early August 13.

Photos of Zhang at his friend’s wedding at the Nogi Shrine.

Chinese state media outlet Global Times wrote that “there were also photos of Zhang attending a wedding ceremony at Nogi Shrine, another infamous shrine that honors imperial Japanese military officers who invaded China during World War II.”

While it is true the Nogi Shrine honors Japanese general Nogi Maresuke, he died in 1912, well before the events of WWII. So where did this blatantly false information come from?

It is also worth noting that the popular Japanese idol group Nogizaka46, who held a coming-of-age ceremony at the Nogi Shrine, performed several concerts in China without issue.

Numerous other rumors, though not published by reputable media, circulated broadly on social media sites including international platforms such as Youtube and Twitter.

Almost all of them have been debunked as misinformation or complete fabrications. For example, Zhang starred in a short film titled Brother, where his character’s mentally challenged older brother raises his hand when he gets a nosebleed. Zhang took a series of photos interacting with his co-star, but the photo of this gesture was taken out of context to accuse Zhang of making Nazi gestures.

The middle image in the top row was used to accuse Zhang of making Nazi gestures. His comment is a quote from the show, and his co-star responded similarly.

The nosebleed gesture from Brother.

Netizens have also noticed that over 800 marketing accounts posted at almost the same time asking for Zhang’s works to be taken offline (Weibo search), and that so-called water armies (paid commenters) heavily manipulated the direction of social commentary and sentiments (a netizen’s data analysis).

Based on all of this information, it can be reasonably concluded that Zhang was the target of a coordinated smear campaign.

 

Consequences of Misinformation and Cyber Violence

 

Within a time span of less than a week, Zhang lost all sponsorship deals and his career suffered a massive blow.

Shows featuring Zhang, including Word of Honor and Demon Girl, were taken offline from Chinese platforms Youku and Le.com. His scenes were erased from the critically acclaimed Nirvana in Fire. His songs “Gu Meng” and “Tian Ya Ke” from Word of Honor could no longer be streamed on various platforms and variety shows featuring him either removed the episodes including Zhang, or he was simply blurred out.

In addition, Zhang faced mass silencing, erasure, and defamation on all Chinese social media platforms:

  • Zhang’s accounts on all social media platforms were closed.
  • His face still cannot be shown on Bilibili, Douban, and other platforms (videos featuring Zhang will be deleted).
  • All positive content on Zhang has been deleted or has been made unsearchable on video site Bilibili. Searching for Zhang’s name on this platform will only show videos condemning him.
  • Many netizens still refer to Zhang as a “traitor” or a “spy.”
  • Before Li Xuezheng spoke up for Zhang, anyone attempting to clarify Zhang’s situation often found their posts deleted or their accounts closed.
  • Li posted on December 5th that Zhang doesn’t even have the right to his own name: “There are only two people in the world who can’t buy things on the internet. One is notorious fascist Hitler, the other is our Zhang Zhehan.”

Since Zhang was included on the performers’ blacklist issued by the Chinese Association of Performing Arts (CAPA), Li Xuezheng has been investigating potential corruption within the industry-led organization. In doing so, Li Xuezheng is also providing a platform for Zhang and his family to speak out for the first time since they’ve been silenced.

Li recently posted a letter from Zhang’s mother, garnering over one million likes within a day. In the letter, Zhang’s mother described the harrowing experience her son and her family have gone through over the past few months.

She wrote:

Not only have the dreams and achievements he [Zhang] has worked for for more than ten years been crushed, but the entire internet is also filled with one-sided rumors and slander. His positive actions, his love for the Party and the country are erased, and his works have all been de-platformed. My son told me that he did not enter the Yasukuni Shrine, he did not visit it, let alone pay any respects. The information spread on the internet is false… We never got a chance to clarify. We feel completely powerless and hopeless.”

This part, in particular, was difficult to read:

The little nephew he loves is only four years old and dares not look at him, saying that his uncle is a bad person. When my son heard this, he went to his room and cried… He is really a strong person ordinarily, but at this moment he was broken.”

Zhang Zhehan was canceled in August over misinformation that cannot stand up to scrutiny, yet numerous reputable media entities continue to spread misinformation without further investigation.

As a consequence, Zhang’s works were de-platformed, his presence erased, his voice silenced, and even the right to use his own name is lost, all without any legal backing. In a country governed in accordance with law, a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty. But it’s been over four months now, and despite having committed no crime at all, Zhang is still being punished every day without rescission.

By Jessica J.

Jessica J. (alias) is the initiator of the Teddyfoxfluff blog which collects and translates Weibo posts relating to the Zhang Zhehan controversy. To read more, visit her blog here.

For more about Zhang Zhehan on What’s on Weibo, see our overview here

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Memes & Viral

Dutch Vlogger Discovers Her Boyfriend’s Photo on a Chinese TV Drama

Dutch vlogger Rianne Meijer was surprised to discover her boyfriend being somebody else’s lover in this Chinese television drama.

Manya Koetse

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The Dutch influencer Rianne Meijer has gone viral in the Netherlands and on Chinese social media after she posted a TikTok video in which she shared the discovery of her boyfriend’s photo in a Chinese TV drama.

“Remember this picture? This is a picture that I posted with my boyfriend a while ago,” Rianne says in the TikTok video, then showing a scene in Chinese TV drama in which a photoshopped photo of Rianne’s boyfriend is featured.

Although Rianne stood next to her boyfriend in the original photo, her face was replaced in the photoshopped edition featured on the Chinese TV drama.

“They look good together, it’s fine!” Rianne jokingly responded to the scene.

Rianne Meijer is an online influencer and YouTuber with some 1.5 million fans on her Instagram. She is known for often posting funny videos and photos, sometimes together with her boyfriend Roy.

The scene featuring Roy’s photo comes from the Chinese TV drama Summer Again (薄荷之夏), which premiered on iQiyi in the summer of 2021.

The scene shows a lady named Mi Ya (played by actress Li Borong 李柏蓉) talking about her relationship with a man named ‘Andre.’

On the Chinese social media site Weibo, many netizens found the incident “embarrassing” and did not understand why the staff would just steal someone’s portrait: “Couldn’t the production team even find a foreign guy to take a picture?”

Others also thought the incident was very funny: “This is the reality of our global village. You’d think nobody would find out, but it’s really not so secret.”

According to Rianne’s most recent Tiktok post update, the show’s production staff has since sent her an apology. She also writes it’s “all good,” adding: “They are so sweet and this gave us a good laugh.”

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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