By the way: The Chinese Communist Party sought to ban Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace. “The cancelling of ‘Yanxi’ & ‘Ruyi’ shows that the [Chinese Communist] Party remains unswerving in its vigilance.” Jiayang Fan, “In China, Shows Like ‘Story of Yanxi Palace’ Go Viral, and the [Communist] Party Is Not Amused,” The New Yorker (April 23, 2019), <https://newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/in-china-shows-like-story-of-yanxi-palace-go-viral-and-the-party-is-not-amused>.
Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace is an 87-episode fictional historical drama based on the lives of 18th century Emperor Qianlong, and his consort, and subsequently his empress, Ruyi, of the Ula-Nara clan. Qianlong was the Qing emperor—the Manchu dynasty which succeeded the Ming. Qianlong was the fifth Qing emperor, and the fourth to rule over China. But the plot is not really about Qianlong—it is about Ruyi. The series was shown on Chinese television in 2018. I only came across it a few months ago on Youtube. You can find the first (45-minute long) episode, with English subtitles, here: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwGz8S24A4M>.
If I were pressed to suggest an analogue, only The Tudors or Wolf Hall comes to mind. But the scale of Ruyi is much grander than the two Tudor dramas. That is, in part, because of the vastness of Qianlong’s multi-ethnic Manchurian/Mongolian/Chinese empire: by population and size, in its time, the Qing empire was probably the largest nation in the world. And it was, according to good historical authority, during Qianlong’s reign, 1711-1799, in which that empire reached its zenith—in terms of military security and cultural greatness.
One can only be transfixed by Ruyi’s set design and costumes. The scale of the scenes is reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s films. The musical score was haunting, and the acting—superb, notwithstanding that much is, no doubt, lost through translation and subtitles. Albeit, some of the English subtitles put forward helpful historical explanations or explained references to classic or ancient Chinese literature. There are several points where characters write in Chinese—I am sure that something is lost when their logographs were left unexplained.
I will make a few quick points about this series. First, I cannot remember the last time that I have been moved to tears by film. I cannot remember the last time I saw a film with so much genuine ambiguity about various characters’ conduct, leaving one contemplative, knowing that there is (and can be) no real closure to come. I do not really know if these moral conundrums emanate from Buddhism, or from Confucian or Daoist philosophy—or from the author’s imagination—or, perhaps, should be best understood as universal problems of the human condition, merely set amidst an eighteenth century Chinese historical plot. I cannot remember the last time I saw a film with multiple unexpected plot twists.
Second, this series portrays women as developing close relationships and loyalties with one another, affecting both the development of their personal character, and the political future of their polity. For example, Ruyi and Hailan (another of Qianlong’s consorts) have a complex and intellectual relationship. The truth is: I cannot think of any analogue in Western film, at least, not any analogue about women.
Third, I will describe one very affecting scene. Ruyi falls victim to a plot. Essentially, she is framed by two other members of Qianlong’s harem for killing two of Qianlong’s children (by other wives). Qianlong, not quite believing the evidence, sends Ruyi to Cold Palace—a palace in the Forbidden City. Although it is a “palace,” it has been allowed to fall into decrepitude, and so is used as an internal open-air prison for abandoned consorts, concubines, and female servants of the imperial family. Many of the prisoners are mentally ill. Ruyi languishes there, with a faithful servant, for three years. By that time, sufficient evidence emerges which casts doubt on Ruyi’s guilt. As a result, Qianlong permits her to leave Cold Palace, and before returning to her new home, Yikun Palace, she walk along the ramparts of the Forbidden City.
Ruyi looks out over the Forbidden City’s many palaces. Her facial expression is difficult to gauge. When I first saw this scene, and when I first heard its musical score, I saw it as uplifting—as one, short happy moment when virtue and right overcome injustice and evil. But having watched this scene now many times, I am not so sure. Could it be that Ruyi, although glad to be out of Cold Palace, and pleased to have her reputation restored, realizes that she has only traded one prison for a more glorified one? The whole of the Forbidden City is a prison. All the people, from the smallest to the greatest, who live there are trapped by the calculations, schemes, and machinations of others’ seeking advantage, for themselves, their families, and their clans. Or is the point, that this “trap” is the human condition, and all one can do is endure, while doing as much good as we can until we must leave? See Episode 27, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Uyfa8ljuMA> (at 25:00 to 34:00ff); see especially at 28:02 (where the logographs on the courtyard’s gate are translated).
Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace gets full marks.
Seth Barrett Tillman, Banned by the Communist Party of China: A Review of Liu Lianzi’s “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace,” New Reform Club (July 9, 2021, 11:17 AM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2021/07/a-review-of-liu-lianzis-ruyis-royal.html>;