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Friday, July 09, 2021

Banned by the Communist Party of China: A Review of Liu Lianzi’s “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace”

By the way: The Chinese Communist Party sought to ban Ruyis 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), <>. 

Ruyis 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: <>.

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, <> (at 25:00 to 34:00ff); see especially at 28:02 (where the logographs on the courtyards 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), <>; 


Unknown said...

I've paused my watching of "Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace" because it seemed to be moving too slowly. Perhaps it's because I watched "The Story of Yanxi Palace" first. Both use the same historical background and the same main characters and it has been interesting to see how the characters are developed and portrayed in the two series. The plot of Yanxi moves much quicker and I'm more attracted to Yanxi's Consort Ling (a minor character in Ruyi, but the main one in Yanxi) where she's portrayed as bold, brash, and blunt talking . So when I watch Consort Ling in Ruyi in my head I'm screaming, "Hey, that's not how she is at all!"

Both series were being made around the same time with Ruyi hiring famous actors, giving them large salaries. Yanxi used lesser known actors with lower salaries. Yanxi won the race and was shown first and it became tremendously popular.

unspecified said...

I would have sent this privately, but couldn't figure out how.

it's "Qianlong," not "Quinlong". There's no "qu" combination in Pinyin romanization -- the fact that it's almost always "qu" in English is very confusing to native English speakers.

Seth Barrett Tillman said...


Banshee said...

There's a lot going on with Chinese historical dramas, as well as with fictional kingdom historical webnovels, in China. A lot of anger bubbling under the surface, a lot of hitting out at corrupt officials. A lot of anger by young men who will probably ever be able to marry, and a lot of anger by young women stuck in a less than kindly system.

So yeah, Ruyi probably is being banned because of that.

Seth Barrett Tillman said...

all true

unspecified said...

There's an 9internet curse that falls on people who make corrections, and it fell on me. There actually is "qu" in Pinyin romanization -- "Taiji quan" (English readers are more used to "Taichi chuan") for example. At any rate, the "q" represents what in English is usually written "ch" -- like Chien Lung, for example.

All of this is utterly trivial compared to your useful review, and I apologize for cluttering up your comments section.

F said...

1) The series was VERY popular in China and it was shown on Chinese state TV. Given that the CCP can prevent anything from being filmed much less broadcast, it is not correct to say it was “banned” by the CCP. After the series became very popular, the CCP said “stop making shows like this” - which is not exactly the same thing.

2) The first series (about the Qianlong Emperor’s mother and father) was not historically accurate in a number of important ways, which I found annoying. The writer is a not a well known Chinese historian and the material she is describing is - to the best of my knowledge - not documented by any reliable sources. So, her stories about the infighting among the palace wives appears to be partially or largely invention.

3) Dozens of women were brought into the palace each year. If an Emperor did not sleep with a woman after three years, the woman could return to her family and then marry. We know that many women choose to remain in the palace anyways as they apparently found the place reasonably nice to live in. Such women had work to do, they seem to have been responsible for making royal costumes.