The Microcosm of “Chineseness”: Culture, Media, Politics and Identity in the Story of Yanxi Palace

For those of you interested in China and Hong Kong politics, I finally found a short piece that I think encapsulates so many things that are “Chinese”. Please forgive the impolitically correct shorthand, for a few minutes to work through this basket case example of “Chineseness”. I’ll start with this paragraph from the piece 「愛國攻略」by Assistant Professor Wong Nim Yan 黃念欣:

Of course, to live up to “strategems”, there have to be wins and losses. The uncanny parallel about Lady Ula-Nara’s role was not just that she was played by a Hong Kong actress, but also that she seems to have lived in the bottom right section of the Sixth House in the Yangxi Palace (a small southern island), was initially determined to avoid the harem intrigues (apolitical), knowing that she was limited both both in natural beauty and skills (limited natural resources), suffered from oppression (a century of colonization), to finally understanding the that the most important thing is to stand on her own two feet (economic take-off), to become the head of the Six Eastern Palaces (a leading global metropolis). My fellow Hong Kongers — are there not parallels?
– Excerpt from 「愛國攻略」by Assistant Professor Wong Nim Yan 黃念欣

The bottom of the post has a longer translation with paragraphs 5-8 of the article.

The Historical Context

Charmaine Sheh Story of Yanxi Palace
Source: HK01

Professor Wong is referring to the historical character of Lady Ula-Nara, played by Hong Kong actress Charmaine Sheh. Lady Ula-Nara was the unfortunate Empress Consort to Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty, who dramatically fell out of favour overnight, literally dated to February 28th when she did not appear at dinner. She never appeared again in public, was stripped of all her titles, denied a burial and ceremony befitting her rank when she died a year later, and erased from the chronicles of imperial history.

For drama, the Chinese only have to look to history, for the well documented dynastic courts leave a wealth of mysterious characters who appear without name nor history and vanish from official records just as capriciously. The latest imperial drama that has gripped China is the Story of Yanxi Palace 《延禧攻略》, which focuses on the intrigues of Emperor Qianlong’s consorts in the Forbidden City. Yanxi Palace, as one of the the Six Eastern Palaces, is part of Emperor’s harem and host to the rivaling ladies who in turn get promoted to Consorts, Noble Consorts, Imperial Consorts, and Empresses. While the results of the struggles are recorded in history, who the main cast such as Lady Ula-Nara or later Empress Xiaoyichun is effectively a blank canvas for a TV serial.

The character we’re focusing on is Lady Ula-Nara, who comes to represent far more than just a historical tragic woman.

Born to Read: Chinese Symbolic Literacy

The video is the more romantic trailer with music. Lady Ula-Nara is only in a few clips.

Professor Wong’s piece captures a “Chinese” ability to make extended narrative metaphors, which then helps to contextualise how everything becomes political for the equally Chinese people of Hong Kong.

The role of Lady Ula-Nara, according to some sources, was marked for a Hong Kong actress. This raises a troubling question for Hong Kongers that Professor Wong is seeking to address in her piece: “Why did Lady Ula-Nara, the fallen empress, have to be performed by a Hong Kong actress?” (You can read my translation of the piece at the bottom of this post.)

Interpreting the Messages
What, then, are the implications of a Hong Kong actress in the piece? It goes deeper than just China “sending a warning” to Hong Kong. The metaphor is not just in what happens to Lady Ula-Nara — that she falls from grace and is entirely erased — which is ominous enough given the current political climate. The metaphor is even more complex, with Hong Kong’s metaphorical story compressed into the story of one woman struggling to survive in a world beyond her control. The details of her story can be crafted to fit Hong Kong’s, from the location that she stayed (the Yangxi Palace correspond on a map to the Southeastern corner of China), her demeanor (apolitical), her qualities (limited in natural resources), to document her history, rise, and achievement to lead the Six Eastern Houses. Hong Kong’s story is being dictated.

As Professor Wong writes, the “question only has deep implications for Hong Kong viewers”. To a Mainland Chinese viewer, the story seems cohesive, if they even notice that Charmaine Sheh is from Hong Kong. If they do, they will receive a generous portrayal of Hong Kong’s struggles and achievements. In fact, one could interpret it as a benevolent pat on the head because as Professor Wong puts it, “The TV series returns to the theme of love — that Lady Ula-Nara cut her lock of hair [which is a direct affront] in protest to the Emperor.” The scripting chooses, of all interpretations, to ground Lady Ula-Nara’s story as a tragedy of a woman who just went about things the wrong way. It is an elaborate way to say to Hong Kong, “We understand.” And, maybe, Hong Kong is partially forgiven. In the words of a friend from the Mainland — many people from the Mainland embrace and love Hong Kong as part of the family, and are therefore both hurt and insulted that Hong Kong is throwing such a fit.

A different message is meant for Hong Kong viewers: that you should know your place. For, the main protagonist in this show is actually the lady-in-waiting who succeeds Lady Ula-Nara to become Consort Ling and later Empress Xiaoyichun. In one stroke, the Chinese government (for this was aired on CCTV), has both achieved a national narrative and a coded message. The series is not exceptional for achieving this intricate layering, but rather the latest media manifestation for a rich legacy of colourful metaphors, euphemisms, and coded messages embedded into poetry, character name puns in wushu sagas (Hong Kong’s Jin Yong is a classic), and allusions down 2000 years of official literary canon.

Professor Wong then asks her fellow Hong Kongers if they do not see the parallels (共鳴). Which brings me to my last point — that in the end, language lives between people. Despite all the differences between China and Hong Kong, the the cultural ties are strong enough so that the messages are read loud and clear. Both sides know it and both sides use it, turning everything into a political battleground. That fact that such a critical piece was published on October 1, 2018 — China’s National Day — takes no stretch of the imagination to interpret as a mild act of contempt from the MingPao publication for Big Brother. The real meaning the article’s title is “China’s Patriotic [Educational] Strategy”. And perhaps the reason the English name is so blandly called The Story of Yanxi Palace is because across Chinese societies, there is still a popular consensus (共鳴) that only stories with strategizing and scheming count as national stories worth telling.

A trailer that speaks to the Chinese love of court intrigues.

Excerpt Translation of 「愛國攻略」

Below is my unprofessional translation of Paragraphs 5–8 for your reference.

What would the Story of Yanxi Palace (original title is Yanxi Palace Strategems) be without Charmaine Sheh there? I’m afraid the question only has deep implications for Hong Kong viewers. More than [the issue of] her receiving “just” $2 million for the role, I care about the allegations that the character of Lady Ula-Nara, this one particular role, had been intended for a Hong Kong actress. Myolie Wu, Nancy Wu Ting Yan and Tavia Yeung were also considered. Whether it was a matter of the others being denied an opportunity in this big budget series, or really that there was no-one who matched up to Charmaine Sheh’s acting — the issue I can’t let go of is: why did Lady Ula-Nara, the fallen empress, have to be performed by a Hong Kong actress?

Let’s first return to the earlier question. I think that since Hong Kong viewers discovered that the real protagonist of Story of Yanxi Palace is Lady Ula-Nara, they could only critique the series from an anti-China production perspective, citing that that dominated by an insider’s circle. Technically speaking, the series’ female protagonist is the head of the Yangxi Palace, Empress Xiaoyichun [and Lady Ula-Nara’s successor]. But a Hong Kong-born viewer like me cannot help but notice that firstly, if you’ve watched Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, you will know that imperial consorts’ living quarters were not fixed, and were moved according to promotions and demotions. Before she became Empress Consort, Lady Ula-Nara also stayed there. Secondly, to having Consort Xiaoyichun’s meteoric rise and waltzing through setbacks is no doubt for dramatic effect to squeeze in the harem warfare plots and schemes. The build up to the main “stratagem” that is the namesake of the series — forcing Lady Ula-Nara’s hand in cutting her hair seems quite reminiscient of Mei Changsu in Nirvana in Fireburning a plaque in protest. The true protagonist of the “Yanxi Palace” and “scheming” may not necessarily be a Hong Kong person.

Of course, to live up to “strategems”, there have to be wins and losses. The uncanny parallel about Lady Ula-Nara’s role was not just that she was played by a Hong Kong actress, but also that she seems to have lived in the bottom right section of the Sixth House in the Yangxi Palace (a small southern island), was initially determined to avoid the harem intrigues (apolitical), knowing that she was limited both both in natural beauty and skills (limited natural resources), suffered from oppression (a century of colonization), to finally understanding the that the most important thing is to stand on her own two feet (economic take-off), to become the head of the Six Eastern Palaces (a leading global metropolis). My fellow Hong Kongers — are there not parallels?

Doused in Patriotic Overtones
In the end, what happened during Emperor Qianlong’s 4th Southern Tour will remain forever sealed in the mists of time. Even the Draft Qing Dynasty Chronicles 清史稿have not uttered a word. The TV series returns to the theme of love — that Lady Ula-Nara cut her lock of hair in protest to the Emperor. He didn’t treasure her enough, and she went mad with grief, but also laid out her heart. That Lady Ula-Nara was blemished because her love for Qianlong was too deep. Her so-called act of rebellion was in fact an attempt to gain equality in a relationship through a struggle of wills. But unfortunately love is not equal, which her rival consort teased out with one incisve question, “Why did you tell him if you had such deep feelings?”

“Our” Charmaine Sheh [and her character] could have retorted despite her wounds, “Why can’t I tell him?” But she didn’t. In her bloodshot, tearful eyes, you could see the reflection of fervent patriotic teachings — it’s the predictable moment for a female star to remind us — love your country, love your people. It comes in that signature, demure, silken voice, like a soothing balm: “It is only good when it is just so.”

Above Translation by Athena Lam — Please let me know if you want to use it.
原文:愛國攻略
作者:黃念欣

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