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The Impervious Zhen Huan

2019.03.20 09:57
关键词: Empresses in the Palace Social reality
While many television shows which attempt to reflect reality end up leaving no impressions other than the faces of the actors who star in them, Empresses in the Palace gives a much more realistic feeling, As the show’s popularity and lively discussion around it has demonstrated, this is precisely because of these four factors, which are collectively constructed by contemporary Chinese people’s specific views of reality

The Impervious Zhen Huan[1]

by LUO Xiaoming Shanghai University
Front. Lit. Stud. China 2014, 8(3): 492-512; DOI 10.3868/s010-003-014-0026-1

The television series Empresses in the Palace (Zhen Huan zhuan)[2] has been quite popular now for the better part of a year. Until now, the critical appraisal has been unanimous: People love watching the show because of its realistic depiction of humanity and power. A recent article published in New Weekly (Xin zhoukan) called “Why do Chinese People Love Watching Concubine Dramas?” suggested this was because [these shows] provide vivid depictions of the struggle that emerges between power and humanity. While the stories are fictional, the way in which humanity becomes invigorated and transformed in these various situations is very real.… When the space for realistic content is limited, and when the world of male authority becomes obscured, it is only reasonable for the chambers of concubines to become the setting for displays of humanity and power.

Other discussions have suggested that Empresses in the Palace is a symbol for what goes on behind the closed doors of Chinese politics. People have seen through today’s politicians, and have come to appreciate a figure like the lead character Zhen Huan.

Such an interpretation of the series, comparing the inner chambers of the palace with the back offices of contemporary politics, is just as air-tight as these secret rooms. This sealedness is the result of several common forces. The first is that people in today’s society firmly believe that the reality of a situation cannot be directly mentioned, nor can it ever be made clear. From the problems of food safety and air quality to the recent incidents with high-speed trains, there is not a single issue that can be clearly discussed. Amidst the competing forces in this gray zone of intermittent secrecy and exposé are the endless rumors on Weibo of government officials being dismissed from office and sent to prison, only to quietly reappear after a period of time.

The second contributing factor is that the obscured and unspeakable nature of power and humanity in contemporary reality acts to highlight the truth of the series. Because Empresses in the Palace is just a show, the reality represented in it can be discussed. This reality then becomes particularly cherished, and no other substitute will do—as they say, “in everyone’s heart exists an inner chamber.” In this reality, then, everyone in the audience can find what they need: Academic success, the spread of information, survival in the workplace, power struggles, handsome men and beautiful women, etc.

The third factor, ambiguously accompanying these two others, is the attitude related to topics like “ideals,” “calling” and “collectivity” in today’s China, especially in young persons. Any works that want to deal with “power” and “humanity” will always be regarded as being more realistic, while at the same time more false. This is because these days the standards of whether or not something is realistic are not found in reality itself. Furthermore, as people determine reality to be increasingly false, the reflection of reality becomes even falser than false. In this sort of situation, all of that which is flaunted as “reality” will meet with disaster, and everything proclaiming to have nothing to do with reality actually becomes true.

The fourth factor is that film and television productions are a kind of fabrication, a concrete linguistic realm occupied by contemporary Chinese society. The comments of the director Zheng Xiaolong stand as proof of this: In the past, time-travel dramas (chuanyue ju) were too fake. But if he, by contrast, were going to film a show, he would tell everyone exactly what the inner chambers were like. Clearly, compared to many absurd and ridiculous time-travel dramas, Empresses in the Palace is more realistic. By closely following the style of Intentions (Xin shu),[3] the show delivers people’s views of “reality” from another direction. While many television shows which attempt to reflect reality end up leaving no impressions other than the faces of the actors who star in them, Empresses in the Palacegives a much more realistic feeling.

Therefore, the real question is not simply whether or not Empresses in the Palace is realistic, but how is it that it appears even more “real” to people today? As the show’s popularity and lively discussion around it has demonstrated, this is precisely because of these four factors, which are collectively constructed by contemporary Chinese people’s specific views of reality. A sort of structure of experience regarding reality gradually takes form, along with an ongoing and urgently needed debate on the position of reality and fiction.

The story of Zhen Huan is clearly helpful in understanding these four certain perspectives on reality. In this perfect coming-of-age story, if Zhen Huan were not embroiled in a variety of struggles with the other concubines, and if there were no opposition from the empress and emperor, would the changes we see be able to take place? According to those who see the show from the perspective of power and humanity, this question requires a careful answer. If what they say is really true—that life consists of power relations, and that humanity is less than wonderful—then Zhen Huan’s transformation is inevitable, and her character has been suffused with power and humanity. But if Zhen Huan is an exception, then all the perspectives on power and humanity coming from the show will have an “exception” through the whole story, and all these perspectives will be no effective. The story is always smoothly told, and the audience is happy to see Zhen Huan as a woman forced to grow up by the struggles in the imperial chambers. From another perspective, the young Zhen Huan might actually be in need of these antagonistic junctures.

Interestingly, by Zhen Huan’s side is the character An Lingrong, whose behavior is basically identical to Zhen Huan’s—both of them engage in a variety of activities that involve setting traps, deception, betrayal, and exploitation. In Zhen Huan’s (as well as the audience’s) understanding of herself, these sorts of things are the reasons for her transformation; for An Lingrong, however, they reveal her dark nature. If there is truly a difference between these two characters, we might say that Zhen Huan has no essential nature: Her role constantly changes in accordance with new situations in her reality. An Lingrong, on the other hand, seems fixed as an essentially bad woman, revealing her true nature with each new twist and turn. As with all bildungsromans, only the protagonist matures, while the other characters remain static and predictable in their display of “humanity.”

This is, of course, just one way of telling a story, and while it is not exactly realistic, it comes with many benefits. At least for Zhen Huan and those who identify with her, all of the reasons for her changes are provided by others and may be regarded as both reasonable and necessary. All of the filth and hate that comes along with these changes in eventually becomes directed toward others, but the character undergoing the changes is not at fault and need not shoulder any of the responsibility. This is reason that people tend to like Zhen Huan, rather than for her inherent nature, which is something she does not possess. In this way transformation is shown in a positive light, while hatred and filth just gets passed along. Is this sort of attitude toward change, along with the all of the disclaimers and self-justifications that arise when faced with opposition, not also something in which we freely engage in our own lives? This list of oppositional forces is quite long and includes the market, the government, the nation, corruption, and power. For all the consumers, taxpayers, and subjects of power who have been wronged, what could be fairer and more reasonable than transformation as a form of resistance? Whether it be buying a house and car, being competitive in the workplace, or striving to earn more money, every matter of this sort can be approached in a way that is neither overly passive nor aggressive.

This, however, is not all there is to the magic of Zhen Huan’s imperviability.

Here we might turn to an example raised by Slavoj Žižek, always gifted in the telling of pithy stories.[4] Two people who lived in the same village produced two entirely different representations of the distribution of the village’s buildings. Which of their drawings is in accordance with reality? The general answer would be that both drawings are subjective; if realism is the goal, surely an aerial photograph is best. But is an aerial photograph really reality? According to Žižek, the answer is no, reality is not found in the photograph. Rather, it exists in the differences between the two maps, which arise from different experiences of village life—this is social reality.[5] Continuing along these lines, the social reality we face today is not nearly as simplistic as the truth of an aerial photograph, but instead takes shape from various psycho-social maps created by a variety of cultural phenomena. Thus, from the view of reality that emerges from Empresses in the Palace, we see a kind of psycho-social map. This map shows that, on the one hand, since there is no way to articulate reality, the fictional one which separated from the reality become even more real, while on the other hand, fiction is unable to persevere on its own, always needing to draw its power from people’s dissatisfaction, resentment and hopelessness. Therefore, dissatisfaction with a loss of authenticity, along with the contradiction between a hopeless and inauthentic social reality and the impossibility of existing outside of it, results in a situation in which people urgently need to watch TV dramas to patch up the holes in their hearts. When critics say that people should not cast off history and society in order to experience reality, it gives people the impression that they themselves are immediately right in the midst of social history, gaining an awareness of both fiction and a reality specific to Chinese society, as well as a philosophy of continuing to live in this way. The more people’s ears are filled with mediocre commentary, the more firmly they believe it.

Naturally this conviction is not without its practical effects. People once again confirm that criticizing reality is useless—because reality is false, there is no need to critique it. The discussion of fiction, however, could be real, because fiction is more real than reality; it is in fact the only possible reality. People find these sorts of corollaries immensely comforting. In these terms, we are no different from Zhen Huan, forgetting our investigative pursuit of reality and continuing the struggle with fiction.

What really brings these contradictions together, therefore, is not a love of power and humanity, but rather the willingness to once again misidentify what reality really is. This means that if Empresses in the Palace as a cultural phenomenon can tell us anything, it is that on the one hand people desire reality, but not necessarily the truth—people have a vague sense that the truth would make them even more hopeless, so they would rather remain in a position of yearning for reality. This position, forever on a quest for the real, obviously feels much better than facing reality head-on and being cheated. On the other hand, with this sort of mentality, critics and the media are quick to give closed-off interpretations, misidentifying the dichotomy of reality and fiction as reality itself and thereby thoroughly foreclosing the possibility of discussing and parsing out the questions “What is real?” and “What kind of power should fiction possess?”

The problem here, however, is that reality is not itself an opposition or dichotomy; rather, such an opposition is the way in which reality is established. When people thoughtlessly accept this sort of opposition itself as reality, they collectively forget that this opposition is merely a fabrication of the four kinds of power mentioned above. True reality resides in the interplay and entanglements of these four types of power, and the conspiring of these forces is what really needs to be eradicated.

To forget this is harmful, but according to the media and those in power, this sort of forgetting is most welcome. Once people adopt this sort of dichotomous understanding of “reality,” and once they release their uneasiness, anger, and even violence in what they take for granted to be this sort of “more authentic reality”—and in doing so use up all of their enthusiasm and ability—they naturally manage to come out entirely unscathed in the reality managed by those in power. Consequently, in their impatience a new sort of superstition is established, which is eagerly received by many people who take this fabricated opposition as a “more authentic reality.” This amounts to the simple generalization that Chinese people love to observe power and humanity. On this basis, those who take history as a model and rigidly adhere to its details work to prove that history is in fact “real,” while those who criticize any historical background as hollow and vacuous understand it only as abstract power, and even those who are straightforward in pointing out their basic interests have insufficient views on the debate. These groups are all a million miles from the problem, yet they manage to coexist with one another quite harmoniously. All of them carefully avoid this “view of reality” which is taking shape, defending their misunderstandings and encouraging forgetfulness.

As far as the secret inner chambers are concerned, these sorts of comments and critiques of these groups are most useful. Just as with the so-called discussions of power and humanity, the usefulness of their criticism lies in ignoring the current social reality, avoiding real and effective debate, and constructing an even more secretive and impervious China.


[1] Translated from Chinese by Todd W. Foley.

[2] A 2011 series directed by Zheng Xiaolong based on the novel written by Zhejiang-born author Liu Lianzi (Wu Leigang). The story centers around the main character Zhen Huan, an imperial concubine in the Qing court who becomes Empress Dowager. This and all following footnotes have been added by the translator.

[3] A 36-episode television series which wanted to focus on the contradiction between doctors and patients, finally described the romantic experiences of surgeons and nurses in Shanghai. It was written by Liu Liu, directed by Yang Yang and aired in 2012.

[4] The following example seems to be originally attributable to Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1958 work Structural Anthropology. Žižek discusses it in his 2006 book The Parallax View.

[5] Slavaj Žižek, Tuhui yishixingtai, 33. Chinese language edition arranged with Verso. Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe, 2000.