TV series pulled before premiere, probably for “historical nihilism”

Potential viewers of the long-delayed historical dramaA love never lostwere disappointed on Monday when the show was pulled just two hours before its premiere. The show was replaced by a rerun of a 2020 “poverty alleviation drama” loosely based on a program started by Xi Jinping while in provincial office. Six episodes of “A Love Never Lost” briefly appeared on Chinese streaming sites before they too were taken offline. On Weibo, the showrunners cited “technical issues,” but fans suspected another culprit: “historical nihilisma catch-all term for depictions of history that do not conform to Party orthodoxy. The male protagonist of “A Love Never Lost”, Liang Xiang, is inspired by the late Manchurian nobleman Liangbi, who led the effort to crush the 1911 Wuchang Uprising that sparked the Xinhai Revolution and ultimately led to the downfall of the Qing dynasty. In the historiography of the Chinese Communist Party, the Xinhai Revolution is hailed as the event which “raised hopes for a revitalized China”.

Historical television series occupy a significant place in the Chinese entertainment sphere. In 2019, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television temporarily banned the production of “entertainment-oriented” historical dramas. The highly popular palace dramas “The Story of Yanxi Palace” and “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace”, two fictional accounts of life under the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong, were pulled from streaming services and lambasted in state media as being “incompatible with fundamental socialist values” due to “sins” such as “[fetishing] the imperial lifestyle” and “[idolizing] emperors and officials of the feudal past. In 2021, definitely »red theme“Historical television dramas began to dominate the screen. “Minning Town” – the aforementioned “poverty drama” that replaced the premiere of “A Love Never Lost” – was among the most popular shows in the first half of this year. “Age of Awakening”, which traced the May Fourth Movement and the rise of the nascent Chinese Communist Party, inherited that show’s mantle during the second half of the year, earning both critical and public acclaim. Both shows are zhengju“positive dramas” saturated with pro-party energy, but not so sanitized that it needs to be frozen. The popularity of these red themes zhengju is more complex than it seems. As He Tianping argues in Sixth Tone, using the 2017 anti-corruption drama “In the name of the people” for example, zhengju are popular precisely because they allow viewers to “memorize” historical periods that are often forbidden in public discussion:

But zhengju showrunners also find that contemporary viewers are rarely satisfied with passively consuming their work; instead, fans are redirecting positive drama, turning it into memes that subvert or even outright contradict the show’s original goals.

[…] As this online subculture evolves and becomes mainstream, secondary content has become increasingly imaginative. The “meme-ification” of broadcasts reflects the way viewers today draw parallels between television works and different cultural contexts or social realities. By consuming the media, they contribute to its creation and reinterpretation – even media with serious political overtones and traditionally little room for alternative interpretations.

[…] While the show revolved around politics, corruption, and complex institutional power struggles, viewers’ reinterpretations of the series tended to eschew these dynamics in favor of idolizing one individual, Li, caught between Party ideals and the realities of Chinese development. While this hardly subverts the show, it nonetheless subverts the text of the script. [Source]

For now, the authorities seem indifferent to this trend. Indeed, an editorial in the Beijing Daily in April expressed his approval for the return of historical dramas as long as they “come back” to zhengju who draw the “right” lessons from dynastic history:

“The Imperial Age”, a coming-of-age story about the Ming Dynasty Hongwu Emperor’s fourth son, Zhu Di [later the Yongle Emperor], is currently a hit show on Beijing Satellite TV. As one of the few historical dramas to air in recent years, its grandeur has captivated viewers and earned it accolades. Historical dramas back to zhengju form both adheres to political orientations and responds to the demands and tastes of contemporary audiences.

[…] Market-oriented historical costume dramas became fashionable during production zhengju historical dramas have proven difficult. From “The Eloquent Ji Xiaolian” series to today’s costume dramas that blend history and “idol culture”, empresses and emperors have been the main protagonists in historical dramas, a trend that has almost always drawn criticism from the audience. These dramas are considered exaggerated, historically inaccurate, and even misleading. A deluge of such shows has made it difficult for historical dramas to pass through censors. [Drama critic] Yang Wenshan revealed that over the past few years, all historical dramas with fictional storylines have had to undergo major rewrites. As such, historical dramas that embrace commercialism and eschew zhengju Storytelling methods, which still meet broadcast standards, are becoming increasingly rare.

[…] Zhengju historical dramas have shaken off their past torpor: once dismissed by young audiences as relics of the past, they now cultivate an audience capable of appreciating their narrative aesthetic. Historical dramas currently in production should seize the opportunity of this new era and respect history while placing importance on innovation, to create new glory for zhengju historical dramas. [Chinese]

“A Love Never Lost” was mentioned in the article above as an exemplary “positive” historical drama of the new era. So what was wrong? The Hong Kong publication Sing Tao Daily cited Mainland filmmaker Hailin Wang’s speculation that the series was dropped because it centered on the character of Liang Xian, inspired by royalist Qing Liangbi. Commentator Zeng Pengyu agreed, arguing that spotlighting a “counter-revolutionary figure” like Liang as a protagonist could draw young people into historical nihilism, potentially causing “doubts and hesitations on major national issues, ethnic and historical”. Online speculation has focused on similar issues. On Zhihu and Duban, the posters debated whether choosing Liang Xiang as the protagonist was an endorsement of “royalism” and therefore counter-revolutionary. An essayist from Sohu argued that it was a good thing the show was pulled, arguing that it had “whitewashed” the Manchu Qing dynasty. The essay included a screenshot of a Weibo post in which a fan of the show wrote, “The story is not necessarily the truth. History is written by the victors. Who wouldn’t want to write it as they please?

The official Weibo account for “A Love Never Lost” has remained inactive since claiming the series was taken down for “technical issues” and asking fans to be patient. This post recalls another from online e-commerce celebrity Li Jiaqi, whose livestream has been stopped after posting an ice cream cake strikingly resembling a tank on the eve of June 4. Li has yet to resume his live broadcasts. The fate of “A Love Never Lost” seems similarly unclear.