Chinese Empresses in the USA
While Twilight and Gossip Girl have become increasingly popular in China, a well-known Chinese TV drama, Empresses in the Palace (后宫·甄嬛传), was also introduced to American audiences this past March. The show was made available exclusively on Netflix, but the low ratings that followed were a shock: it received a rating of 2.5 stars in the U.S. and 1 star in Canada (out of 5 stars). Given that, in Asian countries like Japan, this drama “amassed more than 39 million Japanese viewers”, it seemed highly unlikely that it would do so poorly in other countries. Why was the North American reaction so different? Is it due to bad subtitles leaving us lost in translation, or the gaps between Chinese and American cultures and historical knowledge?
Let’s start with a brief outline of this TV drama. It depicts the life story of a queen or empress (originally named Zhen Huan/甄嬛) in the Qing dynasty, and her transformation from an innocent and kind girl to a calculating dowager. The bloody strife, including fighting for the emperor’s favor—inducing miscarriage in other concubines, et cetera—makes for a complex plot, like in House of Cards. Its popularity in China is due not only to plot, but also to the delicate costumes and excellent performers. Still, it’s a different story in America.
Why is this the case? Firstly, the drama is set in the Qing dynasty, and the rituals and palace clothing must seem quite odd to American audiences. The lengthy ritual sentences and numerous names of the concubines tend to alienate them. Due to the show’s subtle characterization, it is difficult to understand the imperial culture depicted in the drama without additional knowledge or research.
Secondly, Empresses in the Palace is a historical drama, a genre which is itself less likely to enjoy the success of many others. This is not without good reason, since in China the most popular American or western TV series are not historical dramas, but contemporary and fantasy shows.
Thirdly, the producers condensed the original 76 episodes of 45 minutes to only 6 episodes of 1.5 hours each. I realize that this was an adaptation for an American TV format, but it seems strange when more than four characters are killed in one episode—especially when it takes much longer, say 15 episodes or more, in the original version. There are also too many omissions which confuse the audience. As Rong Xiaoqing, writing for the Global Times, notes, “American audiences may wonder why the voice of An Lingrong, who pleased the emperor with her singing, sounds different in the later episodes without knowing she lost her voice and, therefore, privilege, in the original version.” The adaptation of a historical TV show does increase the likelihood of misunderstandings compared to other TV genres. The historical show’s inevitable connection to ‘real’ history has repercussions for both audiences: Chinese audiences will always compare the adaptations with their nation’s true history; western audiences may find that the adaptation has skewed their understanding of Chinese history. Omissions risk leaving the American audience lost in translation, so to speak, without the context of a historical narrative.
Still, the most difficult thing to surmount are the cultural differences between east and west, between ancient and modern times. Cultural values are often subtle or even invisible and therefore untranslatable. It will take a long time for the west to fully understand ancient Chinese culture. Popular TV dramas such as these are undoubtedly a starting point, but are historical dramas the most suitable for this purpose? “Probably not,” I think, as I walk away from a westerner I just met, who believes Chinese guys still wear their hair in a long braid down their backs.