What is ‘real’ history? Chinese attitudes towards censorship
Recently, the debates surrounding the censoring of the drama The Empress of China by the Chinese State Administration of Radio Film and TV have become a topic of much discussion in the news for both the Chinese audience and foreign media. The cutting of certain scenes due to female characters’ low-cut dresses which revealed their breasts aroused a great deal of dissatisfaction among the public. However, it seems that there have been some nuanced changes in attitudes towards the recent censorship, which have emerged gradually in recent weeks along with the development of the drama on TV.
It appears that officials have edited not only the scenes, but also certain plots. In one episode aired last week, the main character, empress Wu Meiniang was pregnant. In the drama, the father of that baby was set to be the emperor Taizong (Li Shimin), which is a factual mistake according to historical sources.
According to The New Book of Tang(新唐書), Vol 6, Chapter 6: “When Zetian was 16 years old, the emperor Taizong called her into the imperial palace due to her reputation of fair appearance and granted her with the title Cairen, lower concubine. Upon the death of Taizong, she was sent to Ganye Temple to be a nun until Gaozong who succeeded to the throne saw her in the temple and recalled her back to the palace. She was soon bestowed as Zhaoyi, a higher level of concubine. ” (卷六 本紀第六 <則天皇後>, 初, 則天年十四時, 太宗聞其美容止, 召入宮, 立為才人. 及太宗崩, 遂為尼, 居感業寺. 大帝於寺見之, 複召入宮, 拜昭儀) In addition to the record above, other historical materials such as Tang Huiyao (唐會要) and Zizhi Tongjian (資治通鑒) support the fact that Wu Zetian was not popular and not even ‘visited’ by the emperor Taizong during her 12 years as Cairen. Her life changed due to the new emperor Gaozong’s visit to the temple, after which she became pregnant. The drama adaption instead stated that it was Taizong who was quite fond of Wu and even provided her with an offspring before his death, possibly to underscore the romance between Taizong and Wu.
This ridiculous and anti-historical adaptation by the script writer of this drama stirred the audience into anger. The writer attempted to focus on the romance between Wu and Taizong by distorting the historical accounts of Wu’s pregnancy, while in comparison the censoring by the authorities made the drama more logical and faithful to the history. Via the displacement of certain scenes and the addition of dubbing by the authorities, this plot was shifted to the final story arc, showing Wu having a sexual affair with Gaozong and finding herself pregnant after her arrival at the temple. This would also partly explain her future success as the empress. Therefore, in spite of the overwhelming lamentation and dissatisfaction among the Chinese audience, this time the censorship commanded a certain admiration, due to its fidelity to the historical record.
The heated discussion on the Baidu Board (百度貼吧) was as follows:
One netizen showed approval of the censoring on the Board:
The screenwriter let Wu have the posthumous child of the emperor Taizong, which misled those audience members who have little knowledge of that period. That is rather horrible. It is the only time that I really admire the censoring by the Administration. I am sick of the censoring of the low-cutting dresses, the editing of the original plot of the drama with less plausible logic, but the logic would be worse without the censorship. The character Wu, in the original drama, firstly got pregnant due to her affair with Taizong, then slept with Gaozong because of the heart-breaking testament left by Taizong. This will shape and influence Wu as a woman.
This was not the only voice that approved of the censoring by the authorities. Many more examples illustrate the nuanced shift in attitudes towards the editing of the plot, especially for those who have more orthodox views on the history and related records, or for those who have more liking for romance between Wu and Gaozong. The censoring was also criticized by some who believed that the drama merely offered another perspective for looking at the Tang dynasty, and that adherence to the real history would make it less attractive and less plausible as a plot.
One user, for example, posted: “The so-called truth is what the authorities want to show, no less now than so many centuries ago. It is said that the classics of Buddhism were even adapted by the Empress Wu; it is not surprising that the real history may not be the same as what we learn now.” (所謂的真相就是那些當權者想讓我們看到的！更何況又經歷了這麼多個年代！據說佛經都被武則天為了權力串改過，別說這些所謂的歷史了！)http://tieba.baidu.com/p/3543661902)
There are two sides in this debate around plot censorship. The censoring cannot avoid attracting debates or criticism, yet it also merits a certain amount of appreciation for its editing of the plot in order to make it more faithful to the real history, or the history recorded by accessible records. This brings forth many questions about public history and the adaptation of historical plots in different media formats. However, even so-called historical records like Zizhi Tongjian cannot avoid certain foregrounding or individual judgments by their authors, as well as the influence of the social and political context of that time.
For example, it is plausible to assert that the later emperors of China tended to depict Empress Wu as a cruel and vicious empress in official historical records in order to belittle her contributions to the state, especially in the period of Song in which Zizhi Tongjian was composed, when women occupied a lower position in society. How do we define the origin of a historical event? How should we use sources to judge the faithfulness of a historical TV drama? Indeed, those who use history shape it; this can be seen in the way historical and social contexts today shape history to suit various purposes.