Chinese Historical Television Show Censorship in Social Media
In recent months, the historical television drama The Empress of China (武媚娘傳奇) has gained popularity in mainland China. The series tells the story of the only empress in Chinese history as well as her male concubines whom she acquired in her later reign. What makes the TV series a heated topic is the intervention of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television in the editing process. They cut parts of certain scenes due to female characters’ low-cut dresses which revealed their breasts, leading to debates on historical accuracy and dissatisfaction towards censorship from the Chinese audience.
While a female monarch was not so uncommon European history, Wu Meiniang is the only recorded woman who ruled China for several decades from 624 AD to 705 AD. Unlike her predecessors, she began her reign at the age of 67 – much older than was usual.
The original name of Wu Zetian was not recorded in any historical documents; Taizong Emperor of Tang Dynasty (627-649) granted her the name “Mei”, which means charming and sexy in Chinese. When she became the empress, she created a character in Chinese as her own name – 瞾 (zhao) – which means the simultaneous existence of the sun and the moon. This character is still in use in written Chinese today. Her other name “Zetian” was bestowed by his son, Zhongzong Emperor (Lixian), in order to show his respect for his mother; this name implies that all shall comply with the law of nature and be ruled by the empress. From then on, the name Wu Zetian became the most popular title for this empress.
Today, Chinese people often refer to her as Wu Mei or Wu Meiniang (武媚娘) when they write about her youth, whereas they refer to her as Empress Wu (武后) when referring to her as empress and empress dowager, and Wu Zetian (武則天) when referring to her reign as “emperor.”
In ancient China, the emperor could have one wife and several concubines. When Wu Zetian was 14 years old, she was sent to the imperial palace and became a Cairen (才人, a lower level of concubine) of Taizong.  However, Taizong did not show any interest in her except for the name “Mei” he gave to her. After the death of Taizong, she went into the Ganye Temple (感业寺) to be a nun, according to the royal family rules. According to the historical documents, Wu Zetian met the prince Li Zhi and attracted his attention when his father Taizong was seriously sick.
Due to the fact that the emperor had many concubines and the competitive atmosphere among those women, Queen Wang of Gaozong (Li Zhi) asked the emperor to allow Wu Zetian back, in order to balance the concubines, which actually catered to Li Zhi’s own bent. Wu Zetian then became Zhaoyi (her title as a concubine) of Gaozong (Li Zhi). Indeed, it is rather surprising that the woman married both the emperor and his son, yet this was not so strange in ancient times. After Wu Zetian returned to the imperial palace, she realized the importance of power. She arranged for the death of Queen Wang and other concubines; finally, she became the Empress Wu.
Now let us turn to the current social comments which makes the TV show of the empress popular now. In responding to the governmental censoring of the TV show, many members of the audience expressed their dissatisfaction via nicknaming the adapted as a show of “the big heads” and even an allusion to the famous scholar in Minguo period (1912-1949), Lu Xun, since he once wrote such a sentence in his essay Of the Chinese Imagination: “At the mere sight of short sleeves, the Chinese are bound to imagine the white arms, then the whole naked body, then the genital organs, then the sex, and then the bastard. This is the only sense in which the Chinese could be called imaginative.” [一见短袖子，立刻想到白臂膊，立刻想到全裸体，立刻想到生殖器，立刻想到性交，立刻想到杂交，立刻想到私生子, 中国人的想像惟在这一层能够如此跃进] .
The netizens quote Lu Xun’s sentence to satire on the censoring and gave heated discussions on Baidu Bulletin Board (百度贴吧) as well. For instance, there is a blog on the board, giving a comparison of the two versions and questioning why the bureau (guangdian) gave a pass to the show before it was put on yet suspended it later to cut certain scenes . As public anger amounted, some internet users use memes mocking the newly-chased version. Even among the WeChat (a popular mobile app in China) sharing board, many a funny jokes or blogs were forwarded for several times among those users.
Even foreign media has paid attention to the Chinese audience’s lamenting. The New York Times published a commentary titled “A Historical Drama Shows Too Much Cleavage for China’s Censors” to discuss the censoring and its social impact. The Daily Mail also wrote an article to elaborate on the social responses to this censoring. Foreign audience also expressed their views, either negative or positive. Some joked that whether male Chinese audience were so vulnerable to the cleavages of the beauties. Yet some agreed with the censoring for the sake of the children.
While the censorship that has taken place has focused on the revealing nature of women’s breasts on national Chinese television, the question of historical accuracy is also worth considering. The clothing that women wore in the television show reflected the Tang Dynasty’s clothing style and culture. Women during this time period were expected to be full-figured and active, as this was essential to attract men. If the production company had decided originally to not follow the fashion styles of the period, it would have given a false impression and would not have been historically accurate. Much of the debate and discussion surrounding the censorship of the television show reflect modern-day Chinese cultural understandings of the female body and how it has changed throughout history. As we can see from the reaction of the government, but also of audiences who disliked how breasts were shown, the show provides new understandings of the history of the body.
Special thank you to guest writer Jianan Li for help with historical background.