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“Empresses in the Palace”: Wrong Message for Guileless Western Audience?

Empresses in the PalaceVarious media including The China Daily (Bring Asian Magic to US) have reported the rumor—as yet unconfirmed—that China’s crowd-pleasing 76-part TV series Empresses in the Palace (甄嬛传) may soon be recut and dubbed in English for re-broadcast by a US firm.

The TV adaptation of the historical novel of the same name depicts the intrigue between empresses and consorts during the reign of  the Yongzheng Emperor in the 1720s.  When the concubine Zhen Huan (see photo) first enters the palace, she is innocent and gullible, but she learns to fend for herself and through cunning and deception eventually becomes empress.

Perhaps piqued by the thought of the series giving a less than flattering image of China to overseas audiences, Hou Jianyu (侯健羽) penned a sharply worded critique that has been widely circulated on the Chinese internet, including as a Letter to the Editor at The Financial Times Chinese site (价值观).  Entitled What Sort of Values Will be Exported via “Empresses of the Palace”? , the essay not only disses this low-brow entertainment, it also predicts most Americans won’t be won over:

The popularity of the broadcast of “Empresses in the Palace” is a mere gust of wind in today’s China, and its artistic value falls far short of the classics that have been passed down over the centuries. It cannot represent mainstream Chinese culture.

I predict that, at best, “Empresses” will gain the attention of a generation of Asian immigrants in the US; but as for Americans who are deeply influenced by Western values, they will not be willing to accept the import of this set of backward values. Those values will have no cultural resonance for such viewers, and they have no motivation to master the scheming portrayed in the series.

If China wishes to export its own culture and set of values, then it must first improve its own social system. Chinese must first believe that we can achieve success via hard work, perseverance and integrity, without employing our “art of deceit” [厚黑哲学].

P.S. By this standard, shouldn’t the export—i.e., translation—of Machiavelli’s The Prince have been banned?

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