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Morality Played Out

Touted by its producers as feminist TV, hit costume drama A Dream of Splendor stirs controversy not only over misappropriation but also a mixed message that provides revealing insight into prevalent attitudes toward women

By Xu Ming Updated Oct.1

A still from A Dream of Splendor featuring Liu Yifei (right) as Zhao Pan'er and Chen Xiao as Gu Qianfan

The most feudal place in China is in TV dramas,” TV and film scholar Mao Jian said at a 2021 book launch in Beijing.  

She had called out the feudalistic values voiced in the many period dramas China produces every year, where a character’s fate is often dictated by family background or social status.  

Mao’s comment resurfaced in media in June as Tencent’s period costume drama A Dream of Splendor became the hottest online show of the summer.  

Also heated was the debate over its storylines, which featured instances of contempt for disadvantaged women, an emphasis on chastity, worship of the rich and powerful, and an overall patriarchal view that runs counter to its touted feminist values. 
The show is an adaptation of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) play Saving a Prostitute by Guan Hanqing, one of the most celebrated Chinese dramatists. Set in the previous Song Dynasty (960-1279), it centers on three lower-class women trying to make it in the big city. With its star-studded cast, the series earned an 8.8/10 on Chinese media review platform Douban and 1.5 billion views in its first 10 days. Some on Douban said the initial response was less to the series’ credit and more revealing of the low bar of expectations for the genre.  

But as the plot unfolded and characters developed, the Douban score fell to 8.0 by the middle of August. Critics poked at the adaptation’s deviation from the original work, particularly shown in the female characters’ contempt for courtesans, and ads for the show on social media that lauded its feminist values.  

Some even accused the screenwriters of being less open-minded than Guan Hanqing, whose 800-year-old work empathizes with the plight of women forced into prostitution. 

Genre Bias 
A Dream of Splendor could have played it safe by simply focusing on the costume drama formula – stunning scenery, beautiful actors and inspiring stories.  

It tells the story of three women from the bottom rungs of society who help each other out and go into business together. Overcoming hardships, they eventually succeed in business and find their soulmates.  

The three main characters have distinct personalities. Smart, resourceful and independent, Zhao Pan’er is 9 when she is forced to enter the yueji, an official register of prostitutes and courtesans, after her father is convicted and killed by the emperor. She eventually manages to get out of the yueji class and opens a small tea house.  

Song Yinzhang is the youngest and most naïve. A yueji courtesan with true musical talent, she is also eager to escape that life and start again. The third, Sun Sanniang, is a straightforward and open-minded divorced woman who was a butcher before she began making desserts at the tea house.  

As with most costume dramas, main character Zhao is flawless: beautiful, elegant, smart and savvy in business and her relationships. She is also elevated above her friends Sun and Song, who depend on their skills and labor to earn a living.  

The male lead, Gu Qianfan, is another costume drama trope: the White Knight. As head of the imperial intelligence agency, he is always ready to spring to the rescue, fall in love with a woman beneath his class, and have his influential family insulate him from any consequences.  

The three women, with help from a suave male lead, of course, bravely band together to fight social discrimination against women of their class, eventually turning their small tea house into the capital’s most successful restaurant while also growing as individuals.  

Buzz around the show abounded thanks to its A-list cast, which includes elfin-faced Liu Yifei of Disney’s live-action Mulan fame, and Chen Xiao, a costume drama staple for his Prince Charming looks. It was lauded as “the hope for Chinese costume dramas” not only for its stunning visuals, costumes and cinematography but absence of the hackneyed techniques typically used, such as overuse of filters, body doubles and stock footage. It even stirred up popularity for the tea culture, desserts, clothing and customs of the Song Dynasty.  

“The series, though ordinary in itself, stands out by detaching from the warped aesthetic that’s been rife in costume dramas in recent years,” noted Hong Shui, media critic and TV director. 

Controversial Adaptation
The show’s initial success was quickly underscored by grumbles online. A major gripe was it deviated too much from the original, from character design to core messages.  

Many took issue with how the show attempted to position itself in advertisements as embodying feminist values. The show’s producers ran ads on platforms like Weibo that claimed the characters “break the shackles of feudal society,” and also started hashtag campaigns like “girls help girls.”  

The original play, Saving a Prostitute, tells a tale of friendship that celebrates strong female characters. Eager to extricate herself from her station as a courtesan, the musically talented Song Yinzhang marries a man who frequents brothels. Before long, he beats and abuses Song, so she seeks out her friend Zhao Pan’er, a courtesan, for help. Zhao weaponizes her allure by dressing up and seducing the man, telling him she is eager to marry and demands he first divorce his wife. He does, thus providing Song her way out. In A Dream of Splendor, however, Zhao is scrubbed of her origin story. She is now the daughter of a disgraced government official who at 16 years old had left her life as a courtesan behind. She had managed to maintain her virginity simply by pretending to be a poor singer and dancer, which gets her out of performing and lands her the position of brothel accountant.  

Song Yinzhang’s past is also whitewashed. Instead of a courtesan, she now is a squeaky-clean pipa player who earns a living from her music and nothing more.  

Most critics point out that these characters, who were more complex and relatable in the original play, now laud their purity as superior and look down on prostitutes who sell their bodies for a living. The show brays this self-righteousness in an episode where the capital’s top singer encourages Song not to be ashamed of her origins, saying: “Only those who rely on beauty for a living are despicable. We live on our skills and we are not in the wrong at all.”  

This ham-fisted attempt by the screenwriters to distinguish these women from their peers and highlight their self-respect and independence blew up in their faces online. During the Song Dynasty, many women were forced into prostitution, either sold by their family into servitude or trafficked. The TV series does not acknowledge their victimhood, instead going out of its way to shame them while suggesting that prostitutes, not society, are to blame for their own tragic fate.  

This led many to criticize screenwriter Zhang Wei as more close-minded than Yuan Dynasty dramatist Guan Hanqing, who had portrayed the virtue and nobility of prostitutes as going far beyond “relying on their beauty.”  

In this light, the drama comes off as preachy and hypocritical: It is advertised as an inspiring series that advocates self-reliance, independence and comradery among women while disparaging victims of sexual exploitation in a feudal patriarchal society, where the show’s feminism comes off as an advertising gimmick. 

A still from A Dream of Splendor featuring Jianai as the capital’s top singer Zhang Haohao (left) and Lin Yun as Song Yinzhang

Chastity Complex 
Many viewers took issue with the repeated emphasis on chastity throughout a show about former prostitutes.  

When the leads enter a relationship, Zhao, though a former escort of government officials and once engaged for three years, implies to Gu that she is still a virgin. Gu then reveals he had never been intimate with a woman. Song Yinzhang, who had been in an abusive marriage, struggles with feelings of inferiority over losing her virginity.  

Shuangjie, or “virginity of both the hero and heroine” is a well-worn plot device used in Chinese costume dramas to highlight the pure love and loyalty between the main characters. But in Splendor, it comes off as clumsy. The show was lambasted for advocating outdated attitudes toward sex instead of the gender equality and female empowerment it claims.  

Even the show’s empress, who is based on the real Song Empress Liu E, a former courtesan celebrated for her strength and wisdom, is embroiled in a scandal over having lost her virginity before marrying the emperor.  

The series begins with Gu carrying out an investigation into a painting that can prove the empress had lost her virginity. A group of her opponents sets out to find the painting and present it to the emperor as part of a smear campaign. The empress attempts a cover-up in fear of falling out of favor with the emperor.  

Male characters only help obfuscate the message. The male lead Gu largely undermines Zhao’s self-reliance by constantly bailing her out of her problems. From saving Song Yinzhang from her tragic marriage to helping her after being thrown out by her former fiancé, Gu shows up every time Zhao is in distress.  

Heroines being rescued by the deus ex machina deeds of male saviors is another trope in Chinese costume dramas that, in the case of Splendor, only dilutes its intended core message.  

“Otherwise, Zhao might have more opportunities to rely on her own ways and wit to solve problems and thus demonstrate her values and self-reliance as a woman,” Hong Shui said. 

‘Girls Help Girls’ 
In an interview with National Business Daily in July, Yang Yang, director of the series, said she was impressed by these women’s struggles, friendships and love stories. “I shot the show for women from every corner of the country who fight for better lives in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai and work to realize their self-worth,” Yang said.  

To some extent, the three main female characters demonstrate admirable traits, such as bravery in the face of injustice, courage to open a business despite challenges and rational attitudes toward love.  

In particular, Zhao shows strong ambition and confidence. When Gu hints that he could support her comfortably, Zhao declines the offer, saying that women who depend on others financially lose agency. She is also level-headed about relationships, emphasizing that women should be self-reliant. “Once you rely on others, you’re in a disadvantaged position,” she says to a friend.  

The comradery is also inspiring. The three operate a successful business despite their differences, which highlights genuine friendship between women, a rarity in costume dramas that usually highlight the competition among them. Many cited how the characters serve as positive role models for female viewers by putting friendships before their love interests.  

But any elements of female self-reliance are undermined in the series by the protection of powerful males. Characters still judge themselves from a patriarchal perspective, shown in their barely unchallenged emphasis on chastity.  

Hong Shui pointed out that the public pushback reflects the growing momentum of feminism in China. “Many feel disappointed probably because they expected the series to show more breakthroughs, such as how they break existing feudal shackles, which is more faithful to the pioneering original drama and the history of Empress Liu E,” he said. “In other words, the depictions of women’s self-reliance are too shallow, at least for many female viewers.”  

These conflicting conservative and progressive ideas about women in the series mirror the clash of old and new ideas in reality, noted Sun Mingze, a sociologist from Xi’an-based Northwest University.  

While women are growing increasingly independent and are making tremendous contributions across different fields, there is still a long way to go in China. Discrimination against women remains in the job market and workplace, particularly against married women. Persistent issues include harassment, domestic violence, sex trafficking and other attacks against women that chronically make headlines. Many are still fighting for their reproductive freedom.  

The show’s mixed signals about sex are equally awkward, but also reflect existing polarized views in China. While younger viewers may have liberal standpoints on sex, many men still prefer to marry virgins and look down on women who divorce. “That’s probably why the show is conservative when it comes to sex,” Sun told NewsChina. “But if it swung too far the other way, there would be controversy too.”