Would-be viewers of the long-delayed historical drama “A Love Never Lost” were left disappointed Monday when the show was pulled just two hours before its premiere. The broadcast was replaced with a rerun of a 2020 “poverty alleviation drama” loosely based on a program pioneered by Xi Jinping while he held provincial office. Six episodes of “A Love Never Lost” briefly appeared on Chinese streaming sites before they, too, were taken offline. On Weibo, the showrunners cited “technical issues,” but fans suspected a different culprit: “historical nihilism,” a catch-all term for depictions of history out of line with Party orthodoxy. The male protagonist of “A Love Never Lost,” Liang Xiang, is modeled after the late Manchu nobleman Liangbi, who led the effort to crush the 1911 Wuchang Uprising that sparked the Xinhai Revolution and ultimately led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty. In Chinese Communist Party historiography, the Xinhai Revolution is hailed as the event that “ignited hope for a revitalized China.”
Historical television dramas occupy a sensitive spot in the Chinese entertainment sphere. In 2019, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television temporarily banned the production of “entertainment-driven” historical dramas. The wildly popular palace dramas “Story of Yanxi Palace” and “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace,” both fictionalized accounts of life under the Qing Dynasty’s Qianlong Emperor, were pulled from streaming services and lambasted in state media as being “incompatible with core socialist values” due to “sins” such as “[fetishing] the imperial lifestyle” and “[idolizing] emperors and officials of the feudal past.” In 2021, decidedly “Red-themed” historical television dramas began to dominate the screen. “Minning Town”—the aforementioned “poverty-alleviation drama” that stood in for the premiere of “A Love Never Lost”—was among the most popular shows during the first half of that year. “The Age of Awakening,” which traced the May Fourth Movement and the rise of China’s nascent Communist Party, inherited that show’s mantle over the latter half of the year, earning both critical and popular acclaim. Both shows are zhengju, “positive dramas” saturated with pro-Party energy, yet not so sanitized as to be staid. The popularity of these Red-themed zhengju is more complex than it may seem. As argued by He Tianping in Sixth Tone, using the 2017 anti-corruption drama “In The Name of the People” as an example, zhengju are popular precisely because they allow viewers to “meme-ify” historical periods that are often off-limits in public discussion:
But zhengju showrunners are also finding that contemporary viewers are rarely satisfied with passively consuming their work; instead, fans are repurposing positive dramas, turning them into memes that subvert or even outright contradict the series’ original goals.
[…] As this online subculture evolves and goes mainstream, secondary content has become increasingly imaginative. The “meme-ification” of shows reflects the ways in which today’s audiences draw parallels between works of television and different cultural contexts or social realities. In the process of consuming media, they are contributing to its creation and reinterpretation — even media with serious political connotations and traditionally little room for alternative interpretations.
[…] If the show revolved around politics, corruption, and complex institutional power struggles, viewers’ reinterpretations of the series tended to eschew these dynamics in favor of idolizing an individual, Li, caught between the Party’s ideals and the realities of Chinese development. Although this hardly turns the show on its head, it nonetheless subverts the text of the script. [Source]
For now, authorities seem unconcerned with this trend. Indeed, an April Beijing Daily editorial expressed approval for the return of historical dramas as long as they “revert” to zhengju that draw the “correct” lessons from dynastic history:
“The Imperial Age,” a coming-of-age story about the Ming Dynasty Hongwu Emperor’s fourth son Zhu Di [later the Yongle Emperor], is currently a hit show on Beijing Satellite TV. As one of the few historical dramas to air in recent years, its grandeur has captivated viewers and earned it high praise. Historical dramas reversion to zhengju form both adheres to policy guidance and suits the demands and tastes of contemporary audiences.
[…] Market-oriented historical costume dramas became the fashion when producing zhengju historical dramas proved difficult. From “The Eloquent Ji Xiaolian” series to today’s costume dramas that blend history and “idol culture,” empresses and emperors have been the leading protagonists of historical dramas, a trend that has nearly always incurred audience criticism. These dramas are seen as over-the-top, historically inaccurate, and even misleading. A deluge of such shows has made it difficult for historical dramas to get past the censors. [Drama critic] Yang Wenshan revealed that in the past few years, all historical dramas with fictionalized plots have been required to undergo extensive rewrites. As such, historical dramas that embrace commercialism and eschew traditional zhengju storytelling methods, but are still able to meet broadcasting standards, have become increasingly rare.
[…] Zhengju historical dramas have shaken off their past torpor: once eschewed by young audiences as relics of the past, today they have cultivated a viewership capable of appreciating their storytelling aesthetic. Historical dramas currently in production should grasp the opportunity of this new era and respect history while also placing importance on innovation, to create new glory for zhengju historical dramas. [Chinese]
“A Love Never Lost” was mentioned in the above piece as an exemplary new-era “positive” historical drama. So what went wrong? The Hong Kong publication Sing Tao Daily quoted mainland filmmaker Hailin Wang’s speculation that the series was shelved because it was centered around the character of Liang Xian, modeled on Qing royalist Liangbi. Commentator Zeng Pengyu concurred, arguing that spotlighting a “counter-revolutionary figure” like Liang as the protagonist might lure youth into historical nihilism, potentially causing “doubt and vacillation about major national, ethnic, and historical questions.” Online speculation homed in on similar issues. On Zhihu and Douban, posters debated whether casting Liang Xiang as the protagonist was an endorsement of “royalism” and thus counter-revolutionary. One Sohu essayist argued that it was a good thing the show had been pulled, arguing that it “whitewashed” the Manchu Qing Dynasty. The essay included a screenshot of a Weibo post wherein a fan of the show wrote: “History isn’t necessarily the truth. History is written by the victors. Who wouldn’t want to write it as they please?”
The official Weibo account for “A Love Never Lost” has lain dormant since claiming the show was pulled for “technical issues” and asking fans for patience. That post is reminiscent of another from online e-commerce celebrity Li Jiaqi, whose livestream was shut down after he displayed an ice-cream cake with a striking resemblance to a tank on the eve of June 4. Li has yet to resume his livestreams. The fate of “A Love Never Lost” seems similarly unclear.