Tremble and obey
Why stressed-out Chinese fall for melodrama about life in the imperial court
A bit surprisingly, one of the best things about the "Story of Yanxi Palace", a television drama about an 18th-century emperor that has broken Chinese viewing records this year, is watching concubines being rude to eunuchs.
Even less predictably, the particular rudeness—combining scorn, resentment and a dash of fear—offers insights into how Chinese people cope with life in today's ruthless and unequal society.
An early scene shows the Qianlong emperor's chief eunuch, a tubby, squeaky dimwit, bustling into a silk-draped waiting-room with an order for the harem.
Return to your quarters, he announces, the emperor is working late.
"What? His majesty is sleeping alone again?" grumbles Noble Consort Gao, a boo-hiss villain.
"Let's go," she tells her fellow concubines, stalking past the eunuch without a glance.
"What else is there to wait for?"
"Yanxi Palace" is a gorgeously costumed fantasy, filled with poisonings, betrayals and young women competing for the Forbidden City's great prize: being bedded by the emperor.
"Join the army, you might as well become a general," as one ambitious recruit to the harem chirps.
The show is driven by female characters, including a kind but sickly empress, murderous concubines
and—at the heart of the 70-episode epic—Wei Yingluo, a quick-witted, justice-seeking maid, who rises to become Qianlong's beloved consort.
The formula is wildly popular, drawing 700m live-streaming views on the drama's best single day, in August.
Yet that night-time scene in the harem reflects some bleak realities of court life.
The eunuch is ridiculous, and obsequious to high-ranking concubines.
But he is also terrifying.
For the concubines live only to please his master, the emperor, an absolute ruler in whose name the guilty and innocent alike are shown being jailed, executed or exiled without hope of appeal.
The Forbidden City is a crimson-walled tyranny, filled with spies.
Noble Consort Gao's drawling insolence in the face of rejection is, in the end, bravado.
She is privileged, cosseted and ready to hurt those below her in the pecking order.
But in this system she has no individual rights.
And she does not challenge its rules.