China's Costume Drama Television Ban Is A Political Mystery

The National Radio and Television Administration has issued a ban on historic melodrama in time for the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. A billion-dollar industry is turned upside down.

The series Ruyi's Royal Love in Palace was slapped by the NRTA
The series Ruyi's Royal Love in Palace was slapped by the NRTA
Lu Xixi

BEIJING — In recent months, China has been going through a campaign of name-changing for roads, hotels and communities. To "protect Chinese culture" and promote "a positive and upwards spirit," foreign names are being replaced by fresh-sounding Chinese names. For example, a "Manhattan Square" in Zhejiang Province has been renamed "Sunny Valley."

This cheerful, patriotic trend has also spread to the film and television industry. Thus, a TV series originally titled as "The countercurrent of sorrow" has been renamed "The flowing good time." Another series called "In New York" is now "I'm waiting for you in Beijing."

However, this is nothing compared to the endless rectifications and bans imposed on Chinese TV over the past decades. The most dramatic one arose after a rumor began to circulate on the internet on March 22nd:

"The National Radio and Television Administration, referred to as NRTA hereafter, has issued a ban. From now until the end of June (some say that it's until the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China on October 1st), all costume dramas are regulated. Those already online should be taken off. Those not yet released are not to be posted."

It is getting increasingly hard for a production to know if it can ever be released.

In recent years, NRTA's various instructions have rarely been issued through proper official documents, but rather in the form of private telephone calls and face-to-face notifications to avoid leaving "evidence" for dissemination. Therefore, nobody dared ignore the circulating hearsay.

It is the first time that the Chinese government has targeted a certain type of TV drama. "Costume drama" is more than a single film and television theme, comprising a wide range of productions that can involve stories about imperial palaces, power struggles, martial arts, and historical events. It also includes series adopted from literary classics. According to the China TV Drama Industry Development Report of 2018, China's TV drama market is valued at over a 100 billion RMD ($14.5 billion), of which costume drama makes up the strongest sector for internet audience. In the nearly four decades since China's opening-up, the TV series with top ratings are mostly costume drama, accounting for approximately half of the industry's output.

Needless to say, the entire TV film production industry went into a state of panic upon hearing the new state controls. Big or small, all the producers were like ants on a hot stove due to the pressure of not knowing whether they would be able to recover their costs.

"I had three web TV series waiting to be launched online in March, two of which are costume dramas. If I don't have the paybacks within six months I won't be able to pay the wages of nearly a hundred staff," said Li Li who owns a small TV production company.

It was just as catastrophic for major Chinese online video platforms such as Tencent, iQiyi and Youku, since other series must be found as a matter of urgency to replace the originally programed costume dramas.

The NRTA has never concealed its direct intervention in the film and television market.

As Chinese media data showed, as of late March, as many as 30 costume dramas were postponed from going online, many of which were eagerly expected with big casts starring popular actresses like Zhang Ziyi.

However, as many industry insiders also admitted, the seemingly absurd decision that brought such chaos didn't really come as a surprise. As the Chinese authority for the TV and film industry, the NRTA has never concealed its direct intervention in the film and television market. In 2010, Li Jingsheng, its director openly claimed that "the administration will manage and interfere with overexploited TV series themes."

And in effect, even before he openly declared this, many of the most popular home dramas, whether costume, screen idol or realist drama, or even animation, had all experienced preemptory bans once they became too hot. This would be unimaginable in the capitalist world – where surely the more popular a series genre is the more it would be produced and aired. Saturation of a genre would be naturally regulated by the market.

However, the controlling Chinese mentality never puts faith in the market. What is considered to be "overexploited" is entirely decided by the regulatory authorities.

It is said that last year's two most beloved Chinese TV series – Story of Yanxi Palace and Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace, both about palace power struggles – had been heavily criticized by the NRTA, which may have been what sparked the explicit targeting of costume dramas.

Chinese costume dramas have to adhere to the guidelines of "small budget, big feeling and positive energy" – Photo: Ashes of Love

This is not only due, as the Chinese saying goes, to "the big tree attracts the strong wind," but also because 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up, and the People's Republic is celebrating its 70th birthday this year. China's recreational and creative sectors are naturally required to match this "important historical moment" and related political requirements.

As early as spring 2018, the NRTA has been repeatedly emphasizing that radio and television programs ought to follow the principles of "small budget, big feeling and positive energy," and "show a new aspect of telling the spirit and story of today's times."

People's Daily, the megaphone of the Chinese Communist party, also issued an essay setting the tone: "In recent years, as the series of costume dramas starring young actors showed, their market effect and audience reputation have failed to meet expectations. The sloppy production, poor acting and superficial content have become common features of these so-called IP costume dramas."

In such a context, it is no wonder that costume dramas that commonly require big budgets and don't correspond to the profile of "demonstrating a prosperous and strong motherland" become politically suspect.

That being said, why hasn't the TV industry adapted to the authorities' preference for modern dramas? This is another story, explains Le Chen, a producer.

The whole sector is really at a loss.

"First, the film and television industry has a natural lag period. From the approval of a project to the launch online, an average medium-sized drama takes at least half a year or as long as two to three years," Le Chen explains. "Sudden and abrupt administrative prohibitions from the NRTA don't allow us enough time to react. Besides, subjects for modern dramas have become increasingly limited in recent years. For modern fantasy dramas, ghosts, monsters, gods and monks are not allowed in stories. So this more or less leaves us with nothing to offer."

Because of the further tightening of the NRTA's policy since 2017, as of the first half of 2018, the film and television sector's growth rate has dropped by nearly 5% compared with the year before.

"The whole sector is really at a loss," says another producer, who preferred to remain anonymous. "While it was relatively easier to figure out what content may be not allowed, such as nudity or violence, there are no more rules nowadays. The controlling standards have become opaque. It is getting increasingly hard for a production to know if it can ever be released."

All of this may be due to the fact that the NRTA itself is going through a restructuring closely related to the "collective reform and integration of the state departments." On June 3rd, one of the year's most highly anticipated costume dramas, "Novoland-Eagle Flag," was suspended just 19 minutes before its first broadcast. Nobody knows exactly why.

"Helpless, everybody is getting superstitious," quips Bai Huali (pseudonym), a screenwriter. "People turn to either Buddha or a fortuneteller for help and mental tranquility." Even modern drama comes with an ancient twist.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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