US audiences baffled by short Empresses

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2015-4-2 19:28:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

While the audience in China is still waiting for season 3 of House of Cards, which was released on Netflix in the US in late February but hasn't yet got the approval in China, the American audience can now watch Empresses in the Palace on the same streaming video service.

The TV series, which was released in 2011 and became one of the most watched dramas in China, has recently been added to the Netflix video library, providing a rare opportunity for the Netflix audience to watch a mainland TV drama in the Chinese language.

 Empresses is often compared with House of Cards by the Chinese media and local audience showed great interest in the American political series when its first two seasons were screened on entertainment websites in China.

The plots of the two shows, even though they are set almost 300 years apart, have a lot of similarities. Frank Underwood may have already been a cold-hearted and cool-minded politician when we first met the Congressman in the first series of House of Cards. Zhen Huan, on the other hand, is a smart but innocent 17-year-old girl newly picked to be a mistress for the emperor in an imperial harem.

But in the process of survival and gaining power, Zhen and Underwood have to adopt the same tactics. They hide any grudges and smile at people they hate. They set their competitors up for problems and stab the backs of others. They ally with smaller enemies to fight against a bigger enemy. They use other people's hands to kill and then kill the ones who know too much. Eventually, both defeat all their rivals to seize the ultimate positions of power, empress dowager for Zhen and US president for Underwood.

Fans have found some other characters in these two dramas are also interchangeable. For example, the Emperor and Frank's wife Claire Underwood, the Empress and assistant house minority whip Jackie Sharp, and An Lingrong, Zhen's friend-turned enemy, and Doug Stamper, Frank's chief of staff.

The surprisingly matching twists and turns may make the two dramas the best testament to how human behavior can be so similar in different parts of the world, different cultures, and different eras. But there is at least one more similarity between the shows that has nothing to do with the plots - they were both cut when they traveled across the Pacific Ocean.

House of Cards might be one of the lucky American shows that hasn't suffered too much from censorship in China. Season 2, which touched on corruption issues in China, surprisingly passed the censors intact. Still, a few lines and scenes in the first season were not shown to a Chinese audience because of political sensitivity.

 Empresses lost more. The 76 episodes of 45 minutes each were made into six 90-minute episodes on Netflix. While the audience may be happy to be able to finish the whole series in a day rather than weeks and even months, they may be left in confusion.

For example, American audiences may wonder why the voice of An Lingrong, who pleased the emperor with her singing, sounds different in the later episodes without knowing she lost her voice and, therefore, privilege, in the original version. And when Zhen Huan is pregnant with the twins of the emperor's brother, her true love, she tells her maid Huanbi that "my child is your child." This may also be hard to understand for American audience without knowing the maid is Zhen's half sister.

Empresses and House of Cards, as well as other American shows exported to China, are altered for different reasons. There were no political forces in the Empresses reduction in length but there were market forces. It's not likely that American audiences would have the patience to follow a Chinese historical drama for 76 episodes, especially when they have to read the subtitles.

While the Netflix version is too short for such a complex plot, the original version of Empresses clearly is too long. In China, producers tend to stretch the length of TV series so they can stick in more advertisements. Indeed, in terms of restraining creativity, market forces and the censor's scissors often can have the same results.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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