The Story of Yanxi Palace, a 70-episode Internet drama which takes place during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and recounts the transformation of Wei Yingluo from a lady-in-waiting to a royal concubine to the mother of the future emperor during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-99), has proven to be a huge hit.
The show, which aired on Iqiyi.com and ended on August 26, was viewed nearly 14 billion times by August 28 and was also available in over 70 other countries and regions in Asia. In addition to its enthralling plot and the actors' skills, traditional cultural elements, such as embroidery and velvet flowers, which permeated the drama also aroused the public's interest.
In the drama, imperial concubine Gao dies of burns caused by melted iron fireworks which she had prepared in celebration of the birthday of the emperor's mother. Melted iron fireworks are a provincial intangible cultural heritage from north China's Hebei Province with over 500 years of history originating in Yuxian County in Zhangjiakou City.
It is said that in ancient times, blacksmiths who couldn't afford fireworks threw melted iron from spoons at the city walls creating images that resembled a tree with its branches spread out. That is why the art form is called dashuhua, which means striking tree flowers, in Chinese. Performers wear wet straw hats and thick sheepskin coats in order to prevent burns.
At the beginning of the show, the protagonist, Wei Yingluo, is shown to be one of the best embroiderers in the palace workshop. Beijing embroidery, also known as palace embroidery, can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and had been thriving during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties. It was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2014.
In addition, many of the costumes in the show employed Beijing embroidery. Zhang Hongye, a Beijing embroidery inheritor, said that over 50 embroiderers participated in the making of the show's costumes. One single dress for Emperor Qianlong took half a year to finish, using four kinds of techniques in Beijing embroidery in order to demonstrate the emperor's dignity.
Zhang said the drama has given her inspiration for spreading traditional embroidery. "Today, very few people born after 1990 choose to learn embroidery, but the drama has provided opportunities for intangible cultural heritage to exhibit its charm and attract attention from the public," she said.
In the show, Empress Fucha often wears velvet flowers instead of jewelry and jade in her hair in order to practice frugality and set an example for the concubines. Made of silk and copper wire, velvet flowers have auspicious connotations, since their Chinese name ronghua is also a homophone for "glory."
Velvet flowers were offered as tributes to the imperial palace during the Tang Dynasty and gained popularity among ordinary people during the Ming and Qing dynasties when they were used for weddings and festivals. The technique for making velvet flowers was listed as an intangible cultural heritage of Jiangsu Province in 2006.
Zhao Shuxian, an inheritor of the handicraft in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, said he and his apprentice spent nearly one month making 19 sets of velvet flowers for the show, which were used as hair accessories replicating artifacts on display at the Palace Museum. However, on other occasions, he said he adds fashionable elements to his design in order to draw young people's attention.
Kesi, a silk-weaving technique which was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2006, was used to make the royal concubines' round fans. Gu Jiandong, an inheritor of the technique from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, was invited by the show to make the props using kesi techniques.
The fan used by the emperor's mother in the show took 20 days to make and added Suzhou embroidery in order to make the image more lively and authentic, according to Gu. He said the show has helped to increase the sales of round fans using kesi techniques, leading to many young people contacting him wanting to learn the techniques.
Industry insiders said incorporating elements of intangible cultural heritage in a drama can help spread traditional culture. However, the effect depends on whether the film or drama is well made.
"We have always wanted to make a drama which weaves intangible cultural heritage elements into the story because young people need more diversified channels to learn about traditional culture. We want people to pay attention to intangible cultural heritage, especially to craftspeople who still persist in spreading traditional handicraft, in order to activate traditional culture," said Yang Le, CEO of Huanyu Entertainment, which co-produced the Internet drama.
"In order to better represent traditional culture, we invested heavily in costumes, makeup and props while maintaining the proportion of actors' salaries within a reasonable range in our budget," Yang added.
It's also notable that instead of featuring bright colors like most Qing Dynasty dramas do, the costumes in the drama sought to accurately reflect history. The costumes worn by the emperor and empress were designed and made based on original ones. The design team turned to a number of historical documents and visited museums and craftspeople in east China's Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces in order to learn about the aesthetics of the era.
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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