China TV series runs afoul of censors for showing too much cleavage

TV drama 'The Empress of China' stays true to period with a lot of cleavage, but China censors disagree

Shapely breasts, often more ample than Mother Nature bestowed, are objects of desire and status symbols in China these days.

Posters featuring buxom ladies touting the benefits of boob jobs, herbal supplements, creams or other methods to boost one's bust are frequently seen by anyone getting into a taxi or an elevator in central Beijing.

"The happiest women can expose their proud, vital curves," says one advertisement in circulation. "Autologous fat breast enhancement can create a legendary breast."

It's a far cry from the time, a century ago, when many Chinese women bound their chests and feet in an effort to attain a more ideal femininity.

Given such a shift in mainstream aesthetics, it came as a surprise to the Chinese public when a highly anticipated period TV drama, "The Empress of China," also known as the "Legend of Wu Meiniang," was yanked off the air in late December, apparently because its 7th century courtesans were showing more decolletage than government watchdogs found appropriate.

Days later, the 80-episode series, featuring A-lister Fan Bingbing as Empress Wu and produced at the extraordinary cost of nearly $50 million, was back on Hunan TV after some surgical procedures, so to speak. But the censors' scalpel was hardly subtle; medium shots that previously showed the plunging necklines of ladies of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) were hastily converted to extreme close-ups that often cut actresses off at the neck.

Producers of the show announced via social media that "technical problems" were the cause of the hiatus, and even the state-run New China News Agency could not elicit an official explanation from the tight-lipped State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which polices China's airwaves. But the news agency noted that "many viewers speculated" that the suspension was due to the "revealing costumes," which led online commentators to dub the show's female characters "squeezed breasts."

The re-edited version has been met with derision, with critics rechristening the program as "The Legend of Big Head Wu." Viewers took to the Internet to voice their displeasure, noting not only that ample breasts were au courant during the Tang era but also that the trims, which left hands and most other body parts below the chin on the cutting room floor, also made the action more difficult to follow.

"There was a scene where someone handed a fan to the other person, but I totally couldn't see the fan, only got to know what happened through the dialogue," wrote one viewer on the popular TV and film website Douban.com.

Raymond Zhou, a film critic and pop culture commentator for the state-run China Daily newspaper, said censors could not logically argue that the degree of bosom exposure in "The Empress of China" was historically inaccurate. "All the paintings from Tang Dynasty show that Chinese ladies from that era showed a lot of cleavage," he said. "Actually, much more than in the [TV] costume drama."

Zhou said that according to one rumor, some "old, retired officials" saw the program and lodged a complaint. "It's possible," he said, "but you can never verify this kind of thing."

Zhou said that older viewers, who may have watched Peking opera versions of the Empress Wu story, might have been conditioned to expect more modest costumes. That's because in Peking opera, actors traditionally perform both the male and female parts and often wear what Zhou described as a "white, shawl-like thing that covered up their neck."

"Generations of Chinese were exposed to this and believe this is the way Chinese in the Tang Dynasty wore their clothes," he said. "But this is not true."

State broadcaster CCTV has run similarly revealing Tang Dynasty programs, Zhou said, but those did not "raise an eyebrow" with regulators. The added scrutiny this time, he said, may be because the program aired on the widely watched Hunan TV, which has a populist approach to programming and has run afoul of central government watchdogs before.

"Hunan TV has such a big audience, so it became an issue," he said. "If this series was shown on any other channel, it wouldn't have become a problem because only a fraction of the audience would have seen it."

The bosom brouhaha comes as Chinese authorities, starting with President Xi Jinping, have launched a vocal campaign in recent months to wipe what they deem vulgar and improper elements out of movies, TV programs and other cultural works.

For example, SAPPRFT, the censorship agency, has vowed to impose stricter regulations on foreign TV shows and movies that are streamed online, largely uncut, through video portals. A few popular programs, including "The Big Bang Theory," were taken offline last year. Censors also demanded last-minute alterations in December to the highly anticipated 1920s period Chinese film, "Gone With the Bullets."

Xi, who has increasingly invoked Confucianism as a national cultural touchstone, made a major speech to a gathering of artists in the fall, calling art and culture "an indispensable contributor" to the "Chinese dream of national rejuvenation."

"Popularity should not necessitate vulgarity and hope should not entail covetousness," Xi admonished the writers, actors and others. "Pure sensual entertainment does not equate to spiritual elation."

Wen Hua, an anthropologist and author of the 2013 book "Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China," said that the image of women has always been closely related to the image of the nation.

In terms of breast exposure, she said, the Tang Dynasty was more open because of the influence of minority cultures, interchange with foreign visitors and a prosperous economy. But in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, she said, Confucianist culture had a strong influence on women's gender roles as well as the perception of beauty, and "effeminate and frail types" were prized. After the fall of the last emperor in 1911, norms shifted again.

With official endorsements of Confucianism on the rise in the 21st century, Wen noted that "there is indeed increasing nostalgia and national sentiment of 'Oriental beauty' to underline the features of Chinese beauty, in which beautiful Chinese women are supposed to be modern … and yet at the same time uphold Chinese values and traditions."

Still, contemporary efforts to diminish Empress Wu's ample bustline are up against not only centuries of history, but also stark geographical reminders.

When she died in 705, Wu — the only woman to rule China in her own name — was entombed next to her husband, Emperor Gaozong, about 50 miles northwest of the modern city of Xian. The tomb sits between two large hills, each topped with a watchtower.

British author Jonathan Clements, in his 2007 biography, "Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God," takes note of the topography on Page 1 of his book.

"Local legend," he writes, "claims the mounds reminded Gaozong of the breasts of the woman he risked his empire to marry."

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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