Emperors that broke the stereotype of being serial philanderers

Web romance drama Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace (《如懿传》), sequel to 2011’s hit TV series Empresses in the Palace  (《甄嬛传》), has been played 400 million times on Tencent’s streaming platform since it first aired on August 27, but history buffs are up in arms about the caddish depiction of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty, actually one of the more “faithful” rulers in Chinese history.

The second-longest reigning emperor in Chinese history, Qianlong is usually depicted as a casanova in Chinese lishiju (历史剧, historical drama), particularly in the gongtingju (宫廷剧, palace drama) and gongtouju (宫斗剧, palace rivalry drama) TV genres. Aside from Ruyi, the recently ended Story of Yanxi Palace (《延禧攻略》) also featured Qianlong, his two empresses and army of concubines, while the iconic 1998 series My Fair Princess (《还珠格格》) told the fictional story of Qianlong’s illegitimate daughter from an affair.

It’s not exactly the show producers’ fault: Emperors throughout history usually had many empresses and concubines—if not quite as many as “three thousand,” as claimed in the 9th century epic poem Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌)—and both the regular and sexual politics of the imperial harem could be deadly. Renowned imperial concubine Huarui Furen (花蕊夫人, “Lady Flower Bud”)  wrote, “可怜红颜总薄命,最是无情帝王家 (Pity that beauties have short lives, married to the most heartless imperial families),” leading to the stereotype of emperors as serial philanderers and consort-abusers.

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author Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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