Two recent dramas offer new explanations to why the wife of Emperor Qianlong cut her hair—and got herself banished from court

Dueling costume dramas Story of Yanxi Palace and Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace have racked up a minimum combined 17 billion views, respectively, on iQiyi and Tencent’s streaming platforms.

Besides sharing a release and cast of characters based on the court of Qing Emperor Qianlong, both shows portray one of the greatest mysteries of the Qing dynasty—the sudden downfall of Qianlong’s second wife, the “Step Empress” Hoifa-Nara, supposedly for cutting her hair.

The Step Empress is understandably fascinating: Though it has never been confirmed that she was felled by a haircut, the theory was already widespread at the time of the incident in 1764. Given the well-known taboo against imperial consorts cutting their hair except at the death of the emperor or empress dowager (both still alive in this case), it’s easy to see her actions as defiance. Her portrayal as the titular character of Ruyi, a strong-minded woman seeking love and survival in the perilous palace, has also ignited new interest in her apparent rebellion as an example of proto-feminist agency.

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author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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