Yanxi Palace: Princess Adventures debuted as a series on Netflix on December 31, 2019, following its much loved and well-known predecessor, The Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略). The Story of Yanxi Palace was the most widely Googled show in 2018, despite Google being blocked in China. Yanxi Palace was originally released on iQiyi, the Chinese equivalent of Netflix, and enjoyed overwhelming success with over 15 billion views during its 5-week run on various streaming services. This overwhelming success at home and abroad later led to cutting criticism from China’s Communist Party, which attacked several period dramas for their portrayal of extravagance. As a result, Yanxi Palace was pulled from several Chinese streaming platforms. While there are several potential reasons for this dramatic shift in attitude, the Chinese government never extensively substantiated their claims and various explanations remain largely speculative.
Considering Netflix is not currently available in China without a Virtual Private Network (VPN), Yanxi Palace: Princess Adventures targets the international audience which latched onto the original series. The global reach of Yanxi Palace was debatably one of the primary concerns that led the Communist Party to denounce the show; however, the migration of Princess Adventures does not prove China has washed its hands of the series entirely. Although Princess Adventures is advertised as a Netflix original (replacing iQiyi), it is co-produced by the same Chinese production company, Huanyu Film. It also features some of the major actors and actresses from the original, including the main protagonist, Wei Yingluo, played by Wu Jinyan. Further, all television shows in China must be approved by the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA or 国家广播电视总局), previously known as the SAPPRFT. The NRTA is a ministry under the Chinese State Council, and is thus responsible for censoring programs in adherence with governmental standards. Considering the broad reach and subsequent backlash against the original Yanxi Palace, additional scrutiny of any potential spin-offs by the same Chinese production company with the same cast would be inevitable.
Princess Adventures feels like a toned-down version of its predecessor, a potential indication of the NRTA’s influence. The plot focuses on two princesses — one of whom is the daughter of Wei Yingluo — and their fight to win the affection of a Mongolian prince. In comparison to the original, there is notably less information about the state of the Qing dynasty in which it is set, and the malice between characters remains entwined with the primary storyline of a contested romance. Unlike Yanxi Palace’s depiction of a character’s rise to power, Princess Adventures stays focused on those in power and their determination to remain there.
On a larger scale, Princess Adventures may prove part of Netflix’s strategy to expand in the East Asian market, despite being banned in China. It is, however, not the first move Netflix has made to fortify its selection of Chinese films and shows. In May 2019, Netflix added The Princess Weiyoung (锦绣未央) to its streaming services, another extremely popular historical drama. If Netflix can continue to entice both Chinese and international viewers by acquiring popular shows (Nirvana in Fire 琅琊榜, for example), it could begin to replicate Netflix’s success in the South Korean market. Similar to Netflix’s production of original content for South Korean audiences, including period dramas like Mr. Sunshine (미스터 션샤인) and zombie thrillers like Kingdom (킹덤), Netflix could similarly target Chinese viewers and tap into the audience of nearly 40 million Mandarin speakers outside of China.
Yanxi Palace ultimately speaks to what the Chinese government and its standards for censorship are willing to tolerate. Yanxi Palace was deemed inappropriate for its extravagant portrayal of Chinese history, and Princess Adventures appears to pose a continued “threat” to domestic audiences. The continuation of Yanxi Palace through Princess Adventures on Netflix then implies that this apparent threat does not extend to international audiences or Chinese abroad. Despite being banned in China, Netflix’s attempt to enter the Chinese market will undoubtedly spread Chinese culture as international viewers consume content targeted for Chinese audiences. By giving Netflix approval to produce shows like Princess Adventures, China is effectively increasing its cultural soft power by simply allowing content that is censored domestically to stream beyond its borders.