Cleavage-cropping mainland censors trying to redress Tang dynasty’s sexy norm, say experts

A few days later, the 80-episode series, which cost nearly $50 million and stars Fan Bingbing as Empress Wu, was given a surgical makeover when it was rebroadcast on Hunan TV. But the censors' scalpel was not subtle: A medium shot that had revealed the plunging neckline of a Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) woman was hastily changed to an extreme close-up that obscured the actress's neck.

Producers of the show said on social media that the outage was due to “technical issues,” but even Xinhua was unable to extract an official explanation from China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), which monitors China's airwaves. The news agency noted that “many viewers speculated” that the outage was due to “revealing outfits,” with online commenters describing a female character on the show as having her “breasts groped.”

The re-edited version was met with ridicule, with critics rebranding the show “The Legend of Big Head Wu.” Viewers took to the Internet to air their dissatisfaction, with many criticizing the show for not only her ample breasts, but also for her lack of voluptuous figure. It has also been said that during the Tang Dynasty, the hands and most of the body below the chin were cut off, making it difficult to follow the action.

“There was a scene where someone passed a fan to someone else, but I never saw the fan and only knew what was happening through the dialogue,” one viewer wrote on a popular TV and film website.

Raymond Zhou, a film critic and pop culture commentator, The censors were concerned that the breasts were too exposed. It's not historically accurate. “All the paintings from the Tang dynasty show women of that time exposing their cleavage,” he says. “In fact, [TV] “Period drama”

Fan Bingbing plays Wu Meinian in the TV drama “The Last Empress.”

Rumor has it that “some retired old officials” watched the show and complained, Zhou said. “That's possible, but this kind of thing can never be proven,” he said.

Zhou said older audience members who have previously seen the Peking Opera version of Empress Wu may have been conditioned to expect more modest costumes, as traditionally men play both male and female roles and often wear what Zhou called “a kind of white shawl that covers the neck.”

“Generations of Chinese people have been exposed to this and believe that this is how Chinese people wore clothes in the Tang Dynasty,” he said. “This is not true.”

Zhou said CCTV had aired similar exposés of the Tang dynasty before, but regulators “didn't frown upon it.” The increased scrutiny this time may be because the show aired on Hunan TV, a popular channel that produces shows for the masses and has run afoul of central government watchdogs in the past, he said.

“It became an issue because Hunan TV has such a large audience,” he said. “If the series had aired on another channel, it wouldn't have been an issue because only a small percentage of the audience would have watched it.”

The unrest comes as Chinese authorities, led by President Xi Jinping, have launched a vocal campaign in recent months to rid films, television programmes and other cultural productions of material they deem vulgar or inappropriate.

Chinese women in the 21st century must be modern, but at the same time uphold Chinese values ​​and traditions.

Anthropologist Wen Hua

For example, censorship agency SAPPRFT has vowed to impose stricter restrictions on foreign TV shows and films that are currently distributed online largely uncensored through video portals. was taken offline last year. Censors also demanded last-minute changes in December to a highly anticipated 1920s Chinese period drama. .

Xi, who has increasingly placed emphasis on Confucianism as the touchstone of the nation's culture, gave a major speech to a gathering of artists last fall in which he called arts and culture “indispensable contributors” to the dream of national rejuvenation.

“Popular does not mean vulgarity, and hope does not mean greed,” the president warned writers, actors and other audience members. “Purely sensual entertainment does not lead to spiritual exhilaration.”

Wen Hua, an anthropologist and author of the 2013 book “The World of the Year,” said: states that the image of women has always been closely linked to the image of a nation, and today is no exception.

She says that the Tang dynasty was more open when it came to revealing breasts, due to the influence of ethnic minority cultures, contact with foreigners, and a prosperous economy. But during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Confucian culture had a strong influence on female gender roles and perceptions of beauty, which prized an “effeminate and fragile type.” After the death of the last emperor in 1911, norms changed again.

With official support for Confucianism on the rise in the 21st century, “it is true that there is growing nostalgia and national sentiment for 'Oriental beauty' that emphasizes the characteristics of Chinese beauty, in which a beautiful Chinese woman should be modern but at the same time respect Chinese values ​​and traditions,” Wen said.

Yet modern attempts to diminish Wu's ample bust line are at odds not only with centuries of history, but also with harsh geography. Wu, the only woman to have ruled China in her own name, was buried next to her husband, Emperor Gaozong, when she died in 705, about 50 miles northwest of today's city of Xi'an. Her tomb lies between two great hills, each with a watchtower at the top.

British author Jonathan Clements wrote in his 2007 biography: describes the topography on page one of his book: “Local legend says that the mound reminded Emperor Gojong of the breasts of the woman he risked the empire to marry,” he writes.

This article appeared in the print edition of the South China Morning Post: Excessive Bust

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