Ig­nit­ing Tra­di­tion

An In­ter­net drama kin­dles au­di­ences’ pas­sion for in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage

Beijing Review - - CULTURE - By Ji Jing

he Story of Yanxi Palace, a 70-episode In­ter­net drama which takes place dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) and re­counts the trans­for­ma­tion of Wei Yingluo from a lady-in-wait­ing to a royal con­cu­bine to the mother of the fu­ture em­peror dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Qian­long (1711-99), has proven to be a huge hit.

The show, which aired on Iqiyi.com and ended on Au­gust 26, was viewed nearly 14 bil­lion times by Au­gust 28 and was also avail­able in over 70 other coun­tries and re­gions in Asia. In ad­di­tion to its en­thralling plot and the ac­tors’ skills, tra­di­tional cul­tural el­e­ments, such as em­broi­dery and vel­vet flow­ers, which per­me­ated the drama also aroused the pub­lic’s in­ter­est.

In the drama, im­pe­rial con­cu­bine Gao dies of burns caused by melted iron fire­works which she had pre­pared in cel­e­bra­tion of the birth­day of the em­peror’s mother. Melted iron fire­works are a provin­cial in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage from north China’s He­bei Prov­ince with over 500 years of his­tory orig­i­nat­ing in Yux­ian County in Zhangji­akou City.

It is said that in an­cient times, black­smiths who couldn’t af­ford fire­works threw melted iron from spoons at the city walls cre­at­ing im­ages that re­sem­bled a tree with its branches spread out. That is why the art form is called dashuhua, which means strik­ing tree flow­ers, in Chi­nese. Per­form­ers wear wet straw hats and thick sheep­skin coats in order to pre­vent burns.

At the be­gin­ning of the show, the pro­tag­o­nist, Wei Yingluo, is shown to be one of the best em­broi­der­ers in the palace work­shop. Bei­jing em­broi­dery, also known as palace em­broi­dery, can be traced back to the Tang Dy­nasty (618907) and had been thriv­ing dur­ing the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dy­nas­ties. It was listed as a na­tional in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in 2014.

In ad­di­tion, many of the cos­tumes in the show em­ployed Bei­jing em­broi­dery. Zhang Hongye, a Bei­jing em­broi­dery in­her­i­tor, said that over 50 em­broi­der­ers par­tic­i­pated in the mak- ing of the show’s cos­tumes. One sin­gle dress for Em­peror Qian­long took half a year to fin­ish, us­ing four kinds of tech­niques in Bei­jing em­broi­dery in order to demon­strate the em­peror’s dig­nity.

Zhang said the drama has given her inspiration for spread­ing tra­di­tional em­broi­dery. “To­day, very few peo­ple born af­ter 1990 choose to learn em­broi­dery, but the drama has pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage to ex­hibit its charm and at­tract at­ten­tion from the pub­lic,” she said.

In the show, Em­press Fucha often wears vel­vet flow­ers in­stead of jew­elry and jade in her hair in order to prac­tice fru­gal­ity and set an ex­am­ple for the con­cu­bines. Made of silk and cop­per wire, vel­vet flow­ers have aus­pi­cious con­no­ta­tions, since their Chi­nese name ronghua is also a ho­mo­phone for “glory.”

Vel­vet flow­ers were of­fered as trib­utes to the im­pe­rial palace dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty and gained pop­u­lar­ity among or­di­nary peo­ple dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties when they were

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