Cleavage Cut as Chinese TV's Sexy Historical Drama Returns

Hunan TV
'The Empress of China'

'The Empress of China' fell foul of an ongoing morality crusade and now focuses on talking heads rather than heaving bosoms

The historical costume drama The Empress of China, pulled from Chinese TV screens for "technical reasons" believed to be related to its racy costumes, is back on TV, edited to show the characters' heads, rather than their cleavage.

The Empress of China, also known as the Saga of Wu Zetian, dramatizes the life of China's only female emperor, who ruled during the Tang Dyansty (618 to 907). It is reportedly China's most expensive TV drama, and it features Fan Bingbing, who played Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past and was in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3.

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The Chinese government has been on a crusade to introduce greater modesty and morality into public life, and this has translated into tougher censorship rules for TV and movies.

The cleavage shots would not raise many eyebrows in the West, but China has very strict standards on public displays of nudity. This situation also shows the challenges that more risque shows like HBO's Game of Thrones will face when new broadcasting restrictions are introduced in coming months.

The Empress of China began broadcasting Dec. 21, 2014, but was removed a week later by commercial satellite station Hunan TV, with the producers claiming "technical reasons."

"Many viewers speculated the suspension was a punishment given by the country's television regulators for the much-discussed revealing costumes of female characters on the show, which stirred online debate in which the female characters were dubbed 'squeezed breasts,' " the official news agency Xinhua reported.

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The show's first episode broke records for TV drama viewership, local media reported, with the actresses' low-cut dresses even giving an overly excited photographer a nosebleed during shooting, according to the news site ent.163.com.

Online reactions to the show's demise and subsequent restoration varied. Some wrote how the close-ups of the faces made the narrative hard to follow, but others were disturbed by the cleavage displays.

"I can hardly look at the TV, as there are so many breasts..." Jingjingmi-ko wrote on the microblog Sina Weibo.

Guidelines released late last year from the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) cover scenes of one-night stands, extramarital affairs, partner-swapping, flirtation, rape, incest, necrophilia, prostitution, sexual perversion and masturbation.

SAPPRFT has also decreed that historical drama series — a wildly popular genre in China — should not exceed 15 percent of the total primetime output.

In September, China’s broadcasting regulator said it must approve all foreign TV shows before they can be posted on video sites and that sites must pull unapproved shows by early next year. There are fears the rules could delay screenings by six months and open the way for piracy.

In 2006, Gong Li’s dramatically eye-catching decolletage in Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower caused a renewed debate about the need for a ratings system in China's cinemas.

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