This summer is conquered by Chinese imperial concubines, again.

A long-expected period drama about a group of Qing Dynasty backstabbing concubines came to air online on Monday, closely following the overheated mania fuelled by another similar costume series that will release its final episode this week.

The latecomer, Ruyi’s Royal Love in The Palace, starring big names including the veteran actress Zhou Xun who had already won all the three top awards in the Greater China, gained more than 100 million viewers in the first half hour of its debut on Tencent’s video site.

The premiere of Ruyi has sent the stock price of Tencent-backed online publishing company China Literature Ltd.<0772.HK>, who has acquired Ruyi’s maker New Classics Media last week, to rebound from an one-year low, up 9.7 percent on Monday.

Screens in China had not seen such crowds ahead for period dramas since The Legend of Miyue grasped 10 billion views three year ago. But those imperial concubines are not only able to catch eyeballs of China’s coach potatoes. They help to build up international business while they play brains for emperor’s favor and power.

Ruyi’s screening delayed for more than half a year. Audiences who love palace intrigues had been waiting for too long that the foregoer, The Story of Yanxi Palace, even though it did not receive much gaze before its official launch on China’s biggest video-streaming site, has quickly satisfied the appetite of the hungry.

The Chinese Netflix iQiyi Inc.<GS.Nasdaq>, who co-produced and exclusively broadcasts the Yanxi, said on Tuesday the drama has attracted record cumulative views of over 10 billion, with a top-rated 15 percent average viewing ratio among programs at the same time-slot.

“Given almost the same cost as Yanxi, what Ruyi has achieved is nothing more than a straight and narrow result,” said Ivy Bao, senior researcher of China Online Video Research Centre.


International expansion

The Nasdaq-listed video company has aggressively tapped into oversea markets with the first foray towards the former British colony. The city’s Television Broadcasts Ltd. (TVB) <0511.HK> has acquired distribution rights for the series in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Malaysia.

Yanxi was the second Mainland-produced TV series to be aired in a prime time spot on TVB, following a martial-arts drama last year, also produced by iQiyi, but received much more applause from the public, as the Hong Kong Miss and popular actress Charmaine Sheh Sze-man starred in the show.

“A familiar face helps to build up connection with us,” said Crystal Tsang, a 54-year-old housewife living in the city who has followed the show for weeks. “We discuss the plots among neighbors and friends.”

To cater to the local taste, TVB has even ramped up Sheh’s part, adding half-an-hour shots to the Mainland’s version, helping the Yanxi to list at the third place of program ratings.

The revenge and romance stories, set in the court of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), were spread among audience in over 70 territories across the globe via similar agreements iQiyi has entered with other partners in Asia, making it the most widely distributed China-produced historical costume drama in the past decade, according to a statement of iQiyi.

China has more than 772 million internet users, boosting the video-streaming market to achieve a 95.2 billion yuan ($13.9 billion approx.) revenue last year. This number, enhanced by strong membership subscription, is expected to double in the coming pair of years, according to data of the official Internet Network Information Centre and the estimate of its research branch.

Open secret business

Chinese TV plays can also go global under table.

IQiyi releases two episodes of Yanxi a day. VIP subscribers have the privilege to watch four episodes in advance. But the entire play scripts were given away and widely spread on different social media just several days after its debut. Eager fans can even watch 10 more episodes from a Vietnamese video-streaming site than those smug VIP members.

The drama producer then cracked down these illegal leaks online, but has not yet explained the loopholes.

Foreign students in China might have contribution to these off-the-counter businesses. They transmit secretly-released shows with subtitles in their languages translated by themselves to the site operators in their countries.

“We understand both the languages and try to earn extra money via this job,” said Au Duong Lan, 22, Vietnamese studying Chinese Literature in Beijing. She told she was paid 7 million VND ($302 approx.) for the subtitle translation of a 50-min historical drama, which asks for higher-level understanding and command of the sophisticated ancient spoken Chinese.

The Asian market received the majority of Chinese TV play exports, especially those in the Greater China and ASEAN, while only a minimal and shrinking part arrived in the other continents, amid the cultural proximity gap and growing ideological penetration concerns of some potential importers.


Apart from the stories told by the official data, the subterranean outflux from the maturing Chinese market to its southeastern neighbors could be much more torrential.

“It has been an emerging trend that China, supported by international business giants, is reviving as a media capital where continued influence is being spilled out of its border, and dominating the regional entertainment market,” said David Guo, expert in global media flows of the Royal Holloway University of London.

It seems that those imperial concubines’ tactics are changing the direction of the global money flows and speeding it up.

“It is a big business that we carry these dramas – almost physically – to our home country where they have not yet been imported,” said Nguyen Long, 23, classmate of Au Duong, who were helping with her translation.

The British period drama Downton Abbey was firstly introduced in China by a group of Chinese freelance translators like Au Duong and Nguyen. Ruyi and Yanxi might be the latest versions of the Yorkshire to power the propellers of the industry.

“Such secret business did help to grow the consumer sentiment for cross-culture products,” Nguyen said.