Zhen Huan Zhuan(甄嬛傳), or Empresses in the Palace, is a 2011 historical drama adapted from an online romance novel. As its title indicates, the story of Zhen Huan Zhuan focuses on the life of the royal concubine Zhen Huan. Since its first appearance, it has enjoyed a lasting popularity among its fans. Capitalizing on this popularity, streaming service provider Netflix released a shortened/adapted version of the show for Western audiences in 2015. 

The Netflix adaptation changed the original 76 episodes, 45 minutes each, into 6 episodes, 90 minutes each and did not acquire the popularity of its original. In fact, it received criticism from Chinese viewers about eliminating the details from the original: what gave the series its charm. Now, Netflix has stopped offering the adaptation of Zhen Huan Zhuan, and Letv.com has uploaded the 76 original episodes on Youtube.

Zhen Huan Zhuan’s Overseas Poster, Image Credit to Prime Video

To look into this controversy, US-China Today interviewed Professor Wanlin Li, who is an associate professor at the School of Foreign Languages at Peking University. Her research focuses on 19th century American Literature, Gothic literature, narratology, and cinematic adaptations. In 2022, she published a paper examining the cultural intricacies of adapting Zhen Huan Zhuan. 

First let’s discuss the cultural difference behind direct and indirect language behind the failure of the Netflix [TV series] Zhen Huan Zhuan. Do you think there is a possibility for audiences from Western tradition, known to favor direct language, to understand and even appreciate the literary and more implicit expressions of Zhen Huan Zhuan?

I think I’m a little reluctant to call the adaptation of Zhen Huan Zhuan a failure. Even though it was not as successful on Netflix as the original was in China, I think it is still a worthy attempt in terms of finding out some of the possible ways in which Chinese TV drama could be adapted for a trans-cultural audience, or for potential Western audiences. … But I have to admit that some elements in the original show present challenges for both the producers and the viewers to understand and to appreciate what is going on in the drama, the indirect way of communication between the characters being one of them. That said, I do not think that Western audience[s] or viewers would necessarily have great difficulty in understanding indirect expressions, although, as you’ve mentioned earlier, they do favor direct expressions. I believe that we all have an innate ability to grasp linguistic subtleties, regardless of our cultural backgrounds.

A clear illustration of this is when I looked at YouTube, IMDB, and Amazon, where there are purchasers or customers of the TV show leaving comments (I assume, since they were commenting in English, that they were probably Anglophone viewers). I saw that their comments show their accurate understanding and appreciation of the subtle ways of expression, and of the literary qualities of its language.

So Western audiences often can and do understand those subtle expressions in the show, but some familiarity with Chinese culture, the Chinese linguistic and literary tradition, and also some interest in dynastic China in general would of course facilitate the understanding and appreciation. Because you can assume that someone who is interested in Chinese culture, who has some background knowledge of how Chinese people from this period of time conversed with each other, would be better at understanding and appreciating the dialogues.

Zhen Huan Zhuan has many scenes where there was no verbal but just facial expressions. [Could audiences] interpret that as universal?

I think that is one of the places where the subtlety of the show finds expression, that is, when the characters’ facial expressions convey their actual attitude or their unarticulated opinion beyond what is being expressed verbally. … I would say that it’s universal to use nonverbal signs in communication, but it’s probably not so universal for TV shows to use them at such a frequency as you encounter in Zhen Huan Zhuan. The nonverbal signs also sometimes directly contradict the verbal messages in a way that dramatizes the dilemmas of the characters in the show (that they cannot speak their minds directly). They are also thematically important in the sense that they reveal the influence of a valued compositional principle in Chinese literary history, that is, indirection. This strong characteristic of the show might of course escape the notice of viewers unfamiliar with the Chinese linguistic and cultural tradition, but again nonverbal signs belong to subtle forms of expressions that western viewers can and often do register. It is just that their constant exposure to direct ways of expression makes a sudden transition to indirect communication difficult, at least at first.

As I said earlier, I think we all have that innate ability to understand something subtle. We have also been constantly trained to do so, since almost all forms of artistic expressions with which we are surrounded have some degree of subtlety, and need to be decoded or deciphered. What follows is that it becomes the destiny of utterances to be interpreted in ways not always predictable or controllable. For non-Chinese viewers, or people who are not used to this form of expression, they might find it challenging at first, but they would adapt. 

What is your opinion on the everlasting appeal of Zhen Huan Zhuan 10 years after its premiere?

Not only [did] Zhen Huan Zhuan achieve immediate success after its first appearance back in 2011, the success actually lasted for many years afterwards. … I think a number of factors contributed to that lasting interest. One is the seemingly universal applicability of its scenarios. Its fans find many of its aspects applicable to different sorts of situations. 

To take its dynamics of human interactions as an example. The way that people interact with each other in the show is interesting and distinct in a way that has modern applications. What we see on the show is that people don’t stay friends or enemies forever. They form alliances, drift away from, or turn completely against each other because of their changing circumstances. I think that is a very realistic portrayal of human relations, that dynamic way that people interact with each other. We can easily find similar ways of human interactions in many modern-day scenarios.

A second and perhaps more important factor that gave the show enduring vitality is really the creativity of its fans. They can adapt the show in all kinds of creative ways. They reenacted parts of the show themselves; they revised the storyline or the ending of a certain character by simply placing shots from the show in a different order; they created trailers of a “modern version” of the show by piecing together shots of the main characters as appear in other modern-day dramas; they even turned parts of the show into a video game. This endless creativity is, I think, also one of the ways in which the enormous fandom of Zhen Huan Zhuan show their respect and support to a show that has been so beautifully written and so meticulously produced.

Recently the HBO original series House of the Dragons attracted a global interest. Little Red Book users were discussing the parallels between characters. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

(Note: Little Red Book, or Xiaohongshu, is a popular Chinese social media platform)

As audience members, we often make comparisons between a new show we are following and the ones with which we are already familiar. That’s one of the important ways in which we assimilate a foreign cultural element or a foreign cultural product into our system of knowledge. It’s also a more or less universal way of learning, so I’m not surprised when people try to draw parallels between these characters. I think another factor that may account for this phenomenon is that fans of both shows derive a great deal of fun from making such comparisons, or from the cognitive process of realizing how much these characters resemble each other. Fans of each individual show may also find this an interesting way of interacting with each other. 

You have mentioned that cultural elements may resonate more easily with Asian audiences. But how can such elements be more appealing for Western audiences, if Netflix suddenly decides to readapt Zhen Huan Zhuan?

I think the show, as it stands now, already offers a number of attractions for western viewers, which actually constitute a main reason why the show was chosen for transpacific adaptation in the first place. To begin with, the storyline, the qualities of the characters, the visual aspects of the show, including the ancient Chinese buildings, the beautiful costumes, the intricate body decorations, such as the fingernail extensions, all appeal to Western audiences. The female characters, in particular, are attractive, since all of them are very strong and opinionated women, with a clear sense of self not easily thwarted by external pressures.

These kinds of female characters actually coincide to a great degree with the American or the Western conception of strong women in terms of their independence of mind. So such depictions of women already hold appeal to Western viewers. I thus don’t think the difficulty of adaptation lies in the fact that there’s nothing in the original story that can attract western viewers or that the western viewers can sympathize with. There’re actually plenty of such materials there. I do think that many western viewers may need more knowledge of the Chinese culture to understand the uniquely Chinese elements better. However, I do not think that building up that knowledge is something that can be accomplished overnight, so instead of offering any straightforward advice for “improvement” in individual adaptational practices, I’d suggest that we work towards facilitating a mutual cultural understanding in all possible ways. 

It seems that Netflix does have many Chinese TV shows available on their service. What do you think this might show about Netflix’s relationship with Chinese content? Do you think Chinese Netflix is actively attempting to draw Chinese audiences to their service?

Given how vast the Chinese market is, I think it would absolutely be in Netflix’s best interest to try to attract Chinese users. … But if you take the exchange rate in consideration, I think their pricing is still quite steep for Chinese audiences, so I think many Chinese netizens might choose to subscribe to a local or a China-based online streaming service for a lower price.

But I do believe that Chinese content is still, strategically speaking, important to Netflix, since there are many potential overseas Chinese viewers or non-Chinese viewers who are simply interested in Chinese content. This latter group is expanding in number as the influence of the Chinese language enlarges worldwide. So, from marketing perspective, I would say that Netflix or other mainstream online streaming service providers would obviously want to attract a Chinese audience.

Do you have anything else to add? 

To further clarify, although many of us may find the Netflix adaptation of  Zhen Huan Zhuan dissatisfactory in one way or another, I believe it is a worthy experiment in terms of finding out how a Chinese drama might be adapted for a transcultural audience. In the process of transcultural adaptation, the Chinese and American creators are also testing the waters as they try to find effective ways to collaborate with each other. All of their experiments and efforts may contribute to something more culturally significant and commercially successful in the future.

In the end, I would like to add that the Netflix adaptation of Zhen Huan Zhuan is certainly a landmark in Chinese TV history in the sense that it is the first Chinese TV series to enter the mainstream American market, or to be adapted by a mainstream online service provider/streaming service provider. Despite all the controversies, we do need adaptations of this kind to promote cultural understanding and increase Western appreciation of Chinese cultural products.