No sex, no violence, no show.
Earlier this week, Chinese culture vultures were left picking over the bones of Game of Thrones after the hit fantasy epic was stripped bare by the censors.
The premiere of the latest season in the HBO mega series infuriated fans after the episode crashed and burned inside the Great Firewall.
Up to six minutes were cut from the original 54-minute episode because of explicit scenes of sex and violence when it was streamed live by Tencent Video. Swearing was also blotted out by the infamous National Radio and Television Administration.
The response was scathing as disgruntled Chinese viewers invaded cyberspace to voice their protests.
“I thought the censored version meant only cutting the bed scenes!!!” typed one enraged Game of Thrones addict on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
“When I was watching, I wasn’t even a little worried about my dad being there [as] even the fighting scenes [were] cut … why bother watching!”
Tencent also came in for criticism.
Since it was founded in 1998, the group has morphed into China’s version of Facebook, Apple Pay and Twitter rolled into one, with massive gaming and entertainment divisions at the heart of its operations.
All this is underpinned by WeChat, a social media and payment app, which has nearly one billion monthly users.
Along with Alibaba, it dominates the e-commerce landscape.
“Tencent is making us pay to see a castrated version of Game of Thrones,” messaged an angry 19-year-old woman. “Do any sisters have Game of Thrones’ links to share?” she added.
“It is a bit uncomfortable watching the censored version,” another fed-up fan simply known as Wang Bubble messaged. “If those scenes are not worth seeing, why would the writer write them? Why would the director shoot them?
“People who like Game of Thrones don’t like it for the porn and violence but for the whole thing … I don’t want to miss even one second,” Wang Bubble added.
In the past 12 months, the Chinese government has tightened its grip on domestic and foreign content by adding another layer of bricks to the Great Firewall.
Last year, Zhuang Rongwen was appointed in August to run the Cyberspace Administration of China and he immediately called for a “people’s war” to rehabilitate the “cyber ecology.”
A month later, the National Radio and Television Administration published new draft regulations to further crack down on sexual and violent content which “deviates from socialist core values.”
The decision set off a chain reaction with flashy Chinese dramas, dripping with intrigue, opulence and high fashion, coming under fire before the death of a thousand cuts for Game of Thrones.
“Historical dramas in many cases twisted the narrative of the country’s past and the image of historical figures,” Shi Wenxue, a film and television critic based in Beijing, told the state-run Global Times in March.
“They have an adverse effect on teenagers who may regard such fictional stories as real history.”
Yet once the broadcasting climate changed, high profile period pieces, such as The Story of Yanxi Palace, ended up being caught in a censors’ cull.
The 70-episode series became a soap sensation last summer when it attracted a staggering 15 billion views on the video streaming site iQiyi.
Feted as a cultural classic and a symbol of China’s soft power, it captured the imagination of a nation with its striking costumes and political plotting inside the harem of concubines in the 18th-century court of Emperor Quanlong.
The cunning female protagonist of the show, played by actress Wu Jinyan, even went on to grace the covers of Vogue and Elle.
Fashion designers also leapt on the bandwagon as Yanix Palace, which was based on the novel Yan Xi Gong Lue, by Zhou Mo, created a storm of adulation on Chinese social media sites.
“No TV show before us has put together so many intangible cultural heritage artifacts. We spent a huge amount of money on it, but with good results,” Yu Zheng, the producer of the series, said. “In the end, we found the most beautiful things are from China.”
The state-run CGTV went one delicate foot further at the zenith of the drama’s popularity in September by gushing over the lavish sets and the “intangible cultural heritage,” which has “redefined traditional Chinese luxury.”
Four months later, the script dramatically changed as if it was a scene from Yanxi Palace when Theory Weekly shredded the show’s appeal.
Closely linked to the state-run Beijing Daily newspaper, the magazine highlighted the “negative impacts” and the “luxurious and hedonistic lifestyle,” as well as the “glorification of emperors overshadowing the heroes of today.”
Bracketed alongside other popular period pot-boilers, such as Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, Scarlet Heart and The Legend of Mi Yue, the series was promptly ditched by mainstream television channels.
The decision left fans mystified.
“Yanxi Palace’s contribution to the feminist movement has been hugely underestimated,” one avid supporter of the soap said on Weibo. “From little angel Fucha’s [played by actress Qin Lan] silent protest against feudal etiquette … to sister Wei’s [played by actress Wu Jinyan] leveraging of imperial power to reach the peak of human life, they have reached the limits of what women could do in a feudal society.”
Another online critic of the ban went even further writing:
“The integrity of sister Wei’s character and her independence in love are what many so-called big female protagonists [of other dramas] can only dream of having.”
Still, hopes of a second series have been left on the censor’s cutting room floor along with China’s soft power campaign.
But before receiving the scissors treatment, Yanxi Palace was pulling in 530 million views in a single day on iQiyi, which is a combination of YouTube and Netflix in the world’s second-largest economy.
To put that into perspective, the finale of Game of Thrones Season 7 attracted just 16.5 million views during the same time frame.
Indeed, the appeal of the silk and swords soap came from its phenomenal mix of chic style and chicanery. And not just in China.
Hooked viewers from countries stretching across Southeast and Northeast Asia helped the drama become the most Googled series on the planet.
A remarkable feat since the American internet giant is blocked in the world’s second-largest economy.
“Censors tend to turn a blind eye to entertainment programs of frivolous nature,” Professor Zhu Ying of the Film Academy at Hong Kong’s Baptist University said.
“But that’s only until they become too popular and threaten social norms, morally and ideologically. Yanxi [Palace] is a perfect example of such a show.”
Yet, perhaps the most telling comment came from a Weibo thread which went viral. Displaying more than a modicum of sarcastic humor, the fan wrote:
“OK, let’s watch the anti-Japanese dramas they broadcast every day then?”
But where is the opulence and high-fashion in that? Or the gore and glamour of Game of Thrones?