Behind the scenes with the Empress Dowager Cixi

By Yi Ling (China Features)
Updated: 2010-04-01 07:52
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 Behind the scenes with the Empress Dowager Cixi

Japanese actress Yuko Tanaka plays Cixi in the Sino-Japanese TV drama The Pleiades.

The Sino-Japanese TV drama The Pleiades, a tale about one of the darkest chapters in China's feudal history, is being shown in both countries.

Set in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the 28-episode serial explores the power struggle in the imperial court between Emperor Guangxu and his mother, the Empress Dowager Cixi.

The epic struggle is seen through the eyes of two brothers Chun'er and Wenxiu. Chun'er was the favorite eunuch of Cixi, the de facto ruler for 48 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908.

Based on the novel of the same name by Japanese author Jiro Asada, The Pleiades is the first China-made TV drama ever imported by NHK.

Directed by Chinese director Ma Jun, it was firstly showing on Japan's public television network, NHK. It has been running every Saturday night from Jan 2. It started shown on China's Beijing TV on March 14.

Both showings received excellent ratings. The broadcast pulled in a 4.3 percent share in China, while the number was 1 percent in Japan, where audience ratings for this time slot are usually about 0.3 percent, according to NHK.

Asada's book was a sensation in Japan and was on the country's bestseller list for 10 years.

Liu Dehong, general manger of the Beijing Hualu Baina Film and TV Company, and the producer on the Chinese side, says: "It was a challenge for us to make a 'China from a Japanese point of view' acceptable to domestic audiences because the Chinese are so familiar with the history the book depicts."

Ma Jun insists the play is a fictional story rather than a documentary fully in line with the historical facts.

"We try to explore the human part of the history, which is seldom seen on the Chinese screen," he says. "A bad guy is bad for a reason. Let's first treat him as a human being."

Yuko Tanaka was selected to play Cixi. The 55-year-old actress became a household name in China after the Japanese-made autobiographical TV series Oshin was released in China in the 1980s.

In the series, Tanaka played Oshin, who started as a maid and went on to create Yaohan, Japan's most successful department store.

Tanaka was originally reluctant to play the part of Cixi. One reason, she said, was that the Chinese empress has been repeatedly portrayed in China. But after reading the novel, she changed her mind.

"Cixi was a powerful ruler, and a woman. She had to have lots of inner suffering and contradictions," she says. "To play such a complicated part is like grasping a handful of sand. Chinese audiences are familiar with what remains in the hand. I wanted to show them the parts that slip through the fingers."

The Chinese producers believe The Pleiades sets a precedent for China's film and television industry. It opens a door to understanding between the two nations.

"A made-in-China TV play could not be shown in Japan 20 years ago. Thankfully, we, both the Chinese and Japanese sides, are not as close-minded as Cixi in the play who refuses change," Liu says.

Ma Jie and Xie Lin in Tokyo also contributed to this story.

China Features

(China Daily 04/01/2010 page22)