crop wars

Right from its first airing in December last year, Chinese period drama The Empress of China has been a firm public favourite. Starring producer Fan Bingbing as Wu Zetian – the only woman in Chinese history ever to reign as supreme leader – the drama focuses on events during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and features a host of elaborate costumes and sets, paid for by a budget of appropriately regal proportions.

Viewers were left disappointed recently, however, when the show was suddenly pulled from the air, with its broadcaster citing only “technical issues” as the reason for the removal. The show returned just days later, but rather of evoking cheers of joy, the internet was quickly filled with messages of anger and frustration from its viewers.

Anyone who has ever typed the name of their favourite TV show into streaming sites like YouTube will no doubt have come across a handful of episodes shared by people other than its creators or distributors. These videos – which more often than not violate YouTube’s terms and conditions and are quickly taken down for that reason – often look odd somehow, their quality akin to that of a bootleg DVD bought from a local market trader. Most of the time, this is due to the changes uploaders make in an effort to avoid detection by YouTube’s search and destroy robots, cropping the video or changing its aspect ratio (often resulting in a slightly “zoomed-in” appearance) so that it differs slightly from that of the original broadcast, or tweaking the audio track so that the pitch of the characters’ voices is a little higher or lower than usual. Even with these changes, however, YouTube’s copyright bots and eagle-eyed staff are always one step ahead of the game, pulling illicit videos within hours of them being uploaded.

It would seem that the old “crop ‘n’ zoom” isn’t a move favoured by just terms of service-violating YouTubers, however. The Chinese government recently opted to do just that in order to protect its people from a sight they deemed too harmful for public consumption: historical cleavage.

Seemingly offended the inch or two of mammary gland that occasionally peeked over the top of some The Empress of China actress’ costumes, China’s notoriously strict censors decided that it simply had to go. Rather than blurring or cutting cleavage-heavy scenes out entirely, though, the censors opted to clumsily re-frame any shots containing any amount of female chest so that only the actress’ face and shoulders remained visible, regardless of whether it meant cutting vast sections of the background or detail.

How might that look? To give you an idea, here’s how our coverage of Tokyo Game Show 2014 would have looked with similar censoring:

▼ Before

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▼ After

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This Xperia rep is just as pretty viewed up close as she is from a few feet away, certainly, but can you imagine watching a whole episode of a drama shot almost entirely in grainy close-ups and with naught but faces filling the screen? It’s little wonder the changes went down about as well as a birthday cake made out of dog poo and sand.

But net users in China were not about to take this ham-fisted editing lying down. They quickly responded to the prudish cleavage cuts by creating and sharing a series of mocking images cleverly blending saucy and gratuitous doodles with shots taken from the now-heavily edited period drama.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the better work shared on Chinese social networking site Weibo:

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The message from China’s frustrated netizens is clear: “Treat us like infants and we’ll act like it.” And quite honestly we can’t fault their creativity; who needs boring old period dramas when you’ve got horses lapping at cleavage in the name of protest?

The chances of China returning The Empress of China to its original state are slim to none, and it’s sad that a work such as a period drama – whose costumes, it should be noted, are reported to be historically accurate and not simply designed to titillate – should be deemed so obscene by the Chinese government that it should be so haphazardly edited, but with the sheer volume of angry comments that have been written over this particular issue, hopefully we may one day soon come to know a China whose censors do not feel the need to baby its people to the degree of messing with something as harmless as a home-grown drama based on the life of a historical figure.

Images via Sina Weibo