Exploring Revenge and Rebirth Themes in Chinese Costume Dramas

After the market saw the decline of the once-dominant "palace intrigue" and "time-travel" dramas, similar genres like "family intrigue" and "rebirth" dramas have experienced a resurgence in recent years. Combining the elements of both "family intrigue" and "rebirth," new series have emerged, doubling the dramatic conflicts and emotional thrills that keep female audiences hooked. Last year's hits "Story of Kunning Palace," "Scent of Time," and "Romance on the Farm," as well as this year's "The Double," are all prime examples. But what exactly is the allure of "palace intrigue" and "family intrigue"? And why do "time-travel" and "rebirth" continue to captivate audiences?

Exploring Revenge and Rebirth Themes in Chinese Costume Dramas


Competitive Spirit vs. Intrigue

Although "competitive femininity" is often criticized, the "battle of wits" undeniably captivates audiences. Traditional palace intrigue dramas revolve around competitive femininity, where palace women vie for favor, either actively or passively, engaging in a struggle filled with both overt and covert schemes. The distorted human nature and malevolent hearts revealed in these struggles act as a vivid moral lesson in human depravity. The strategies employed by the female protagonist in battling the surrounding enemy forces in the palace provide a lively display of practical wisdom.

While competitive femininity may not align with the emotional preferences of today's young people, its dramatic allure is irresistible. If it weren’t for regulatory bans, palace intrigue dramas would undoubtedly dominate female-centric television genres. Market rules dictate the trends in television, and although palace intrigue dramas have been forcibly retired, the theme of competitive femininity has not left the stage. Thus, the schemes among women moved beyond the palace walls to new settings, giving rise to "family intrigue" dramas.

Exploring Revenge and Rebirth Themes in Chinese Costume Dramas

Family intrigue dramas differ from palace intrigue dramas in their approach. Unlike the aggressive competition among concubines for the emperor's favor in palace intrigue the competitive femininity in family intrigue is more subtle. Generally, family intrigue stories revolve around the power struggles among the wives and concubines of noble families, capturing the essence of the former palace battles in a domestic setting.

Family intrigue dramas not only showcase the core elements of palace intrigue but also incorporate the emotional drama of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law conflicts, making them a comprehensive collection of female conflicts. The male lead, as a secondary storyline, can follow a "power struggle" route in his career while embodying the pure love and romance typical of historical romances in his relationships. With enough creativity, family intrigue dramas can include all the popular elements of female-centric genres.

Take "The Double" as an example. In this drama, whether she likes it or not, the female protagonist is forced into a competitive femininity battle with her cousins over men. The root of Jiang Li's tragedy lies in her stepmother's ruthless methods under competitive femininity. Despite the family intrigue storyline, the drama fails to transcend typical tropes. Most female characters, portrayed as bad women, engage in schemes against the protagonist, often appearing unintelligent due to insufficient emotional motivation. The large-scale challenges faced by the protagonist are reduced to competing in skills like playing musical instruments and calligraphy, making the plot appear relatively thin.

Exploring Revenge and Rebirth Themes in Chinese Costume Dramas

However, the drama compensates for this with the protagonist’s quest for justice and revenge, as well as her involvement in court politics alongside the male lead. This multi-layered narrative structure, especially the protagonist's storyline, adds dramatic tension. To mitigate the negative perception of competitive femininity, the drama carefully crafts a female protagonist who is both highly intelligent and formidable, creating a beautiful, strong, and tragic character. Combined with the dramatic emotional renderings, the plot's appeal is intensified, delivering a powerful visual and auditory impact.

Family intrigue is not limited to female-centric dramas. Even in last year's agricultural drama "Romance on the Farm," the protagonist's family scenes were rich with family intrigue. While the female protagonist actively pursued her career, she also had to contend with all her elders and cousins, depicting the ugly side of human nature within a poor family through mutual scheming and conflicts.


Mastering Fate Through Scripts

With the intense plot points of family intrigue dramas already captivating audiences, the addition of "rebirth" elements in series like "The Double" has made the storyline even more engaging. This genre's resurgence includes not only this dark horse but also other high-profile dramas like "In Blossom" and last year's hits "Story of Kunning Palace" and "Scent of Time." Although the protagonist in "Romance on the Farm" doesn’t technically rebirth, her transition from the real world into a game provides a similar dramatic effect.

Exploring Revenge and Rebirth Themes in Chinese Costume Dramas

Contemporary rebirth settings typically follow two approaches. The first involves the female protagonist being reborn into a moment from her past, allowing her to change her fate with newfound knowledge. Examples include "Story of Kunning Palace" and "Scent of Time." This foresight enables the protagonist to make clearer decisions at crucial moments, with everyone around her functioning like non-player characters in her revised life script.

Without the rebirth element, the protagonist's journey might seem mundane. However, with the rebirth perspective, each of her decisions is portrayed as a well-considered choice made after previous trial and error. Her life's trajectory, therefore, gains a sense of predestined fate upon its second enactment. Having faced death, the protagonist naturally carries a profound, world-weary core, enhancing her depth and charm.

The second popular rebirth approach involves the protagonist living a new life with a different identity. In "In Blossom," the protagonist's body is forcibly swapped with that of a malicious supporting character, while in "The Double," the protagonist fakes her death to return with a new, prestigious identity. Before the identity switch, she is a tragic figure oppressed by the powerful, but afterward, she emerges as a noble heiress.

Exploring Revenge and Rebirth Themes in Chinese Costume Dramas

This transition brings inherent dramatic tension: a talented and kind-hearted common girl must tread carefully to maintain her cover while seeking the truth behind her unjust demise. Simultaneously, she must navigate her newfound elite status with genuine values, making her character endearing and relatable despite the disparity between her internal and external identities.

The earlier popularity of time-travel tropes, later restricted, and recent game or book entry settings, share similar dramatic effects with rebirth. In series like "Romance on the Farm" and "The Romance of Tiger and Rose," modern female protagonists bring contemporary knowledge and values to ancient settings, creating a dimensional reduction impact. Their roles as gamers or novelists imbue them with an omniscient perspective, making their journeys feel like exciting level-ups in a game.

The collision of modern thinking with ancient contexts not only sparks comedic chemistry but also serves as a catalyst for romantic development between the leads. These additional elements enrich otherwise plain historical romances, making them vibrant and engaging while allowing creators more freedom to innovate beyond strict story logic.

Exploring Revenge and Rebirth Themes in Chinese Costume Dramas

The rebirth trope has become one of the hottest elements in micro-dramas. When combined with female-centric emotional narratives, it produces compelling dramatic effects. In historical romances, rebirth acts as the best catalyst for sweet, pet-like affection. In strong female lead dramas, rebirth serves as the foundation for the protagonist's powerful persona.

Both family intrigue and rebirth can independently support a satisfying female-centric drama, and their combination amplifies the appeal. However, the increasingly extreme plot settings and sensory stimulation of these dramas often fail to improve the core emotional themes, character depth, and logical consistency, which diminishes their overall quality.

That said, we shouldn't be overly critical of these revenge-driven, satisfaction-oriented dramas. Crafting an engaging story that aligns with current audience tastes is challenging enough. Expecting these dramas to maintain deep and profound content on top of that is perhaps an unreasonable demand.

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