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Story of Yanxi Palace: Understanding Chinese viewing behaviour through social listening

Earlier this year, I, along with millions of others in my native China, mourned the end of the hit series Story of Yanxi Palace. The drama, which is set in 18th Century Beijing and depicts the Qing dynasty, revolves around the character Wei Yingluo who enters the court of the Qianlong Emperor as a poor seamstress. The plotline has been likened to a feminist Cinderella tale with a heroine who fights fire with fire to control her own destiny instead of waiting for someone to come to her rescue. Glamour, history, blood and romance – what’s not to love?

Co-produced by Huanyu Film and iQiyi Pictures, the 70-episode series had attracted a jaw-dropping total of 1.5 billion views in China when the final episode aired at the end of August. In fact, in a single day, 700 million people – half of the nation’s population and 87% of its internet users – tuned in to watch the series.

The immense popularity of the Mandarin-language drama was reflected on Chinese social media. On Sina Weibo alone, Story of Yanxi Palace has been discussed over 10.2 million times, with total post views around 1.29 billion. Data like this lends itself perfectly to social listening analysis, helping us understand the traits, unmet needs and preferences of viewers in China.

In this post, we’ll be taking a look at these areas to illustrate some of the typical traits of Chinese viewing behaviour and why skilled social listening analysts, rather than translation tools, are key when it comes to gaining actionable insights.

Online streaming a clear winner

Much like viewing habits elsewhere in the developed world, Chinese consumers are increasingly abandoning the TV set in favour of online streaming. A viewership of 1% of the population now counts as high by China’s traditional broadcasters, down from 4% in 2007. It’s no wonder then that media houses focus their efforts on digital video. This was the case for Story of Yanxi Palace, which was released exclusively on the iQiyj video.

Time conscious viewers

Online streaming allows viewers to adjust the playback speed. Whereas in the UK and US, watching videos at 1.2 times the regular speed is becoming more common, Chinese viewers have taken it a step further by opting for double the original speed. In a bid to make downtime more efficient, many viewers are only inclined to revert to regular speed for a few selected scenes. Bearing in mind that all of the 70 episodes of Story of Yanxi Palace were released in a little over a month, with viewers wanting to keep up with the fast pace to avoid spoilers, it’s easy to see the attraction of maximising viewing efficiency.

Bonding through the barrage

A popular tool that forms an important part of the online streaming experience in China is the barrage, locally known as dan mu (弹幕). A type of chat, it allows viewers to interact with each other while watching the live stream. The chats appear over the screen, as floating lines of text, and a text box at the bottom lets viewers submit their own messages. For anyone who isn’t used to this interactive television experience, these reoccurring popups might detract from the actual programme.

An example of how the barrage chats appear on the screen.

Yet the popularity of the barrage – which is optional and can be switched off at any time – indicates that bonding over TV shows is a vital part of Chinese viewing behaviour. Unsurprisingly, for Story of Yanxi Palace, the typical conversations revolved around the characters and the storyline, but it’s worth making a note of the friendly exchange between viewers. Those who joined later were updated on any important turn of events by those who had watched from the start, and viewers actively shared their love for the show.

Key scenes as engagement drivers

By analysing the data harvested from the conversations around Story of Yanxi Palace on social media and the barrage, we were able to identify the scenes and cast members that generated the most engagement online.

One scene that encouraged viewers to slow down their double speed viewing was that of the new empress cutting her hair to demonstrate her loss of desire for her partner, the emperor. To give you a bit of background: during the Qing dynasty, only the death of an emperor counted as a valid reason for women to cut their hair short. With the emperor alive and well, this kind of action was regarded as a taboo, even criminal. She Shiman, who played the empress, was praised online for her moving performance, with many fans claiming to have re-watched the poignant scene several times.

Another scene that resonated with Chinese viewers depicts Consort Xian dragging Honoured Consort Gao, who previously held a powerful position in the court, to a mirror. Intensively staring at Gao’s reflection, Xian unleashes all the frustration and anger she kept under wraps during the time she was subservient to Gao. Keeping spoiler alerts to a minimum, all I will say is that one of Gao’s favourite pastimes when in power, was to torture Xian. Revenge is a dish best served cold!

Consort Xian and Honoured Consort Gao in the famous mirror scene (with barrage).

The scene was re-enacted in subsequent episodes, with Xian verbally abusing or conning victims in front of the mirror. The below screengrab shows Xian with Consort Chun who is persuaded by Xian to enact revenge on other consorts. The mirror scenes became symbolic of Xian’s evil plotting and cruel intentions.

Consort Xian with Consort Chun in another mirror scene.
Memes and cast engagement

Before long, terms like ‘娴妃给你做头发’(‘Consort Xian doing your hair’) began to trend on social platforms as they were used to indicate the inevitable downfall of a character in conversations about the drama. Even the cast joined in, with some jokingly asking She Shiman if she had any plans to open her own salon. After the final episode had been aired, the viral spread of behind the scenes-footage of Shiman helping to prepare the hair of her fellow actors further boosted traffic around the show.

The viral spread of this footage of She Shiman doing the hair on some of her fellow actors boosted social mentions of the show.
Sentiment analysis – going beyond the basics

Traditionally, in sentiment analysis, data is broken down into three categories, Positive, Neutral and Negative. But when it comes to understanding the sentiment around a TV show or film, this polarity-based methodology isn’t sophisticated enough. Take the below scene. Empress Fucha has decided to end her life following a series of hardships, including the gruesome murder of her sons. As one of the drama’s favourite characters, her suicide generated strong reactions on social media.

The poignant suicide scene generated strong reactions from viewers.

The scene was mentioned nearly 4 million times on Weibo, with viewers typically expressing sadness and even grief at the loss of the character. Because of the identified keywords and emojis, these posts would be categorised as negative by most social listening platforms.


“Just watched half of episode 69. Knowing that my favourite character is going to die and that the Fucha family would be left with no-one to pass on the family name… This is so cruel. It still hurts when I think of the death of Empress Fucha. I should stop watching TV series that make me so emotional, one pack of tissues is definitely not enough. And now I need to go to work…”
Even the death of the empress is so beautiful. Such a shame. The bad ones who have sabotaged and done evil things to her should all die.

But viewers empathising with characters and taking to social media to express their feelings about the storyline is possibly the greatest form of praise of the production. Labelling all these conversations as negative due to the keywords and emojis identified would not accurately represent the viewers’ attitude, and this is where tools fall short. What’s required is an open-minded and flexible approach that can be adjusted according to the data and subject of the analysis. A sophisticated social listening tool should be used in combination with experienced and native analysts to deliver actionable insights.

The Convosphere approach

We work with local Chinese vendors to enable us to analyse video barrages and ensure all relevant data is captured. Our native and in-country Chinese team analyse the data, both qualitatively and quantitatively, to investigate viewer perception, identify key engagement factors and benchmark the success of the production or any other digital outputs. Whilst the insights gained from this analysis can help entertainment companies and production house in myriad ways, they will ultimately ensure an improved understanding of their audience and the form of content that appeals to them.

If you, like me, have a penchant for femme fatales and beautiful costume design, I can guarantee that you’ll be hooked on Story of Yanxi Palace from the very first episode. An additional perk is that you’ll be an expert in Chinese history and the powerful Qing dynasty in no time!

To learn more about our social listening offering in China, and how our skilled social listeners can deliver insights about viewing behaviour, contact us today.