Beyond Totalitarian Nostalgia: A Critical Urban Reception Study of Historical Drama on Contemporary Chinese Television

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


From the mid-1990s, there has been a surge in dramatic serials featuring legendary figures from China's past dynasties in primetime television programming. This emergence of historical dramas on television can be attributed to the commercialization of mass media and the rise of media consumerism in China since the early 1990s. These television historical dramas, set during the dynasty era, play a significant role in articulating political and legal principles influenced by Confucian-based traditional Chinese culture. While media scholars have interpreted the popularity of these dramas as a revival of Confucianism, little empirical research has been conducted to explore how Chinese audiences relate their viewing experiences to the revival of Confucianism within their own social and cultural contexts.

This thesis presents a qualitative audience study that examines how historical dramas are understood, socially valued, and culturally interpreted in contemporary China. The study takes into account personal, social, historical, and cultural factors that influence viewers' engagement with this television genre.

The author conducted fieldwork audience research between late September 2007 and early April 2008 in two urban settings in China: Beijing and Changsha. The research involved 10 focus groups and 11 in-depth interviews, engaging more than 60 respondents from young adult and middle-aged audience groups. Analysis of the fieldwork data revealed that the ways in which Chinese audiences engage with historical dramas are more complex than previously thought. Audience engagement varies significantly based on factors such as age, gender, life stage, and socio-cultural status. Additionally, the author identified two text-based interpretive frameworks, namely the framework of fact/fiction and the framework of 'classic-ness,' which were adopted by respondents across all focus groups and in-depth interviews to understand and evaluate the historical drama texts.

In conclusion, the author argues that the Chinese audience's response to historical dramas extends beyond a literal, politically driven sense of totalitarian nostalgia. It is characterised by an increasingly liberal, diverse, and open-ended engagement with the historical drama texts. However, this engagement process also involves a critical re-evaluation of Maoist revolutionary classic literary works.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Westminster
  • Steemers, Jeanette, Supervisor, External person
  • Tsagarousianou, Roza, Supervisor, External person
Award date12 Jun 2012
Publication statusPublished - 2012

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