If you are going to make a movie in China about ancient warriors defending a mythical kingdom or a partisan resisting the Japanese occupation in the 1930s, or involving any variation of that staple of China’s entertainment industry – the backstabbing concubine drama – chances are you are going to make it in Hengdian.
The city is home to Hengdian World Studios, which claims to be the world’s largest outdoor movie and television lot. To call it a “lot” is an understatement. It is not one lot, but 13 of them, scattered over 1000 hectares in and around what was once a sleepy farming village nestled in the hills of Zhejiang province, in eastern China. (Hollywood’s Universal Studio’s lot covers a mere 162 hectares.)
There are other studios in China – Shanghai Film Park, for example. Only in Hengdian, though, will you find a faithful recreation of the palace of Qin Shi Huang, who ruled in the third century BC near what is today known as Xian, or of the capital of the Northern Song dynasty, which reigned from the 10th to the 12th centuries.
There is even a Forbidden City that is not only startlingly realistic, but also only a little bit smaller than the real thing in Beijing.
The one thing that might seem to be missing from its huge front gate is the photograph of Mao Zedong – except that the gate was constructed to look as it did during the Ming dynasty, not the later version known since the 17th century as Tiananmen.
“These scenes today no longer exist,” Guo Huizhong, a director, said as he filmed a war drama, whose title roughly translates as The Last Bodyguard, inside a building reconstructed as an opera house from the first half of the 20th century.
Hit streamed 20 billion times
Moviemaking blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy, and Hengdian World Studios arguably does that better than any other place on Earth.
“This is where the empress committed suicide,” a studio assistant, Xu Hailei, explains as she guides an open cart through the faux Forbidden City, which, even up close, is pretty convincing.
“She jumped from there,” she continues, describing a historical fact of 18th-century China – the death of Empress Fucha – but also a pivotal scene in one of the most sensational dramas of the year, a 70-episode epic, The Story of Yanxi Palace.
Yanxi Palace streamed on iQiyi, China’s version of Netflix, from July to August, and continues to do so in China and dozens of other countries. It has been streamed 20 billion times, and its staggering popularity has influenced everything from fashion to the debate over China’s struggling #MeToo campaign.
It has also attracted more visitors to Hengdian, which distributes maps and postcards showing the sites where the series was filmed, including the building of the title, which means the Palace of Prolonged Happiness.
That is where the concubines of the Qing dynasty emperors lived and conspired until the place burned down in the middle of the 19th century. The one in the Forbidden City today is a reconstruction from 1931.
Ye Yunfeng, 24, came with her boyfriend from Lishui, a city not far to the south, because she wanted to see the hall where the emperor’s Grand Council met.
“The details of this show are very good,” she explains. “Many details, like the clothes, the headdresses and the backdrops, are in line with history.”
The serial’s creators, and its fans, judging from comments posted online, credit its success in large part to the attention to historical detail.
“The cost of actors and actresses are not expensive,” says Yang Le, chief executive officer of Huanyu Film, the Beijing production company that produced Yanxi Palace.
Instead, the producers spent their budget on artisanal embroiderers to recreate the dresses and flowered headdresses of the era – 3000 outfits, some of which are on display in the company’s office in Beijing.
Yu Zheng, a screenwriter and producer of Yanxi Palace, says he wanted to convey an aspect of China’s intangible cultural heritage, combined with the pacing of an American television series.
“People in our generation are all watching American and British television series,” says Yu, who is 40, “but actually there are many traditional cultures in China that are very worthy of being promoted to the world. We have a lot of beautiful things.”
Hundreds of productions a year
That is the illusion Hengdian World Studios was created to sustain. The studio was founded in 1996 by one of China’s first billionaires, Xu Wenrong. His Hengdian Group made a fortune in electronic components in the early years of the country’s capitalist transition.
When an acquaintance needed a location for a film, The Opium War, about China’s humiliating loss to Britain in the 19th century, Xu agreed to build one from scratch in the company’s hometown.
Since then more than 2400 films and television series have been made at the studio, including 337 between January and October this year. On a recent visit, there were 15 projects being shot there, requiring studio organisers to juggle schedules and enforce deadlines.
There are 400 distinct spaces where filming can take place, covering the entire breadth of China’s history, its culture and its architecture. Two areas recreate Guangzhou and Hong Kong as they looked in the 19th century, built for The Opium War, and another reproduces the Imperial Summer Palace, which was sacked by British and French soldiers in 1860. Its ruins are preserved in Beijing.
There is also a re-creation of the Communist Party’s wartime base in Yan’an and a replica of a Buddhist temple whose original on a hill nearby has since been closed to the public.
“Many people learn history through television dramas,” says Zheng Junnan, a production assistant for another concubine melodrama set in the Qing dynasty.
“I don’t read books often,” he explains.
Zheng, like many in Hengdian, is a transient; he moved to Hengdian for the duration of shooting.
There is a sort of union hall in the town centre where people play cards and shoot pool while waiting for the chance to get parts as extras. And epic battles need lots of extras.
Making history come alive
Another lot, the Exposition City of the Ming and Qing dynasties, is a reconstruction of ancient buildings that were torn down in nearby parts of China and hauled to Hengdian.
There are scores of courtyard temples, houses and other structures, including a wooden tower from Nanjing. Each is marked with plaques describing their origins and “date of migration”.
Xu’s own collection of artifacts – vases, sculptures, precious stones and the like – are displayed in several of the 120 buildings in the complex, which includes a recreation of Nanjing’s riverfront.
The theatre house where Guo is filming The Last Bodyguard is a reconstruction of an 18th-century building from Anhui province, with the region’s distinctive southern architecture.
It wasn’t his first choice, he says, but other sets in the studio were already booked, so he made do, decorating the stage in the style of the 20th century, and bringing in opera singers from Beijing.
Yuxuan Honghao, a 26-year-old actor on the set of another series about concubines set in the Qing dynasty, says the attention to historic details had not always been a priority in the past but The Story of Yanxi Palace is already encouraging others to follow.
“The things in history books are one-side; they are only textual,” he says. “Films and television dramas can restore Chinese history as much as possible, and people can see what it was like.”