This viral internet comedy about time travel and bisexuality has suddenly been banned in China

The princess and her husband.
The princess and her husband.
Image: LeTV
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This article has been corrected.

A modern playboy accidentally time travels back to an ancient dynasty and becomes the wife of a crown prince. A straight man inside a woman’s body, he enjoys flirting with his husband’s concubines and touching their bodies with impunity. But after discovering his more feminine side, he truly falls in love with his husband, and has sex with him.

That’s the story that unfolds in China’s recent internet hit Go Princess Go. After its December premiere, the romantic comedy has earned Chinese video streaming site LeTV more than 50,000 paid subscribers and $1.5 million in profit. After last week’s finale, the online series attracted over 2.4 billion views in total, the producer and broadcaster of the show said.

Unexpectedly, the viral show also just became a victim of Chinese censors. LeTV took down the drama off its website on Wednesday (Jan. 20), and issued a statement that it was asked by “relevant department” to do so. It said the drama would be put online again after “optimizing” the content, but didn’t say when.

The low-budget adaptation of a novel has been a huge success thanks to its blending of time travel, bisexuality and gender identity. Sexual scenes and vulgar language have probably helped the show gain viewers, and attracted censors. Here’s a (kinda SFW) trailer:

China’s top media watchdog, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), is notorious for its heavy-handed censorship (the name alone shows the agency’s reach). Last year, it ordered TV soap opera The Empress of China to cut all the shots of buxom ancient women’s cleavage before the show was allowed to go back on air. It has issued several orders to content providers—especially TV programs—to avoid a long list of topics from masturbation to one-night stands.

But its tightening grip had never really touched online series like this before. Besides LeTV’s Go Princess Go, five other online series were taken offline, financial publication Caixin reported. An unnamed employee of Tencent told Caixin the internet giant pulled two of them because it was self-censoring.

Like their foreign counterparts, China’s video streaming providers have begun to produce original content, from helping self-made stars produce better videos (like YouTube) to producing their own programs from talk shows to soap operas (like Netflix). Prominent players include  LeTV, Tencent, Alibaba-owned Youku Tudao and Baidu-owned iQiyi, to name just a few.

The internet dramas Chinese censors shut down have already streamed all their episodes, so most die-hard fans won’t be left without knowing what happened to their favorite characters. One of them, The Lost Tomb, which was reportedly (link in Chinese) produced at a record cost of around $760,000 per episode, has brought 2.6 million new paid subscribers to video site iQiyi, translating into almost $8 million in profits. In LeTV and iQiyi’s business models, paid subscribers are allowed to watch all the episodes in one season instead of waiting for weekly updates.

Ironically, The Lost Tomb had already made changes from the original novel it was based on to get around China’s censors. In the online series, the leading tomb raiders voluntarily hand in the treasure they raided to the government every time.

This fresh round of government intervention is likely to serve as another warning sign to Netflix, which is entering global markets except China. Entering China could mean “many years of discussions,” as CEO Reed Hastings said, not to mention a bunch of domestic rivals, and a tough regulator.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the finale of LeTV’s Go Princess Go attracted over 2.4 billion views; the series attracted 2.4 billion views in total.