China’s Game of Thrones

Why a Liang Dynasty drama has entranced Chinese audiences

langya ban

Star-crossed love: Liu Tao and Hu Ge as Princess Nihuang and Lin Shu

With its sense of intrigue and opulence, King’s Landing has something in common with medieval Constantinople. Like the Byzantine capital, it has formidable defences: a steel sea chain to block enemy ships, high walls to thwart armies and an incendiary secret weapon known locally as Wildfire (though in Constantinople as Greek Fire).

King’s Landing is, of course, the fictional city in the hit TV drama Game of Thrones. The show – adapted from George RR Martin’s fantasy novels – owes much of its success to the way it draws on Western historical influences. England’s Wars of the Roses seems to be one of the templates for the dynastic battles to rule Westeros, while the sea-loving warriors from the Iron Islands may have been inspired by the Vikings. The fearsome Dothraki, on the other hand, are a horse-riding tribe whose antecedents would appear to be the Mongols.

However, there is at least one major civilisation curiously absent from Martin’s inspirational palette: the Han Chinese.

Perhaps Martin was unmoved by the cultural and military exploits of the Tang, Song and Ming dynasties – and yet in a plot where dragons play a pivotal role, it is an irony that the country most associated with these mythical beasts is absent.

Be that as it may, China’s drama fans are now crowing that their own country has finally produced a show that rivals Game of Thrones in its historical sweep and drama.

Langya Bang adapted by Hai Yan from her popular internet novel of the same name, is set in the Liang Dynasty (502-557) with its capital in Jinling, modern day Nanjing.

The shooting of the series, totalling 54 episodes, took a mere four months, with dozens of actors working non-stop with crews in Hengdian – a location nicknamed “Chinawood” for its massive period movie sets (see WiC187 and 261).

With its official premiere last September, the show became an instant hit, surpassing 100 million internet views on Youku Tudou in two days and receiving a total of 1.6 billion internet views within a month, according to People.cn. Langya Bang was also a social media phenomenon, generating 3.55 billion positive posts on Sina Weibo. The authoritative review site Douban gave it an impressive 9.2 rating, the highest for a Chinese TV show last year.

As one fan wrote online: “I grew up reading internet novels yet I fell in love with Langya Bang like I have never fallen in love before. While watching the series, I totally forgot the real world, forgot Premier League football, forgot to eat, sleep or go to the gym. While I was sort of happy to finally finish the series, I also felt such a big vacuum in my life that I wonder when I may fall in love again.”

Another commentator tried to explain why the series has recorded so many views. “I watched it many times. The first time was for the plot, whereas the other times were to memorise all the lines of the key characters, especially those in the last few episodes. The language is a beautiful hybrid of modern and classic Chinese,” the enthused netizen wrote.

Langya Bang incorporates many core Chinese cultural elements, including kung-fu, traditional medicine, music, calligraphy and various Confucian rituals, all of which add sophistication, charm and light-hearted humour to the storylines. It probably helps too that the lead character Lin Shu is played by one of today’s most popular actors on television, Hu Ge (see Red Star).

Hu’s character is a brilliant young marshal who until the age of 19 serves in his father’s army – at this point he experiences a life-changing trauma. His father and his supporters, together with the upright and popular crown prince Qi, are framed by rivals in the Liang court and ordered to be executed by the paranoid Emperor Xiao.

Lin barely survives the purge but to escape death has to undergo excruciating medical treatment. The procedure changes his physical looks, weakens his strength and promises to shorten his lifespan. Over the following 12 years, he shields his identity and then establishes himself as a revered strategist, taking the new name Mei Changsu. In this guise he works beyond the court as a leader in the Jianghu world (a term that’s extremely hard to translate into English, but implies a noble outlaw society – the closest equivalent in English would be Robin Hood and his gang in Sherwood Forest).

The series starts with Lin returning to the imperial court in Jinling – with yet another identity – as the strategist Su Zhe. Subterfuge ensues as he offers his service to a corrupt prince who is trying to remove an equally unsavoury brother. Through double-dealing and guile, he helps each to fatally weaken the other. In the meantime he is covertly assisting his old friend Prince Jing, the youngest prince who is considered noble and just but is out of favour with Emperor Xiao. Through a number of brilliant manoeuvres, he ensures Jing succeeds to the throne and even forces Xiao to admit his mistake in the original case against Lin’s own father and Prince Qi and exonerate them.

The theme of correcting the wrongs of an emperor and pursuing justice for a faithful few clearly resonates with the viewers – especially given the ongoing debates in modern China about issues like the rule of law. Many of the scenes carry political innuendo too. For instance, when the protagonist challenges the emperor over whether he feels any guilt for ordering the murder of his father, Xiao defends his rights to sovereign power. “Prince Qi was both a son and a subject to me, yet he often disagreed with me in court and lectured me about tianxia [i.e.“the world”]. Is it my tianxia or his tianxia?”

Having (finally) revealed his true identity, Lin powerfully retorts: “Tianxia is people’s tianxia! If there are no people, how can there be an emperor? If there is no country, how can there be a ruler?”

At the end of the exchange – as Lin walks out – the emperor kneels down remorsefully behind him. In spite of being somewhat unrealistic (no Chinese emperor would ever bow to a subject), the scene caused a stir among some viewers as a message to China’s modern-day leadership about its accountability to the people.

Unlike most Western TV series, Langya Bang contains no love scenes and the most powerful emotional moments are probably the embraces between Lin and Princess Nihuang – who is a high-ranking military general from Yunnan – after she realises that Su Zhe is actually her childhood sweetheart Lin Shu.

In the last episode, war breaks out and they both go onto the battlefield to defend the kingdom. Before riding out, the lovers promise each other that they will be together in the next life, a very powerful statement – and a quintessential part of Chinese tragedy (duty before love).

Another feature of the show is its beautiful soundtrack, which includes distinctively mellow tunes from the flute, pipa and zheng. The theme music and title song, composed by a little-known young music student, is sung by the multi-talented Hu Ge himself.

Under the English title of Nirvana in Fire, Langya Bang is now being sold to the American market and channels in Korea, Japan and Taiwan have also bought it. Clearly Chinese audiences feel pride in what the series has achieved. As one commentator put it: “We grew up admiring Western art and culture since the traditional Chinese arts, architecture, and so forth were either wiped out or developed into pure commercial tools. But Langya Bang brought back an ancient and beautiful China that we’ve only learned about in history books and ancient poems. In that China, there are noble people conducting noble lives, pursuing noble causes and ultimately winning over the evil. Our culture desperately needs such reminders.”

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.