The turmoil of the Three Kingdoms period (between the years 220 and 280) has left a lasting mark on Chinese culture and literature including a rich collection of idioms. For politicians the most popular one goes like this: “Everyone on the street knows what’s on Sima Zhao’s mind”. It means that even a supposedly hidden agenda is so obvious that it is hardly a secret (in Sima’s case to usurp the throne).
Sima Zhao was the son of Sima Yi, a strategic advisor to the warlord Cao Cao. Having taken control of the military, Sima Yi helped Cao’s son to establish the state of Wei by forcing the puppet Han emperor to abdicate; Sima Zhao, however, would apply the same plot to usurp the Wei throne himself.
In the fourteenth century classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Sima Yi is portrayed as a disloyal schemer who overthrows his king – though in doing so he also lays the foundation for his family’s empire. The Sima family ended up having the last laugh in the Three Kingdoms period, with Sima Zhao’s son becoming the first emperor of the Jin Dynasty and ending an era of bloodshed and disunity.
Now a new historical TV drama is hoping to improve the Sima family’s dark reputation for betrayal. The Advisors Alliance, which is showing on Jiangsu Satellite TV, has dominated the ratings since its premiere in late June. While previous Three Kingdoms TV dramas and films have often focused on the legendary military strategist Zhuge Liang (for more on him see issues 3, 53 and 294), the series has garnered critical acclaim for shining a fresh light on Sima Yi.
Played by actor Wu Xiubo – also one of the show’s producers – the drama opens with Sima Yi portrayed as a cowardly scholar whose only ambition is to stay out of trouble. However, he is thrust into the centre of the action after a fateful meeting with Cao Cao, who sees immense potential in him. Sima rises through the ranks and eventually becomes the regent to Cao’s son.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of China’s most revered novels and has been adapted into countless TV shows and films, like John Woo’s Red Cliff in 2008 (see WiC1). That does not always guarantee success though. For example, God of War Zhao Yun was a disappointment when it was released last year, with that Three Kingdoms tale scoring an average of 3.3 stars out of 10 on Douban, the film and TV series review site.
So far, reviews for The Advisors Alliance have been overwhelmingly positive, with an average rating of 8.3 stars on Douban. It has also accumulated about 3 billion views on Youku, which owns the exclusive online broadcasting rights to the series.
So what sets this historical drama apart? For a start, a star-studded cast helps. In addition to Wu, A-listers like Li Chen, Liu Tao and newcomer Tang Yixin also have supporting roles.
The Advisors Alliance is also the first Three Kingdoms drama that zeros in on Sima Yi’s character, a move many say is refreshing. “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms doesn’t go into detail about Sima Yi. But I believe that it is no small feat for a man to unify the kingdom in such turbulent times so I find watching the show very interesting,” one netizen wrote.
Moreover, it’s a lavish production. The total production budget is believed to be over Rmb400 million ($59 million), says Tencent Entertainment. It took the producers four years to fine tune the screenplay and an entire year to film the drama (when the industry standard is usually around three months). “We tried our best to make sure all the actors understood their character and their point of view in every scene before we started filming,” Wu said.
Audiences say the visual effects are very impressive too, with some going so far as to say that the cinematography sets the benchmark for a domestic TV drama. Critics have also compared it to a HBO hit. “It is clear that The Advisors Alliance was formulated after American TV dramas in storytelling and cinematography. In many ways, the show bears an interesting resemblance to Game of Thrones in the sense that they are both a delicate and strategic balance between history, reality, myth and youth,” says Tencent Entertainment.
The show is also educational, with some fans claiming it offers valuable lessons on office politics that are applicable today. “Sima Yi and his descendants ultimately took over the Wei state and then unified the country. Clearly it wasn’t by chance or a stroke of luck but it was through careful plotting. What’s clear is that Sima Yi largely adhered to one strategy to survive: keep his own counsel and persevere,” says ThePaper.cn.
The Advisors Alliance isn’t without its critics. Many say the show takes too many liberties with historical facts. “I refuse to accept that Sima Yi is a hero,” one viewer wrote. “Please: everyone knows that the Sima family couldn’t be more diabolical,” another concurred.
(In this respect, the controversy is akin to the fuming of British academics over the BBC series Wolf Hall. Once again here there is a blurring of dramatic device and history which renders a more sympathetic portrayal of Henry VIII’s Machiavellian fixer Thomas Cromwell. Professor David Starkey labelled the show a “deliberate perversion” of fact.)
Cheng Jiang, the screenwriter, denies that he was trying to give Sima Yi a makeover. “The original Romance of the Three Kingdoms pits Sima Yi as the villain against Zhuge Liang, portraying him as an old, evil and scheming man. But what I wanted to do was to show the whole life story of Sima Yi. Throughout his life, he has had many changes when it comes to his ambitions and ideologies. I wanted to challenge those traditional impressions of the character while making sure that the story is logical,” he told Beijing Morning Post.
Fans of the series agree. “The show is brilliant. Those who complain that the TV series are messing with actual historical facts are just picking a fight. After all, this is a drama not a documentary. And besides, not all documentaries are real,” a netizen wrote on WeChat.
No matter how historically accurate the drama is, Beijing Youth Daily believes the show deserves credit. “In an era when virtually all TV shows make little sense, all the actors are expressionless, and every background is computer generated, shouldn’t we be a bit more forgiving of The Advisors Alliance? At the very least, the series has renewed our interest in learning history again.”
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