In the TV series 24, Kiefer Sutherland plays agent Jack Bauer who, season after season, races against the clock to protect the American people against terrorists. The first season, which came out in 2001, was packed full of action, including an airliner exploding, an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate, the death of Bauer’s wife and the kidnapping of his daughter. The stylistic innovation: it all happened within a single 24-hour day.
The series was discontinued on American TV in 2014, after nine exhausting seasons. But it was reprised last month as the inspiration for a historical drama in China.
The Longest Day in Chang’an, available for streaming on the online video site Youku, is set in the late Tang Dynasty (618-907), an era when the most prosperous kingdom in Chinese history began to decline. The drama occurs in the 24 hours that occur over the Lantern Festival (the fifteenth day of the first month, according to the traditional calendar), when the then capital of Chang’an (known as Xi’an today) is celebrating.
The show, which cost Rmb600 million ($94 million) to make, a hefty sum by local standards, follows Li Bi, a young government official (played by heartthrob Yi Yang Qian Xi), and Zhang Xiaojing, a wrongly condemned prisoner with a military background (actor Lei Jiayin). The series tracks them morning through night as they try to outwit a rebel force scheming to destroy the city. In the process, they unravel massive conspiracies that could take down the whole empire.
Although the narrative spans just a single day, the series is 48 episodes long (there are lots of flashbacks, which explains some of the length). And with the season about halfway through the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, the show earned a rating of 8.6 out of 10, gaining praise as “groundbreaking” and “one of the most well written and carefully produced series in recent years”. Cao Xiaojing, a TV critic, also told People’s Daily: “While most people say the high production values are the reason for the success of the show – everything from the costumes to the set is made meticulously, with the goal of transporting viewers to the Tang Dynasty – the masterpiece is in the screenplay. The drama unfolds from the perspective of a seemingly unimportant character that is trying to defend his homeland. All the characters, even the minor ones, were given complex backstories. That is the reason, in my mind, the series is so wildly popular.”
The show has also unearthed some lesser-known history about the Tang Dynasty. “My intention is to showcase the beauty of Chang’an and its multi-ethnic culture,” noted Cao Dun, the director of the series. “Many people did not realise that at the time, 15% of the people in Chang’an were expatriates. So it was truly a thriving, beautiful international metropolis, where people from different races and countries came together.”
The Tang Dynasty employed more of an open-door policy than other periods in Chinese history, and cross-cultural contact was also more common. In fact, interracial marriages were not unknown. Some historians suggest the mother of Tang Gaozu (566-635), the founder of the Tang Dynasty, was a Xianbei (a nomadic clan believed to be from present-day Mongolia). The founding emperor’s son Tang Taizong (598-649) was half-Xianbei too. So in other words, the Tang rulers were only partly-Han Chinese.
Chang’an also laid claim to being the largest city in the world during the period. It was said to be at least seven times the size of Constantinople, the capital of the Roman and Byzantine Empire, with a population of more than a million people.
Youku is now selling The Longest Day into other markets and the series is already streaming in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the United States.
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