Attention to detail

A lavish costume drama about Song Dynasty wins over the critics


Jiang Shuying: stars as Empress Cao in Serenade of Peaceful Joy

It wasn’t the longest-reigning dynasty in Chinese history and it wasn’t the most powerful either. However, historians generally believe the Song Dynasty was well ahead of contemporary powers when it came to technology and invention.

For instance, the magnetic compass was widely used in navigation during Song rule. The period also saw the further improvement of moveable type technology, which allowed for printing of documents and books. Other products were printed on paper in great quantities too, including paper money.

Many of the most famous writers and poets in Chinese history lived their creative careers during the Song Dynasty as well. (The Song Dynasty is divided into the eras of the Northern and Southern Song. The Southern Song refers to the period after it lost control of its northern territory to the Jurchen, forcing the court to retreat south of the Yangtze River and establish its capital in Hangzhou).

A historical drama telling the story of Emperor Renzong, the fourth emperor of the Song Dynasty, has become the most-talked-about TV series in China today. Serenade of Peaceful Joy stars actor Wang Kai as Emperor Renzong, whose reign (1022-1063) marked the high point of Song influence. It is being shown on Hunan Satellite TV, with a simultaneous release on online streaming platform Tencent Video.

The story follows Renzong as he learns that his birth mother was not the Empress Dowager but one of her servant girls Li. The emperor then decides to marry his daughter Princess Huirou (played by actress Ren Min) to Li’s nephew to express his gratitude. However, tensions grow when his wayward daughter falls in love with one of the officials at the royal court. Renzong must decide whether to force his daughter into marriage or let her choose her own path to happiness.

Actress Jiang Shuying plays Empress Cao, who despite being fiercely loyal to Renzong, was not his favoured wife.

The historical drama has proven a critical success. Serenade of Peaceful Joy got a 7.6 rating on Douban, the film and TV series review site, one of the best for a TV series in recent months. Critics say the show has high production values. The screenplay, too, has won accolades.

“Everything from the costumes to the lighting is well executed. Each scene is composed so beautifully it could serve as the wallpaper on your smartphone,” one fan wrote on Douban. “All the little known characters also add a great deal to the story. Wang Kai shows his acting skills again and all his lines were so perfectly delivered. This is a great show.”

The drama, which is adapted from the novel Held in the Lonely Castle, was initially supposed to carry the same title as the book. However, its name was later changed after netizens compared ‘the lonely castle’ to Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. Coincidentally, Wang (who also starred in the earlier drama Langya Bang; see WiC314) is a Wuhan native too.

The TV series also devotes more screen time to the life of Emperor Renzong. Renzong was the longest ruling emperor of the Song Dynasty – 41 years in power – but it’s the first time he has been the main character in a costume drama, says Entertainment Capital. “Compared with other famous emperors like Kangxi and Yongzheng [from the Qing Dynasty], Renzong was decidedly less well-known. During his reign, the world was peaceful and there weren’t many ups and downs. In fact, he was so boring that previous TV shows chose to focus on the officials that worked for him like Bao Zheng and Fan Zhongyan,” Entertainment Capital adds.

While many of the professional critics have loved the series, some viewers haven’t found the plot exciting enough and say the story moves at a slow tempo. Perhaps that’s why viewer numbers have lagged modern dramas Skate into Love and If Time Flows Back, which compete in the same time slots.

Previous dramas about the Song Dynasty have also failed to strike a chord with the wider audience. “Although there is no shortage of costume dramas on our TV screens, most of them are based on the Qing Dynasty, Tang Dynasty or the Three Kingdoms,” says Tencent Entertainment. “In recent years, there have been more dramas about the Song Dynasty but they are still very far behind the Qing Dynasty in number. Nevertheless, the Song Dynasty is considered ‘the birth place of Chinese civilisation’ by many historians. Just think about it: there was Yan Shu, Su Shi, Fan Zhongyan and Sima Guang [all famous poets], etc. We all know their poems and stories very well.”

Part of the problem is that the Song government had a reputation for corruption. “The perception of a lot of audiences on the Song Dynasty comes from history textbooks and classic novels. Every time we talk about the Song, we think about ‘the accumulation of poverty and weakness’. It was full of redundant ministers, redundant soldiers and excessive government expenses. It was an embarrassing period of Chinese history,” a netizen wrote.

The other challenge in adapting Song Dynasty material for TV dramas is that there are fewer screenwriters with a strong grasp of the history of the period. Zhang Kaiyu, the director of Serenade of Peaceful Joy, is unusual in having directed two other Song dramas.

“The story of the Song Dynasty was very messy since it was mostly written by historians in the Yuan Dynasty [which conquered the Song]. There aren’t that many screenwriters that have the ability to showcase the intricate histories of the two Songs,” says Yingyidushe, another blog that reviews films and television.

Perhaps, the biggest problem for Serenade of Peaceful Joy is that Emperor Renzong isn’t as colourful as many of the other characters in China’s long past. “In real life Emperor Renzong was very mediocre. He had a lot of the shortcomings of ordinary people and he lacked the strategic vision of a lot of more heroic figures in history,” Wu Hou, a Song historian, told Entertainment Capital.

Not to be deterred, another costume drama about the same dynasty is already in the pipeline. Director Li Shaohong’s Da Song Gong Ci is expected to be released later this year. It follows the story of Emperor Zhensong, the third Song emperor (and father of Renzong) and his love story with Empress Liu.

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