A long-haired stranger seemingly back from the dead. His ex-fiancée, a beautiful military commander. Four princes conniving for the throne. Fantastical maladies, court backstabbing and power struggle: it could be Westeros, but instead it’s ancient China.
“Nirvana in Fire” or Langya Bang, a Chinese TV serial based on an online novel, has taken the nation by storm. Its 54 episodes were, according to South China Morning Post, viewed more than 3.3 billion times online in the show’s first two months, twice as much as the next most popular series. Word spread quickly on social media, with over 3.5 billion comments generated on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Its court intrigue and fantasy elements, along with breakout success and an intricate cast of characters, led fans to dub it the “Chinese Game of Thrones”.
Set in a loosely historical dynastical China, the set-up is a simple revenge tale. A handsome and mysterious young man calling himself Mei Changshu arrives in the capital of the Liang Empire. His true identity is Lin Shu, son of a famous General who was killed in a bloody massacre ordered by the Emperor of Liang, fiery flashbacks of which open the series. Lin Shu survived the slaughter but his burnt skin was devoured by ice worms, leaving his body full of the “Poison of Cold Fire”. A healer saves him but the cure comes at a price: his appearance is transformed (handy when you’re infiltrating an enemy court) and he will die within ten years, meaning he has no time to lose.
The original novel by Chinese millennial Hai Yan (a pseudonym) was serialised online from 2006. It soon caught the eye of a producer, Hou Hong Liang, who decided to adapt it for television. It was originally aired on state TV, but it wasn’t until it was streamed on the video-streaming website iQiyi in late 2015 that “Nirvana in Fire” became a national phenomenon. Now the series is proving just as much a hit in Taiwan and South Korea, bucking the familiar trend of unspectacular Chinese domestic shows paling in popularity compared to Japanese, South Korean and American imports.
It’s not the only Chinese TV success in recent years. In 2012, “Empress in the Palace” (Zhen Huan Zhuan), a gripping soap about a concubine’s rise to the top in the Forbidden City, was a big critical and commercial hit. In 2015, an equally popular costume drama, “The Empress of China”, incurred the wrath of censors, who objected to the costumes and demanded a new edit that cut out all the shots of cleavage, enraging fans.
But the censors appear to have failed to notice the many controversial plot details in “Nirvana in Fire”, which openly satirises contemporary China by drawing historical parallels. A box of bamboo slips engraved with the names of corrupt officials is a harmless enough nod to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Riskier is a scene in which the son of a wealthy merchant kills a man in a brothel and his father tries to bribe his way out of justice – reminiscent of recurrent scandals involving the “rich second generation” (the children of wealthy Chinese). Then there is the explosion at an illegal fireworks factory that gets covered up, which more than rings a bell with the Tianjin gunpowder factory blast last year that killed over 170 people. Most eyebrow-raising of all is a historic massacre of innocents by the Liang government, all mention of which is ruthlessly suppressed.
What is most interesting about the show, however, is not its knowing winks to the present day, but the high-budget exultation in its Chinese roots. If the plot and setting of “Game of Thrones”, as George R.R. Martin has said, is inspired by the medieval English War of the Roses, then “Nirvana in Fire” owes its historical debt to China’s Warring States period in the 5th century BC, and Confucian notions of good and bad governance. The dialogue is rich with allusions to Chinese culture, and the series is redolent of wuxia, the beloved Chinese martial arts genre.
That is a refreshing break from the more stolid back-catalogue of TV dramas in China, where the costume and set design is cheap and the plots predictable. With more and more people streaming shows online, the “golden age” of Western serial dramas has clearly spread to China.
And there are signs that the traditional West to East cultural exchange is starting to go in the other direction. Last year, a shortened version of “The Empress of China” was streamed on Netflix in the US. Could “Nirvana in Fire” be next? One fan on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, certainly hopes so: “I wish more and more foreigners can appreciate our history and culture by watching these shows.”