In the evening of August 12, 2015, a series of deadly explosions tore through the east of Tianjin, a major city some 200 kilometers away from the Chinese capital, and shook the nearby area like an earthquake. Stunned locals—many bleeding profusely from wounds inflicted by shards of broken glass—saw a towering mushroom cloud not far away from their homes.1 Unbeknownst to them, their apartment buildings were as little as 600 meters away from an undisclosed stockpile of dangerous chemicals.2 The disaster left nearly 800 people injured and 165 dead.3
That autumn, historical drama Nirvana in Fire [NIF] aired, and many noted an uncanny resonance between the show’s plot and the fatal events of August. In the series, two corrupt princes vie to become the next emperor. One sets fire to a profitable but illegal gunpowder workshop the other runs, in order to ferment public opinion against him. Scenes of charred streets and agonized residents returned to TV screens through the drama, like a nightmare that refuses to be repressed, although reporting on the real explosion in Tianjin had been sanitized, even outright censored. In the show, Prince Jing—the upright counterpart to his ambitious but amoral brothers—laments amidst the ruin, “Those who live here are all diligent and conscientious common people. Who among them would have known that there was an illegal gunpowder workshop in the neighborhood of their homes?”
That a historical drama could so closely reenact contemporary events was something of an accident, since NIF had finished shooting in June, two months before the calamity in August. But it is also no surprise that the show offers relevant commentary on modern politics. Its overall interest in the corruption of political power is also the paramount concern of Chinese society today. That, combined with the show’s tasteful, minimalist aesthetic, suspenseful plot and star-studded cast, made NIF the blockbuster Chinese television series of 2015.
Ostensibly about the past, NIF and its fellow historical dramas have much more to do with the present. The most well-received Chinese historical fiction in recent years—such as NIF and its predecessor The Legend of Zhen Huan—began as a genre of online fiction called “historical fantasies” (li shi jia kong). Typically the names of the dynasties in such works are made-up, and the mores, dress, and speech are a mishmash of disparate imperial traditions in Chinese history. The dramas adapted from these online narratives reinvent Chinese historical fiction and television by creatively reconfiguring the signs of pastness. In this sense, they are markedly distinguished from successful drama series made under official auspices in the early 2000s, such as Kangxi Dynasty (Kangxi Wangchao), which are keen to depict stories of the Great Man—real historical rulers who successfully spearheaded China’s imperial expansion. Insofar as NIF chooses to depict a story with no real basis in historical fact, the new show is perhaps more frank than its predecessors about the fact that its narrative is not at all an attempt at historiography, but a veiled polemic on contemporary events instead. Created and funded by non-official actors, NIF presents a political message that differs from the older shows: here, the emperor is not the hero, but the ultimate villain. If Communist leaders indeed identified themselves with the awe-inspiring imperial figures in earlier dramas, NIF offers a defiant message by portraying the ruler in an unflattering light.
Indeed, NIF offers a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of political justice. Its protagonist, Lin Shu, is a Count of Monte Cristo type of character, who belonged to a family of capable military generals. The Lins served their country, Liang, by vanquishing the Hua state decades ago, but members of the conquered Hua nation connived with political rivals of the Lin family, weaving a plot that wrongfully condemned the Lins as traitors. The show begins with Lin Shu’s return to the Liang Empire twelve years after his family and close friends were slaughtered by the reigning regime. Throughout the show’s 54 episodes, he involves himself in court politics to clear family’s name, as well as elevate his childhood best friend, Prince Jing, to the imperial throne.
Lin Shu and Prince Jing are likable characters because they do not seek vengeance for its own sake, but are driven by idealistic convictions. They want to re-establish justice in the corrupt realm of Liang, where loyal ministers and the common people alike are routinely sacrificed to the avarice of the powerful. Certain lines strike Chinese viewers as immediately impactful because they are meaningful both within the fictional world and in the context of the audience’s real lives. Take this passionately delivered speech as an example: “A ruler is the source, for if the origin is clean then the river is clear, if the origin turbid then the river muddy. In the government today, honesty is deemed naïve, and those who do not scheme are called inane. Whose fault is it then that the ways of the world are in such a state?” Incredible as it is, such thinly veiled political comments air daily on Chinese prime time TV, minutes after the stuffy, state-sponsored news program Xinwen Lianbo, which broadcasts on nearly every channel everyday at 7 P.M.
But if Lin Shu and Prince Jing get the last word on the meaning of justice through their successful political maneuvers, theirs are not the only voices we hear. Compelling antagonists offer disparate views that call Lin Shu and Prince Jing’s (at times single-minded) conviction into question. Descendants of the Hua people, whose state was sacked by Lin Shu’s family decades ago, also participate in Liang politics in order to avenge their loss in accordance with their own sense of justice. But since they have allied themselves with the enemies of the Lins, Lin Shu has little sympathy for the plight of the Hua. In episode 47, Lin Shu’s friend Lin Chen asks outright: “Many among the Hua clan want to recover their sovereignty. From their point of view, that is justice to them, is it not?” To this, Lin Shu can only offer a muddled and evasive response. In another elucidating moment, Xie Yu, a general who supports a corrupt prince, growls in episode 17: “How can one differentiate between righteousness and wickedness in political struggles? Those who win are naturally righteous.” This cynical commentary sheds a different light on Lin Shu’s quest: Does the justice of Lin Shu’s action result, at least in part, from the fact that he plays the game of politics and wins?
Ultimately, Lin Shu and Prince Jing offer no sustainable philosophy of justice in the context of NIF, nor a viable framework for an institution that can negotiate among conflicting demands. Without effective reforms, his vision of an effective government—consisting of a dedicated emperor and honest ministers—provides no structural remedy against future corruption. In fact, Lin Shu’s view of the human condition is reminiscent of the Chinese government’s propaganda tradition, which celebrates superhuman heroes in order to avoid exposing the failing system. (Examples of such exceptional figures may include the exceedingly selfless Red Army soldier Lei Feng; the dedicated provincial bureaucrat Jiao Yulu; and the “model worker” and “iron man” Wang Jinxi.) Ironically, in spite of NIF’s blatant dissatisfaction with the current political situation in China, its protagonist still maintains that a functional polis requires a good ruler, rather than the thorough reform of the overarching structure.
The good ruler in this case, Prince Jing, is male and ethnically Liang. As far as he barely speaks to his wife—a nameless young lady belonging to the prominent clan of Liu—women are left without significant positions in the plot’s denouement. Lady Liu arrives in the show like an afterthought, late enough to not take screen time away from the homosocial friendships among men, but not too late to provide Prince Jing with a male heir in the final episode. Prince Jing’s politically savvy mother, Consort Jing, in turn happily retreats to the back palaces and takes on the role of a doting grandmother in the penultimate scene of the show. Memorable female characters, such as the perspicacious consort, the martially gifted Duchess Nihuang, and the capable secrete agent Xia Dong, are first and foremost situated vis-a-vis male characters as kind mothers, pining lovers, and loyal wives. Moreover, the show ends with the total defeat and assimilation of the Hua people, whose political leaders are women, and whose suffering and hunger for vengeance are conveniently disposed of in the final episodes.
When the egomaniacal emperor who wrongly condemned Lin Shu’s family is finally defeated, he spits out the most powerful response yet to the victorious pair: “As long as one sits on the throne, he naturally changes. No matter what Prince Jing is like today, when he sits on the throne, he will change, too.” His remark is insightful not because Prince Jing will necessarily become unprincipled—perhaps the uncommonly stubborn and inflexible prince will remain true to his values—but because the emperor, as the most implicated participant in imperial governance, knows that the problem does not lie with the individual only, but with the institution as well.
NIF offers thought-provoking opportunities for pondering the nature of political justice, but not satisfactory answers. The fact that the main characters’ worldview does not achieve hegemony, and that their antagonists are allowed to be compelling, attest to the show’s sophistication, but also its lack of resolution. But if large-scale political solutions are untenable within the framework of NIF, the show does present a minor incident between two secondary characters, which seems to offer an alternative to the brittle system of retributive justice. In a moving moment in episode 21, the courtesan Gong Yu kneels down in front of Mrs. Zhuo, whose infant son Gong Yu’s father murdered decades ago, and offers to submit herself to death as an atonement for her father’s sins. Gong Yu, having just avenged her father’s death, acknowledges another’s claim against her by that same logic. Yet Mrs. Zhuo refuses to take life for life, because she would not kill an orphaned young woman.
This brief interaction between two minor characters presents a significant moment, rare in the show because it unequivocally promises a future better than the past. There is repentance for past sins, acknowledgment of another’s hurt, empathy for others’ positions—even if not yet outright forgiveness. And the lack of immediate absolution may be more honest and sophisticated than forgiveness cheaply dispensed, because learning to outlive trauma is a process, to which the acknowledgment of hurt is but a beginning. Perhaps NIF’s artistic and social value also derives from the fact that the series acknowledges pain and injustice in the public sphere—such as the explosion in Tianjin that shattered countless lives—when other forms of media would not.
*All translation is my own.
Ruilin Fan is a student of Renaissance drama who grew up in Beijing, China. Her current research interests include embodiment, specifically the relationship between word and flesh.