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In December of 2017, The Wind Blows in Chang Lin, the sequel to Nirvana in Fire, or Lángyá Bǎng, began airing in China. Though it is probable that many readers of this site were completely unaware of the event, it was without exaggeration one of the most anticipated releases in the world. The original Nirvana in Fire had, after all, been an incredible success both as an online serial novel and as a 2015 television series, “surpassing ten million views by its second day, and receiving a total number of daily internet views on iQiyi of over 3.3 billion by the end of the series. Nirvana in Fire was considered a social media phenomenon, generating 3.55 billion posts on Sina Weibo that praised its characters and story-line. As of December 2016, it has a total view of 13 billion views as reported by VLinkage.” [1]

Of course, a Chinese series may have 13 billion “legitimate” views, incredibly well-received Korean and Japanese syndications, and popular fan translations into various languages and yet raise not one whisper in Anglophone media discourse. There the boosterising think pieces sit, chewing the exhausted fat of a mediocre direct-to-Netflix serial with a title not even the pieces’ writers will clearly remember in two years’ time, exalting prestige television that uses its indisputably high production values to tell maybe three discrete, distended soap operatic stories which center middle-class white male subjectivity in played-out Modernist crisis say 80% of the time. We are given to understand that good television began existing a decade ago, exclusively in the US and maybe a little bit in the UK, with special mention of that Nordic crime thing you like, and that the world is even now bounded in the nutshell of the coastal borders of the US. The fact that this is nakedly market-driven, ahistorical nonsense—and frankly racist—is not particularly important to such analyses.

I am reviewing the original Nirvana in Fire now because, quite soon, the fansubs of the sequel will percolate out. They will be very imperfect, but they are all you will get, because there will be no official translations. [2] In order to engage with The Wind Blows in Chang Lin you will probably want to know something about the original Nirvana in Fire, which alas has the same translation issue. And the original is so revelatory that for all this you had better give it a go or I will come to your house and kill you in real life, I swear to god.

Nirvana in Fire participates in several generic categories, aligning itself with historical fiction, fantasy, political fiction, family sagas, romance, the cop show, drama, and comedy. I get a strong sense that it’s positioning itself largely against Asian genres I’m not very familiar with: the umbrella categories of C-drama, most obviously, but as SF, Nirvana in Fire works something like a super-heroic wuxia. I saw a weakly translated fanfic reimagining the story as shenmo, which is both a fascinating idea and an illustration of how various international definitions of the fantastic may not neatly map onto one another.

Much of the time, nothing “impossible” happens in Nirvana in Fire. Yet the martial artists’ abilities are routinely shown to be superhuman in a way that goes unremarked on by other characters. Beyond this, the very enabling premise of the story is that a man could be burnt alive and yet recover due to a magical beetle that turns one into a vampire-werewolf, that a cure for this state changes one’s face entirely, and that you can use a particular rare marsh grass to either make an elixir that will slowly suck the life from ten men to save one or to make a pill that will boost your strength for a few weeks, then kill you. Yep. There the viewer is, riveted by dead serious court drama, and suddenly everyone’s taking these vampire-werewolves totally at face value. This is the experience of Nirvana in Fire: scholarship, politics, and then some totally fruity shit you just go along with because fuck it, I guess vampire werewolves are real after all. Which I guess is what the real Middle Ages were like, but with elephants.

Because Nirvana in Fire is a historical-fantasy on an epic scale with a huge following, the blatant Western analogue is probably Game of Thrones. But really, the two series don’t have much in common. Violence in Nirvana in Fire is either stylized—prettified, and bloodless martial arts—or naturalistic mass battle scenes that owe more to the tradition of large-scale Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Bondarchuk, with his epic War and Peace, or to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, than to the action tradition at work in Game of Thrones. By the time—dozens of episodes in—Nirvana in Fire features any contemporary battle (other than a series of repetitive, almost dreamlike flashbacks to an important earlier conflict), you’ve come to care a great deal about many of the people at risk. The slaughter is filmed so as to give an idea of the political and human stakes and scale of the conflict. It’s more like a grim war movie (or indeed, Shakespeare’s history plays) than a series of power plays and gotcha-reversals. The narrative is bookended by war but in the show itself, save for the one conflict which the whole narrative has led up to, the power struggles are fierce but bloodless.

As for sex, Nirvana in Fire is hugely predicated on and interested in romantic and platonic bonds. The closest you get to skin showing, however, is people crying over the protagonist with great wracking sobs and the protagonist looking soulfully at them or plucking a flower petal out of their hair in an incredibly loaded way. Sexual assault does feature at two connected points in the narrative, but it’s depicted as something that leaves decades-long scars—a trauma a couple may move past, but which can also poison relationships forever. It can befall even strong, clever, and resolute women, and binds unconnected women together in sympathy and solidarity. The show also focuses on the rape culture that called for and enabled these abuses. One of the ways we understand that the Emperor is unfit to rule is via his response to this sexual assault. Characters discuss his mild punishment and easy forgiveness of an attempted rape. Of course he treated it lightly—after all, it didn’t happen to him.

The basic premise of the story is that in sixth-century China, there sits in the imperial city of Jiangling, in the country of Liang, a bad emperor. He is not mad or foolish so much as paranoid and capricious. His court is more interested in telling him what he wants to hear than what he needs to know or what is best for the country. Two of his sons, the Crown Prince and his half-brother, the clever but amoral Prince Yu, are engaged in a bitter rivalry. The Emperor is frustrated by their antics and their efforts to accrue personal power, which often catch innocent people in the crossfire, but in reality his own behavior licenses and even prompts theirs. His household is ruled by a competent but self-obsessed and bitter Empress. The Emperor has a murky past, having ascended through treachery and begun his reign with it, and he has long since alienated the thoughtful, caring, and indeed loyal friends who brought him to his current position. He has one particularly good son, Prince Jing, of whom he thinks very little. The Emperor dispatches Prince Jing on extended, punishing missions, sending him far away from court.

Jing is ill-favoured both because he’s unwisely forthright and due to his connections. His mother was a common healer who took the Emperor’s fancy when brought in to treat a lady of the court. As such she has no personal fortune or factional support to lend her son. Worse, twelve years ago the former Crown Prince, who practically raised Jing and his best friend (and who was certainly more of a father to Jing than their shared birth father), was convicted of treason and forced to commit suicide as punishment. Supposedly the Crown Prince was trying to hasten his own succession with the help of one of the kingdom’s armies, which was loyal to him. This entire army was likewise massacred by loyalist forces for its apparent involvement in mutiny. Jing, however, is convinced that both his elder brother and the army in which his best friend and cousin, Lin Shu, served were falsely accused.

A mysterious scholar named Mei Changsu, who leads a martial arts sect, shows up in the capital. While he is wooed by the Crown Prince and Prince Yu, Mei Changsu chooses to dedicate himself to the reluctant Prince Jing as a strategist. Jing has been rendered sullen and paranoid by the loss of those dearest to him, and by the arbitrary, irreconcilable cruelty of his father. He’s also obsessed with Lin Shu’s memory. Jing laughs at Changsu, believing there’s no way he can rise from disgraced obscurity to seriously contending for the throne. Jing isn’t particularly interested in personal power, either—he wants primarily to clear the names of Lin Shu and the deceased Crown Prince, and secondarily to avoid the obvious disasters that would arise from either of his brothers’ deeply self-interested reigns.

As we very quickly discover, Mei Changsu is Prince Jing’s best friend Lin Shu. His former strength destroyed and his face utterly changed by severe illness, Mei has spent the last twelve years recovering the barest traces of his health and preparing an elaborate plot to elevate Jing and expose the conspiracy that saw his immediate family and loved ones dead. Mei has to wander through the city of his birth pretending not to know his home, or his well-loved dying grandmother. If the Emperor or his forces discover his real identity, Mei’s life will be forfeit; and if Prince Jing discovers it, Mei believes Jing will act to protect him at all costs rather than doing whatever is necessary to rise to power and thus give the dead justice and Liang a good emperor.

I’m revealing rather than preserving this first crease of the story’s unfolding mystery because the show’s introduction is fairly disorienting, and might well be off-putting. There are a lot of characters, and Nirvana in Fire is fairly relentless in introducing additional ones. Even with this foreknowledge, you’ll probably have to watch several episodes before you get a general idea of who’s who and what’s going on. That said, this is nothing if not a show that rewards your efforts, that gives you something to learn on. A few episodes in, you’ll forget you ever didn’t know him from him. You’ll even forget there are subtitles.

Nirvana in Fire is a moral story, not in that it didactically expresses what one ought to do, but in that many of its characters and the story’s very structure are invested in exploring how much one ought to risk for one’s sense of justice, the social circumstances that create a shared definition of morality, the ways people can fail and succeed as moral actors, and the way cultures work to condone certain breaches of ethics. This isn’t just a revenge plot, though the story is certainly interested in vengeance and justice, and in what makes retribution righteous or selfish. It’s also a story about colonialism and police power, asking questions about both in ways I’m not used to seeing from television. Perhaps its handling of colonialism isn’t as searching as it could be, but then it’s clearly asking questions about inter-Asian forms of colonialism with which I’m less familiar. Besides, I can hardly think of any Western show that touches on this? Here we are with sodding The Crown, set during the postwar collapse of the British Empire, and you’d think Prince Philip’s sodding flying lessons were actually a big-ticket item. It’s the same with bold, sassy, fauxgressive seating arrangement battles in Victoria. Somewhere outside the set the Empire swells and calcifies like fucking Akira, but in here it’s whether Albert and cast-off-Who-companion Vicki will be “allowed” to buck a stodgy uncle and sit together!!

There are so many people I love in this world. Jing’s mother, Concubine Jing, and his close relationship with her are consistently wonderful. Mei’s confidante, the terminally straightforward General Meng, and Lin Shu’s (ex?) fiancée, Duchess Nihuang, are, in very different ways, well-shaped and memorable. I love Prince Yu (well—I would punch his teeth out obviously, but), epic femme fatale Ban Ruo, lovely Jing Rui, Yu Jin (whom I just called Tigger for several episodes), Yu Jin’s dad—it’s a cast of Dickensian ambition and definition. Just try to come out of this show without strong feelings towards even Jing and Mei’s aunt, Grand Princess Li Yang. If you succeed, god, I don’t even want to know you?

There are so many plots and reconciliations and relationships, and so many startlingly great moments. The Emperor himself is such a perfect portrait of toxic masculinity enthroned, shaping the world around his character flaws. When, with hard-won and unexpected maturity, Jing Rui accepts Mei Changsu’s apology for really hurting him—saying that you can’t control whether people care for you, all you can do is care for them, and that it’s not a betrayal if they don’t reciprocate, just the way life goes—the show makes me think about conduct and friendship differently than I have before. It’s really not often that television asks me to do fresh and challenging intellectual, emotional work. The very fact that I’m not overfamiliar with this genre may help the show feel like even more of a welcome change for me.

Masculinity does startling, refreshing things in this world, and the show features a range of compelling male and female characters with deep feelings, vulnerabilities, and hang-ups and important relationships. This Bechdels like anything, and though many important characters and relationships are still male, the narrow performative range of contemporary Western hypermasculinity is considerably relaxed. This allows for fun, touching, novel interactions and possibilities. I can’t speak for viewers with extensive experience of C-drama, but for me this is an intensely homoerotic text, which would also work for people interested in canon, historical polyamory or very arguable asexuality. The intensity and affection of Jing and Mei’s relationship isn’t all I’m watching for—I’m here for the humour, the politics, and the rewarding tragic relish of Prince Yu “going full Azula” arc—but I won’t deny that this ship afforded me considerable satisfaction, and that I read a ton of fic for it.

As I suggested initially, I find it disappointing that we have a highly developed media commentary culture that almost entirely ignores everything in television that isn’t happening in the US, right now. How can we claim to be serious critics if we’re this ignorant, not even knowing and admitting to what we don’t know—much less seeking to inform ourselves, our discourse, and our readers of the breadth of artistic production? We talk about “what television is doing” and “what television can do” without having an idea of even the standard classics and “reading” frameworks for nine-tenths of the material we speak so cavalierly about. If anything, an Anglophonic media critic might know a spit about anime right now, but that’s largely considered an entirely discrete (and still somewhat discredited) field of knowledge.

Alongside C-drama, the separate televisual traditions of Korea, Japan and Taiwan enjoy a great deal of popularity across a broad, multinational Asian audience, sharing some generic features and exhibiting distinctive markers all their own. They are, however, all treated with a similar disdain in the West. The New York Times mustered up immense patronisation for a K-drama in its end-of-year television review, but frankly even this absolutely abject treatment (“The murder mystery Stranger has less of the usual awkwardness and obviousness of many South Korean dramas”) is about the most recognition K-drama’s had in an American publication not aimed at the diaspora. There’s some Tumblr fanwriting for C-drama, but, while that is a valuable contribution, I’d also like to see other forms of reception and response stepping up. There’s a whole world out there, and we cultivate resolute ignorance of it. On the professional side, it’s really just embarrassing?

I’d argue that a lot of what makes Korean television “awkward and obvious” to the NYT reviewers is very likely their simply knowing little about how to read this medium; the same is true for the Western reception of Asian drama more generally. If you come in complacently believing you already know how to interact with a given genre, and that you should judge it by familiar, ill-fitting aesthetic regimes to boot, how likely is it you’ll have a rewarding experience? Especially if, as is likely, you don’t really know enough to pick offerings that will work for you. I mean, I wouldn’t cheerfully admit to being a full dumbass in public like this, but I suppose everyone’s different, bless their hearts.

And honestly, Anglophone academia isn’t doing much better. With a pretty thorough JSTOR search, I found only a paltry handful of pieces on Chinese historical drama, which, let me stress, has been one of the most popular genres in the world for decades now: an article, “Yongzheng Dynasty and Chinese Primetime Television Drama”; a book chapter, “Re-Collecting ‘History’ on Television: ‘Emperor Dramas,’ National Identity, and the Question of Historical Consciousness”; and a linguistics paper specifically on this show (“An Analysis of Conversational Implicature in Nirvana in Fire from the Perspective of Cooperative Principle”). That’s it. That’s the lot. Barring perhaps a few things I missed, that miniscule corpus is the sum total of what English-language academia can tell you about a cultural project that has drawn on vast sums of resources, that has necessitated the construction of an entire fake ancient capital city shared by several productions, and which is enjoyed by a huge portion of humanity. I guess instead of hearing a damn thing about any of that from any talented Asian student we really needed to fund the eightieth white boy Joyce PhD. We just desperately fucking required that contribution to the sum of human knowledge.

Two projects make me a little hopeful about Western media studies beginning to address this vast lacunae. “Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, is currently seeking submissions, which are due on 1 March, 2018. In a field highly related to C-drama, and neglected in its own right, the Korean Television Reader is also seeking articles, due the 31st of March, 2018. This review is something of a placeholder—I tried to find someone else to write this piece. I wanted to give the opportunity to someone with more subject knowledge than I have, who’d be more able to situate this series for you and for me alike. Unfortunately, despite a fair amount of searching I couldn’t find people with the necessary skillset—something I’m sure speaks more to the paucity of my networks than the breadth of expertise out there. If you are a person with strong contextual knowledge of C-drama (preferably Asian/Asian diaspora) who can write criticism or academic work placing Nirvana in Fire in those discourses, I am truly eager for your contribution. If you would like any assistance or would find it useful, I would be delighted to help you shape or place your work at a venue, paying if possible. Whether or not you’re an academic, your voice is desperately needed here.

The Anglophone West stands to learn so much from engaging with global television, and to gain so much knowledge and pleasure. I’m fascinated by the production circumstances that allowed the release of Nirvana in Fire as a serial novel, and which allowed that same writer to adapt this tight script, which was shot in a block and aired—all fifty-four episodes, each about forty-five minutes long—in less than a month. The sequel was made and aired in a similar time frame. What a fascinatingly different process from Western models! Surely publishers, as well as people studying Victorian serial fiction, are interested in this successful alternative fiction distribution model? I’m also curious about the ideas of narrative structure that make Nirvana in Fire’s episode cut-off points so bewildering to me, about the contrast between China’s governmental censoring apparatus and our equally restrictive and risk-averse prestige-television funding structures, and about the regionalism that results in the Mandarin of several of the show’s actors being dubbed over with “clean,” RP Mandarin.

Even if some non-Anglosphere productions weren’t great, which is not at all the case, these questions would nonetheless be so worthy of study! I am embedded in a Western, Anglophone sphere; those of us within this broad, internally variable culture need to be translating and distributing and seeking out foreign television and literature—only now are we finally getting our first translation of the enormously important mid-century Legacy of the Condor Heroes books, and the novel Nirvana in Fire is only available in English incompletely, in rough translation, on somebody’s WordPress. Right now, there’s a one-way transaction via which the Anglosphere pumps out expensive but mediocre mass cultural products with the brute force of mega-corps behind them. As far as influence goes, the Anglosphere is taking little back save via the tortured circumlocutions of appropriation. The world knows the products of this culture in magnified and distorted grotesqueries (its Mickey Mouse, its cowboys, the endlessly repeated images of its leaders) and by this same culture’s deeply ambivalent outward actions; and yet it cannot be fucked to know the world in turn.

The Anglophone West talks and talks and never fucking listens. It’s past time to get basically cognizant of and competent at comp-lit. What ever happened to Baby Goethe? Those of us embedded—trapped?—in this culture need, for our own sake as much as anything, to put effort into transcending the shite distribution system that prevents us from getting anything but the lowest-common-denominator, lowest-risk, glossiest, and most comfortable products from our own backyard. Imagine what puncturing the encystedness produced by the strangling neo-studio-system economies that dominate Western mass art production from the ground up could do to Western art production? This activity would be self-serving and outward-focused, a comingled matter of political and aesthetic survival. Nirvana in Fire demonstrates how imperative it is for Westerners to actively refuse to let their cultural worldview—and with it their sense of the ways of being and narratives which might be possible, livable—be circumscribed by executives at Fox.


[1] Source: [return]

[2] Officially licensed, somewhat rough, but semi-professional versions can be found at Viki. [return]

Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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