Somewhere I saw this referred to as the Chinese Game of Thrones, which startled me because if anything I see it as the opposite of Game of Thrones—that is, the rape-infested, amoral violence that made me drop the first novel halfway in—has only the violence of war in common with this 54 episode masterpiece, which sucked me in so hard I was skipping sleep in order to keep watching.
I think of the tone closer to Noblebright, a type of outlook that the Chinese made popular a couple thousand years ago.
Though I think Martin is a terrific writer, it seemed to me with Game of Thrones (as far as I got), he set out to give the readership all the sex and violence he could possibly stuff into one story, with scant attention to a sense of history or cultural interplay, or the loyalty and tenderness, sorrow and laughter, the tension of moral struggle and the torqueing distortion of power that ensnared me in Nirvana in Fire. The awareness of the distortion of power.
On the surface Nirvana in Fire is about revenge, but that’s far too simplistic. It’s about justice. I suspect, especially these days, if Hollywood had made this story, they would probably have climaxed it when the Big Bad was taken down, and ended with the heroes trotting off for celebratory whoopie.
Don’t think the final sequence taking down the Big Bad isn’t nail-bitingly intense, because it most definitely is, but the true climax is even more powerful—everyone, especially our hero, risking absolutely everything to gain justice for people not just killed but whose reputations had been destroyed thirteen years ago.
And those who did the deed—who begin the story arc wielding imperial power—don’t cynically shrug off the past. They will do anything to keep their secrets, which—one picks up through the subtleties of phenomenal acting, because the subtitles are at best adequate—haunt them.
It’s tense, passionate, romantic, full of great battle and ninja action as well as complicated political gamesmanship and quiet, tender moments. It’s funny, tragic, gripping, and always, always visually stunning.
And here’s the thing. The female actors don’t have to strip in order to convey sexual politics or relations. And we don’t have to see graphic torture scenes for those dungeon scenes to be breathtakingly intense.
First off, I have to warn you to take anything I say with a couple trainloads of salt, because I don’t speak Chinese, I’ve only read a handful of Chinese novels translated into English, and while I’ve read some Chinese history, the emphasis is on the ‘some’—a tiny fraction of the hundreds of books I’ve read over sixty years about European history.
China has such a long, fascinating, complicated history, which furnishes an equally long-view historical outlook that we just don’t find much of in the USA. When I compare this to those bits of early episodes of Game of Thrones that I saw, with the generic faux-medieval design and actors who seemed uncomfortable in their tunics and gowns, while I understand there was some fudging-for-modern-audience about the design of Nirvana in Fire, the characters wear the clothes naturally, their customs flow naturally, even when rigidly constrained into ritual. Everything feels authentic, to the women’s tiny steps mandated in court to the way men and women played their fans, and held aside their sleeves when pouring tea.
But that’s window dressing. What compelled me was the worldview. Reputation is important—and not just to the good guys—especially family reputation, for it lasts beyond death. Friendship is important. Loyalty is vitally important. There are some things worth dying for.
The series apparently comes out of the wuxia tradition— the word “wuxia” (?
When comics and film came along, wuxia spread into those media, and flourished. During my lifetime, the USA has imported tons of low-budget Chinese martial arts films, most of which more or less fall under the wuxia umbrella. On the plus side, these include badass female warriors who whirl through the air like balletic chainsaws, gracefully wielding as much power as the males—though female non-warriors still represent the traditional submissive female, whose power is covertly expressed.
This seeming contradiction isn’t contradictory to the Chinese, who have grown up with the jianghu tradition, which runs parallel to wuxia in a way I would love to understand better, but it seems even older. My still-tentative take is that the jianghu world is the world of the outsider, always fascinating to a complicated, repressive cultural order.
The jianghu world exists amorphously within the rest of China, in some stories with actual lands (formidably defended by martial artists, as in this story), and in others existing as a type of roaming martial art outsider. They paid no attention to political boundaries, and dealt with high and low without any distinction, except maybe a preference for the latter, which made them popular, especially when they adhered to a code of honor. In most English translations, jianghu seems to be rendered into the somewhat quaint ‘pugilist’ as in Pugilistic World.
So Nirvana in Fire is set in the 600s, during the time of the Wei and Liang dynasties, in the north and south respectively. It will help you get into the story to know that the pugilistic world when this story occurs is represented by the Jiang Zuo Alliance, with its headquarters high in an amazing place called Langya Hall, which was the Google of the 600s.
People can climb the billion steps to ask any question by putting a slip of paper in any of a number of boxes in a wall, and within a period of time get an answer, while overhead pigeons are constantly bringing messages from all over the world, keeping otherwise isolated Langya Hall up to the minute on all world happenings, great and small. We only see the data archive for a few seconds, but it is mind-bogglingly awesome.
The series opens with a gigantic battle, Chinese against Chinese—we will find out that these are in fact the Chiyan warriors, loyal defenders of Da Liang, attacked by their own people because of politics at the top levels. After some gruesome fighting we see General Lin Xie holding his son, Lin Shu, by the hand—then telling him to survive before he drops him into the abyss . . .
And Lin Shu wakes up. We know that this is memory as we get our first kind-of peek at him, his hair hanging down, and nothing but stark reddish eyes peering out.
Here’s the thing. That first episode moves fast in getting the story going—judging by how much the characters say, and how little gets subtitled, there is probably a lot that falls between the cracks. The new viewer has no idea who a lot of these people are, especially as their names change a lot.
We briefly meet Lin Chen, the master of Langya Hall while he practices his sword drill high on a very narrow mountain top. He is a doctor and sword-master as well as head honcho to the data collection, having taken in our hero, Mei Changsu, chief of the Jiang Zuo Alliance—and in secret, Lin Shu, now son of the “traitor” General Lin Zie. (And Lin Chen, wisecracking badass, nearly steals the show in the last five episodes.)
But we’re in the first few minutes of episode one.
You only notice on a second viewing that every scene here is foreshadowings: early on the emperor is strolling along in his palace with his head eunuch, and he chuckles over the latest crypic message from Langya Hall that He who possesses the Divine Talent possesses the world. The emperor is comfortably amused, and the first-time viewer lets this slip by while trying to memorize yet another pair of characters . . . but on a subsequent viewing those words actually made my arms chill.
Well, the emperor’s two eldest living sons are taking those words very seriously indeed as they battle for power in the imperial court. A Divine Talent is nothing more or less than a super-powered military strategist and an elder statesman rolled up in one, an eminence grise, or Richelieu, to those who know Western history.
The Crown Prince and Prince Yu, have been struggling against each other for precedence in court. The Crown Prince is the heir, but that could change, and Prince Yu intends to achieve just that. After his brother sends an assassin right into his private hall in an attempt to take him out, he decides to go himself to Langya Hall to find out how a neighboring prince (who everyone thought weak) gained power. Apparently this prince first consulted Langya Hall.
We learn in this brief assassination attempt that Prince Yu, while no ninja, has iron control as well as enough training to avoid the blade, though he takes a bad slice to one hand. When he gets to Langya Hall, he’s given a silk pouch that contains an answer that he is not to read until he gets home—which he does: He who holds the Divine Talent holds the world.
The Crown Prince receives the exact same message at the same time, and starts conniving with the sinister Marquis Xie. Both princes throw their considerable power and wealth into locating and buying this Divine Talent . . . who seems to have vanished.
Unbeknownst to them, Mei Changsu is already arriving at the capital, as guest of the blithe, cheerful Jingrui, whose father is the Marquis Xie. That’s right—the same sinister eminence grise behind the Crown Prince.
Two important things happen before they arrive at the Xie manor: one, they meet Princess Mu Nihuang of Yunnan outside the gates. She attacks Jingrui and his buddy Yan Yujin, and defeats both. It’s a test. She compliments them on their martial skills.
She wants to know who is inside the closed carriage with them, and they explain that it’s a sick friend coming to town to recover. She glances curiously, but inside, Mei Changsu/ Lin Shu listens with an expression of yearning, and we wonder if he and this gorgeous warrior princess have a history. (Um, yeah.)
Right before they reach the house of the enemy, Mei Changsu asks the boys to introduce him as Su Zhe, a sickly traveling scholar. Because the thing is, Lin Shu, you will find out, in recovering from that terrible fall off the cliff that we saw in the first minute or two, survived because of a deadly poison that not only changed his looks, but is slowly but surely killing him. He’s unable to defend himself—some days he can barely walk. The actor playing him does an astonishing job conveying this weakness with the utmost gravitas—then unleashing verbal fury and passion that is again quickly hidden. (One of the remarkable bits is how everyone, including Mei Changsu’s deadly enemies, make certain that he gets warm blankets.)
He is not without resources (besides all the pigeons constantly bringing him messages): most notably, Fei Liu, the young teenage boy who seldom speaks, but who is the toughest martial artist on site . . . except for honest, straightforward General Meng, head of the Imperial Guards, who is the strongest warrior. (Because Langya Hall keeps lists of who’s who in the martial arts world, along with other lists of bests.)
Okay, so we’re still early in episode one and Mei Changsu now has three, count them three, identities: Lin Shu, the blithe warrior youth friend of the dead and disgraced Prince Qi (and that story gets explicated with maximum drama), nephew of the emperor; Mei Changsu, powerful chief of the pugilist world Jiang Zuo Alliance; and Su Zhe, sickly scholar and guest of Jingrui. He is sometimes also referred to as xiao-Shu, which appears to be a kind of honorary title, as Xiao is the royal dynasty’s name. [EDITED TO ADD: correction courtesy of one of the awesome comments below]
And within a day or so, Mei Changsu/Lin Shu/Su Zhe is already embroiled in high politics when the emperor hosts a martial arts tournament in order to find a suitor for Princess Nihuang. Prince Yu wants to annex him, the Crown Prince (and Marquis Xie) want to kill him, and Mei Changsu/Su Zhe navigates successfully between them all as he zeroes in on his real target, the true-hearted, unregarded Prince Jing, who was once his best friend.
Bur Prince Jing hates court connivers, and doesn’t trust this so-called Divine Talent. Watching the evolving relationship between these two (especially as Prince Jing starts to suspect the real identity of his advisor) is one of the most compelling pleasures of the series.
At this point the story really takes off. If I started describing some of the amazing, stunning, visual treats and dramatical heart-grabbers, this already long post would stretch out into chapters. Just believe me that the tension builds, and builds, and when you think it can’t get any more tense and amazing, it does.
What I suggest for Western viewers is to just watch the first four or five episodes, and don’t sweat learning who everyone is. You’ll find yourself figuring it all out by the fifth episode or so. Then watch them again, because you’ll pick up a whole lot more. In fact, as I went through the entire series, I sometimes came back and watched that first episode yet again, until I discovered that every single line and image lays down important tracks.
It’s become a huge phenomenon in the Asian world—and is spreading rapidly in both directions from there.
It’s now available on Netflix.
I do recommend the German subtitles at Viki.com if you can read German—they are better than the English (definitely better grammar and spelling), but the English are okay. Watch the characters, and you can sift out plenty of meanings.