Hit costume drama re-creates nation's cultural heyday

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Liu Yifei plays talented teahouse owner Zhao Pan'er in A Dream of Splendor, widely considered to have raised the bar for domestic costume romances. CHINA DAILY

When actor Chen Xiao arrived at a hotel in Zhejiang province early last year to shoot a scene for a costume production, he was somewhat nervous.

Appearing in the period drama A Dream of Splendor, which has become an online hit, was a daunting prospect for Chen, as he hadn't acted in such a production for a long time.

"The night before, I stayed in my room until midnight memorizing my lines, and I continued to do so after getting up the next morning," he said.

In the drama, Chen stars as Gu Qianfan, the deputy head of a secret royal agency, who interrogates a prisoner.

"I almost forgot my lines the first time, because I was too nervous," he said.

However, Chen's blushes were spared when Yang Yang, who directed the production, made a quick adjustment to the actor's next scene, in which Chen was required to lean against the wooden hull of a boat, rather than sitting in the vessel. This change gave Chen more time to relax and fully involve himself with the production.

During the following four and a half months, Chen, a Central Academy of Drama graduate, worked hard on his role, which required shooting footage overnight consecutively for 15 days and performing underwater stunts in a pool.

Chen, an award-winning veteran performer who shot to stardom with the 2014 television series The Romance of the Condor Heroes, has seen his dedication pay off.

A Dream of Splendor, which started to air in 40 episodes on the streaming site Tencent Video and its overseas service WeTV early last month, is one of China's most popular dramas to date this year. It is also being distributed to countries such as South Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia and Japan.

The production is widely considered by critics to have raised the bar for domestic costume romances, a popular genre in the nation's showbiz industry.

On Douban, one of the country's most-visited review platforms, the series earned 8.3 points out of 10-one of the highest scores for a new Chinese drama broadcast or streamed this year, while on MyDramaList, an English-language website where Asian drama and movie fans rate and discuss productions, it scored 8.3 points out of 10.

Loosely inspired by a classical play written in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) by Guan Hanqing, known as "China's Shakespeare", A Dream of Splendor is set in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

It tells the story of Zhao Pan'er, a talented teahouse owner from a humble background who rescues two women from miserable family lives, teaming up with them to successfully launch a business in Dongjing, the then-capital of the Song regime, and now known as Kaifeng city, Henan province.

Chen, as the secret agent, is trapped in during his investigation of a scandal related to the queen, during which he encounters the female protagonist Zhao. He and Zhao fall in love after experiencing a series of hardships.

Zhao is played by A-list actress Liu Yifei, one of the few Chinese stars to earn international recognition from several big-budget blockbusters, ranging from The Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jackie Chan, to Disney's Mulan.

A Dream of Splendor marks Liu's return to the small screen 16 years after her previous TV drama, The Return of the Condor Heroes. Industry observers said her beauty and classic temperament made her an ideal choice to play Zhao.

The natural chemistry between the two leading roles, showcased in the romantic scenes, prompted netizens to download such footage as short video clips. The clips circulated online, triggering a frenzy on social media platforms, according to industry analysts.

Panoramic view

In tandem with rising interest in traditional culture among the younger generation in recent years, the hustle and bustle of urban life during the Song Dynasty depicted in A Dream of Splendor has proved another attraction for audiences, according to Yuan Yun'er, a critic based in Beijing.

Yuan said the production has achieved a breakthrough with its down-to-earth perspective, as many previous such hits were fantasy tales that centered on the love stories of celestial beings.

"From the bustling marketplace in Dongjing to the riverside households in Qiantang (now Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province), the drama looks at the way in which Chinese lived about 1,000 years ago, providing an interesting and panoramic view of ordinary people's lives in those days," Yuan said.

The series' creators started to prepare for the project two years ago by researching Chinese history.

Yang, the director, said they spent a lot of time reading numerous books about the history and culture of the Song Dynasty, and invited experts specializing in fields ranging from tea culture to ancient feasts to guide the crew as cultural consultants.

The creators were encouraged by Yang to draw inspiration from prestigious Song Dynasty paintings such as renowned artist Zhang Zeduan's masterpiece Along the River during the Qingming Festival and Emperor Zhao Ji's work Listening to a Zither.

Defining the Song Dynasty, with its wide range of achievements from poetry to painting and calligraphy, as the heyday of Chinese history, Yang said aesthetic tastes throughout this era were "delicate, high-end, yet also simple".

Yang cited the writer Wu Zimu, who was born around 1270, as saying that four types of leisure activities were popular among refined scholars and urban families in ancient times-burning incense, brewing tea, hanging scrolled paintings, and arranging flowers. The director, fascinated by these cultural legacies, said she tried to incorporate them in the storyline for A Dream of Splendor.

After preliminary work was completed in a total of 10 cities and counties, Yang said shooting for A Dream of Splendor began in February last year. The main scenes were filmed in Hengdian and Xiangshan counties, Zhejiang province; Wuxi, Jiangsu province; and Xiangyang, Hubei province.

Empowering women

Chen Shiyu, who researches the history of women's clothing and accessories from ancient times, said that in addition to reaching a cultural peak in China's long history, the Song Dynasty is considered one of the few imperial regimes that allowed women to voice diversified options.

A prosperous economy developed during this dynasty, with people mostly being open-minded-making it possible for women to pursue their career ambitions, Chen said.

In recent years, Chinese movies and TV series have featured an increasing number of stories themed on strong and independent women, with female audiences forming the majority of their overall viewership.

As evidence of such a trend, A Dream of Splendor has resonated with numerous female audiences with its inspirational depictions of three brave and talented women who rely on their abilities to earn a decent living.

In addition to Liu, who stars as the protagonist Zhao, the other two major female roles are played by Liu Yan, who appears as Sun Sanniang, a veteran cook who excels at teatime refreshments, and Lin Yun, who plays Song Yinzhang, a prodigy of the pipa (a four-stringed plucked lute).

Yang said, "When I received the script for A Dream of Splendor in summer 2020, I was touched by the leading female characters' friendship and pursuit of their dreams and love as they struggled against the odds." She added that this was one of the most important factors that persuaded her to direct the series.

"Zhao Pan'er has a complex personality, which is mainly the result of her miserable past. But she is smart, hard-headed and unyielding, thus she easily strikes a chord with modern women, especially those who leave their hometowns, enduring loneliness to strive for a better future in big cities such as Beijing," Yang added.

Yuan, the critic, said China's development over the years has shaped the future for a large number of well-educated women and has also seen female audiences outnumber their male counterparts in recent times. As a result, movies and dramas depicting successful heroines have been welcomed.

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