I got to know famous characters of ancient China from Chinese textbooks and Hong Kong / Taiwanese drama back in school. Back then, I didn’t care from which period those characters were from. Only when I started to watch Serenade of Peaceful Joy (清平乐) did I realise: Wow… Those dudes were from the Song dynasty (960-1279).
Serenade of Peaceful Joy (清平乐) is a Chinese TV drama adapted from popular novel Held In The Lonely Castle (孤城闭). While the novel revolved around a Song dynasty princess Song Huirou, the drama decided instead to follow the life of her father, Song Renzong, who ruled from 1022 – 1063. The drama also took great pains to replicate ancient China, from costumes to food and to rituals. A great portion of the script was also devoted to the discussion of politics and warfare that plagued the otherwise prosperous era.
Read more about the TV series: http://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202005/07/WS5eb35fe8a310a8b241153d46.html
However, what stood out most was how various characters whom I knew from young came to life. Or should I say, broke previous stereotypes? Here are the top 5 characters that you may or may not know, who made me realise human behaviour never changes after 1,000 years.
Bao Zhen a.k.a Bao Qing Tian a.k.a Justice Bao Was A Complaint King
We knew Justice Bao from the popular Taiwanese series back in 1993. Back then, he was fierce, cold and had a black face (literally). He also featured a crescent tattoo/scar/birthmark (I don’t freaking know what it was) on his forehead, waaaay before Harry Potter made meteorological marks on the forehead famous.
In Serenade of Peaceful Joy, however, Justice Bao just made a passing appearance. In fact, Song Renzong and his premiers spent more time talking about Justice Bao then when he appeared on screen.
During those discussions, the premiers were
bitching reporting to Song Renzong that Justice Bao had submitted official complaints about the new Finance Minister (OK, that’s my interpretation and translation of the post in question). Yes, he submitted complaints, with an “s”. In fact, Song Renzong had the first Finance Minister replaced because of Justice Bao’s complaints. So his premiers were like rolling their eyes and snickering, “This bugger just cannot stop himself from complaining about anyone who took that position.”
The next time this issue was revisited, Song Renzong had appointed Justice Bao as the next Finance Minister. Song Rezong’s logic was clear: No one will match the high standards Justice Bao has for the person taking up the Finance Minister’s position. The only person he will not complain about would be himself.
In that scene where we finally saw Justice Bao’s character appear onscreen, he was begging Song Renzong to recall the appointment. He didn’t want people to think that he was complaining about the previous Finance Ministers because he wanted to become the Finance Minister.
Of course, Song Renzong did not rescind his order.
If there’s any lesson I learnt, other than that Justice Bao was a complaint king, it was this:
If you want a position badly, keep complaining about the incumbent. You’ll get that position eventually.
Sima Guang Is A Male Chauvinist Pig
Every Singaporean kid would have come across Sima Guang in the Chinese textbook. He famously broke a vat to save a friend, when everyone else was afraid of being punished if they broke the vat.
Of course, when I grew up, I also learned that much of what we knew of Chinese history was a result of Sima Guang’s effort to curate and collate annals that were available back then.
Funnily, the “upright character” we were told to emulate as a kid is an ugly one in today’s standards. He was so conservative that he proposed to ban women sumo wrestling in public. He was much of the opinion that women should stay at home and be out of sight. I particularly like the exchange he had with Princess Huirou:
SMG: It’s an ugly sight to see women sumo wrestlers bare their breasts to fight in public.
PHR: So, who won the contest just now?
PHR: You don’t know, because you were only focused on their breasts! Other people were focused on the spirit of sportsmanship, the art of performance and yet all you could see were breasts bouncing before your eyes, biatch!
*If you think I make a good translator for Chinese dramas, please recommend me to the relevant TV company’s management. Thank you!
Netizens concluded that Sima Guang must have used his head to break the vat when he was young.
Fan Zhongyan Is The Scholar
Fan Zhongyan should be a lesser known character in Singapore. After all, I only knew about him when I studied Chinese Literature in junior college (senior high school). However, from Serenade of Peaceful Joy, I learned something from Fan Zhongyan’s life story.
Fan Zhongyan was a well-respected scholar. He was a role model. However, he was never made the premier by Song Renzong. Song Renzong’s click could not understand why Fan Zhongyan was not appointed premier despite his popularity in the scholarly world. It was like, why can’t Xiaxue be MediaCorp’s CEO when she’s more entertaining than (gosh, I cannot name a single contemporary MediaCorp actor/actress)?
Song Renzong explained, after he sent Fan Zhongyan out of the capital the Nth time to some ulu sama bird no want to lay egg place: “He knows how to behave like the scholar that everyone was taught to be, but he does not know how to manage the people around him, in particular the high ranking officials.”
In plain Singaporean terms, “scholars only know how to study, and they know nuts about leading a team”.
It is rather ironic, that the meritocratic education system we have in place in Singapore is most likely the one that Song Renzong and Fan Zhongyan wanted to set up back in the 1000s. They wanted everyone to have a fair shot at education and therefore move up the social ladder. And yet this kind of system generates the kind of scholars they were producing (and trying to make obsolete) back then – people who could only regurgitate textbooks but couldn’t make inferential judgements for goodness sake.
The lesson I learnt? The problem about taking exams too literally is a very Chinese thing dating all the way back to (at least what I can refer from this drama series) Song dynasty.
Han Qi The Buddy For Life
Han Qi is what Singaporeans will colloquially refer to as “Song Renzong’s suck cock buddy”. Song Renzong was made Emperor from a young age, but he could not reign independently. His (non-biological) mother sat with him in the courts to rule as a proxy. She was like the Song dynasty version of Empress Dowager Cixi (a.k.a Tzu Hsi or Suzy) in the Qing dynasty.
Young Song Renzong sneaked out of the palace one day to look for a shop that sold preserved dates that his biological mother used to buy for him. At the shop, he found a young scholar defending the shop owners from a local gang who were there to extort them for “protection money”. That young scholar was Han Qi and that was how Song Renzong first got to know his buddy for life.
I’m no historian, so I’m not sure if this part of the narration was fiction or an adaptation from historical records. However, judging from how this particular dessert shop spun a storyline that threaded the full length of the drama (and becoming the main focus in the last 20 episodes), I think this was more of a plot tool than a real historic event.
As with all good buddies, Han Qi had his moments of giving absurd advice. When the court officials forced Song Renzong to take Cao Danshu as his wife and empress, this was how Han Qi convinced his buddy, “She’s ugly, so she can’t use her looks to mislead you.”
Su Zhe, Who… You Only Know His Brother
I saved my favouritest ancient Chinese character for the last, because I know 90% of Singaporeans who
can speak Chinese are self professed foodies would have known Su Shi, the dude who had a famous dish named after him: Dong Po Meat (东坡肉) – that dish with alternating layers of braised fatty and lean pork.
Su Dong Po was famous for his poems, especially those that catapulted Suzhou into Instagram level popularity back in the early 1000s. Still no impression? That lyrics of Faye Wong’s song was by Mr Su.
People with a scant understanding of Chinese history would have an inkling of who Su Shi was. But I bet few people knew he had a brother. No, I didn’t. Even though I liked him a lot.
And this is where the next learning point can be found. Su Shi’s brother, Su Zhe, was also a capable scholar who took on important government positions like his brother. Unfortunately, he was totally outshone by his famous brother.
Yes, we should associate ourselves with capable people. We must also learn to keep a distance from them, lest we end up in their shadows.
There were more ancient Chinese characters who made cameos in the period TV drama Serenade of Peaceful Joy. I mean, there were 70 episodes of the drama that spanned 40 over years of Song Renzong, which happened to be such a prosperous era that many famous lyricists that we know managed to spring to popularity.
I wrote this piece, so that those who are interested in Chinese history or are starting to get to know of Chinese culture, can try watching Serenade of Peaceful Joy as a way to understand Song dynasty. Online critics were all praise as to how the producers replicated the architecture and social norms of the era with immaculate accuracy.
The series’ rating on Douban was a miserable 7.2. This was high in Chinese drama standards, but low in East Asian standards (consider that Thai BL drama 2gether The Series had reached an all time high of 9.2 before a scandal that had nothing to do with the drama’s quality yanked it down). However, that low score could be attributed to the ultra slow pace of the drama. History buffs think that the slow pace allowed them to enjoy the realistic depiction of ancient Song society, which of course did not go down well with modern people who are used to instant gratification.
That goes back to my original point. If you are looking for drama or high adrenaline action sequences, you are at the wrong place. However, if you want to savour the charms of ancient China, because you love the culture or are getting to know the culture, then this is the show for you. You can watch the drama with English subtitles embedded at the end of this post.
p/s: The reason why Su Shi is my favouritest character? While my classmates baulked at Su Shi’s literal prowess, my foodie eyes can only associate him with food. Other than Dong Po Meat, I also noted that his name was that of everyone’s favourite Japanese food: Sushi. His other name, Su Dong Po, sounds like Sotong Ball. How can someone have names that are all associated with food in 3 languages and cultures? Yup, dad jokes. But I have been telling that joke since my secondary school days.