Last November, I posted about this series after my first watch. Some of the below is taken from that post, but I’ve expanded it.
On the surface Nirvana in Fire (Lángyá Bǎng in Chinese)
is about revenge, but that’s far too simplistic. Justice is truer, and so is recovering the truth.
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, more tense, and always, always visually stunning.
And here’s the other thing I love. The female actors don’t have to strip in order to convey sexual politics or relations. And we don’t have to see tons of graphic torture scenes (though there is one, and the perpetrator is not who you'd think) for those dungeon scenes to be breathtakingly, harrowingly intense.
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 interpersonal customs flow naturally, even when rigidly constrained into ritual. Everything feels authentic, to the 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 paradigm. 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. Given the news lately, I find recourse to this series not just entertaining, but necessary for sanity.
The series apparently comes out of the wuxia tradition— the word “wuxia” being a compound composed of the elements wu (lit. “martial”, “military”, or “armed”) and xia (lit. “honourable”, “chivalrous”, or “hero”). And this genre of story has been popular for at least two thousand years; Chinese literary tradition mentions a critic making fun of wuxia back in the third century B.C.
When comics and film came along, wuxia spread into those media, and flourished. During my lifetime, the USA has important 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.
Jianghu warriors paid no attention to the various governments, 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 a sort of alt-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/Wikipedia 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 happenings great and small.
Early on in Episode One, we only see the data archive for a short time, but it is mind-bogglingly awesome, establishing its presence so vigorously we absolutely believe in its power and reach through the entire series.
Before I get into Episode One, let me provide an insight that only occurred after I’d seen the rest of the serial once, then twice: and that is, every single line of that first episode is important. Every single line packs a live mine that is going to explode during the rest of the series.
I strongly encourage the English-speaking viewer, who is going to be compounding with subtitles (not always grammatically correct, sigh) not to worry about that.
Don’t try to make sense of the story in the first episode. There are a lot of characters to introduce, and all of them have their motivations and goals. Let the colors, the expressions, the action, and the mood begin to build impressions. By the third and fourth episodes, you will discover yourself recognizing characters and beginning to understand the main goals well enough.
Okay, Episode One.
The first minute or two is horrific—a truly nasty battle sequence. What we are seeing is nightmarish memory, as our main character fights, looks around in bewilderment and despair as everyone around him is slaughtered, and then clings to his father’s hand. His father lets him go, yelling at him to survive as he falls into the abyss . . .
And our main character wakes up. We pull back to see him sit up in bed, hair hanging in his face, then we see his bloodshot eyes, and after that he fingers a silver bracelet on his hand. All these signs are important: the nightmare. The bloodshot eyes. And the bracelet.
But we don’t need to remember them—we’ll see them all again, and what they mean, when it’s necessary. It’s that second viewing when you gasp and think OMG because you know what everything means.
We go directly to a pigeon flying to Langya Hall, which we see in all its spectacular beauty. We see information arrive and get brought to Lin Chen, the Master of Langya Hall. The info brought is important, but again, don’t worry about remembering it. It will be re-introduced when it matters.
Then we meet Prince Yu, sixth of the Emperor of Da Liang’s nine sons. We also meet the Emperor, getting a message that Prince Yu has completed his inspection of distant provinces, and as the emperor talks with his trusted Head Eunuch, the talk touches on the intense rivalry between Prince Yu and the Crown Prince, to whom we’re briefly introduced next as he asks for news.
Again, don’t worry about memorizing all these guys. Their distinctive personalities will emerge as events do. Just watch, as the Crown Prince’s assassins try to take out Prince Yu. He doesn’t fight—his bodyguard dispatches the assassin—but we see that Prince Yu is cold and assured even when the assassin’s blade gets close enough to slice his hand. And he knows who sent the assassins. But as he evaluates international news (remember that pigeon in the earlier scene; he has his own methods of obtaining intel) he decides that he needs to visit Langya Hall, too, if the world’s royal power brokers are advancing by asking advice of the Hall.
We then see Lin Chen do an exquisite kata on a soaring cliff, in wuxia style, with lots of martial air ballet. So we’re establishing that this man is Master of Google/Wikipedia/Head Warrior Honcho . . . and we will also find out that he is a very skilled doctor. (And he will nearly steal the show in the last five episodes.)
He gives orders about what data to hand off to Prince Yu, which incidentally is also being sent to the Crown Prince. Langya Hall is utterly neutral, totally detached from political struggles in governments. Their alliance is a free-wheeling one, their lands fiercely protected, as we’re about to find out.
Prince Yu gets home, and he opens his message at the same time as the Crown Prince does, both pondering the disconcerting news: whoever possesses the Divine Talent will hold the world. Of course they begin politicking, meanwhile mentioning a mysterious case of a Duke Qing who is in trouble for real estate fraud (called land grabbing). Don’t worry about this. You will never meet Duke Qing—it’s the fallout of this case that will unfold over several episodes.
But first, assassins dispatched to chase some innocent servants of the duke, and kill them before they can talk, manage to slide into the waters of the Pugilist World. Three ships full of fierce armed guys encounter a slim boat with our hero standing up in it, playing the flute. It’s the only time we will ever see him play that flute, so enjoy it.
Also enjoy how the sight of him scares the sweat out of said three ships of fierce warriors. As our hero calmly remonstrates with them, a teenage boy, Fei Liu, lands from the sky into the boat, bringing a beautiful cloak to put around the shoulders of our hero. (We will see all through the story friends and enemies alike making sure he is warm enough.)
When one of the warriors starts talking tough, Fei Liu launches high into the air, plucks the burly guy up, and tosses him overboard, then lands lightly in the little boat again. So right here we learn two things: Fei Liu, small as he is, is an incredible badass, and 2) the Jiang Zuo Alliance (the Pugilists) have a really scary rep when you cross into their territory. The ships about face and creep off, leaving the little boat to skim by apparently magical power in the other direction.
So, what is a Divine Talent? A super-smart military strategist and an elder statesman rolled up in one, an eminence grise, or Richelieu, to those who know Western history.
We switch back to the emperor, who laughs comfortably at the idea of a Divine Talent disrupting his empire. “My empire is something he cannot take so easily,” he says. Famous Last Words.
We switch back to Langya Hall for the last time, as we see Lin Chen and our hero sitting face to face in their gorgeous flowing robes and hair. Lin Chen is now in his doctor guise, trying to talk our hero out of leaving, but he knows it’s a lost cause. Our hero tells him that he’s been planning for ten years—and he pleads for two—to get his goal accomplished. Lin Chen gives him some heart pills for when he's in bad shape, and when they are gone, he will come.
It’s a fairly elliptical scene. Again, I’d say let it flow over you. Every word strikes very hard on the second viewing—every single word.
For now, let me just say that our hero is going to have three identities in this story, and we’ll get to why the third is necessary a bit later. Right now: the young warrior in the horrible battle was nineteen year old General Lin Shu, brilliant leader and son of Lin Xie (last name first in Chinese), head of the Chiyan Army. But now he is Mei Changsu, head of the Jiang Zuo Alliance, even though he is unable to do martial arts: we get the sense that he is extremely ill. But that does not affect his mental abilities. Mei Changsu is the Divine Talent, first on one of Langya Hall’s Lists—each year they rate scholars and warriors according to ability, and other things besides.
Mei Changsu is heading for the capital city, which he has not seen since before that terrible battle. He will be going accompanied by two sprightly young men, Jingrui and Yuzin, who we meet shopping, when they are distracted by the arrival of some grim warriors. They comment on these guys, who have not dared come around for over ten years, and again, that will only make sense later. Just look and listen now.
We will be learning lots more about the boys, too—but right now they seem to be happy-go-lucky young guys in their early twenties, rich, well trained. Jingrui a Pugilist, trained by his adoptive brother (and we’ll be finding out a lot more about that relationship, hoo boy).
Jingrui’s father is the Marquis Xie—the sinister eminence grise behind the Crown Prince, though everyone else thinks he’s politically neutral. Mei Changsu is going to be staying in his guest house.
The young guys Yuzin and Jingrui (sometimes called Xiao-Jingrui, Xiao being an honorary title that will pop up a lot for various young male characters; the female equivalent is jiejie, or jie) and their guest in his covered cart approach the capital, and we see Mei Changsu’s face as he looks up at the walls again. There is so much repressed emotion there.
But first the boys encounter another party, led by Princess Mu Nihuang of Yunnan. She attacks Jingrui and his buddy Yan Yujin, and defeats both, but compliments them on their learning. 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 fighting princess have a history. In fact you just know they have a history.
Before they get to the fortified mansion belonging to the Marquis Xie, Mei Changsu asks the boys to introduce him as Su Zhe, a sickly traveling scholar. You’re thinking really? Three names, two of them disguises?
The thing you begin to pick up is that the Su Zhe guise doesn’t fool anyone long, but it forces everyone who wants to possess, bribe, threaten, or annex Mei Changsu to deal with the scholar fiction, if they want to save face. This fiction keeps a kind of polite balance, and it persists pretty much through the entire series, more or less.
Sometimes less, with dramatic results.
But that’s way later.
So Mei Changsu comes in behind the oblivious boys who are chattering, and the Marquis is about to ream Jingrui when he notices they have a guest. Meanwhile Mei Changsu (MC) experiences a few second flashback that is quite startling. It is so fast that I didn’t notice it the first time through. But on the second, I realize just how much he is masking his emotions as he greets Xie, and the men exchange polite bows.
The boys are oblivious to any undercurrents.
Then we switch back to the emperor, who tells the princess that it’s time for her to have a suitor. Now, on first watching, this doesn’t mean much, but I think it will help viewers to know that she is not at all up for this. She was engaged to Lin Shu (we find that out soon enough) and has stayed loyal to his memory all this time. What we don’t know in these early episodes is how extremely dangerous it would be to let the emperor get any hint of that.
Instead, she insists that there be not only a martial contest, but a scholarly one. She will consider the top ten winners . . . but if she beats any of them in martial arts, all bets are off. And she is on the Langya List, so we know she’s a badass.
Her best friend Xia Dong, an officer of the Xuanjing Bureau (FBI/secret police), arrives. The emperor assigns Xia Dong the Duke Qing case. The women leave together and talk, and we find out that Nihuang still feels loyal to Lin Shu, and that Xia Dong hates Lin Shu because of all the evidence provided by her own bureau that the Lin family was responsible for the death of her husband. So the women agree to disagree on that front. They are still friends . . . and the second-time viewer is shaking their head thinking, oh wow, Xia Dong, have you got some eye-openers ahead of you.
So that is episode one. So far, we have:
Mei Changsu/Lin Shu, wearing the scholarly mask of Su Zhe.
Princess Nihuan, badass of Mu.
Prince Yu and the Crown Prince, rivals for the throne. (Crown Prince isn’t fixed. Far from it.)
The super-snakey Marquis Xie—whose house MC is staying at.
Jingrui and Yuzin, delightful young friends of MC.
The Emperor, his Empress and Consort Yue (briefly met), adoptive mother of Prince Yu and mother of Crown Prince respectively.
We will learn a lot more about them all, and meet our second hero, in the next episode.
Until it reaches the USA market in a professional form, you can find it at Viki.com here:
And at YouTube, Here: but beware—some episodes in, the YouTube subtitles begin at the start of the title roll, and so are two minutes or so off.
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, whose acting is brilliant, and you can sift out the emotional subtleties.