Jing Tian plays the lead role in The Glory of Tang Dynasty. (Photo provided to China Daily)
The Glory of Tang Dynasty, a Chinese TV series that showed romance, warfare and court conspiracy amid social upheaval of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), ended on Wednesday.
Viewers earlier had expected the series to fail, given their experiences in recent years with shows full of historical inaccuracies and poor storytelling. But it was a surprisingly popular production. The 60-episode series premiered on Jan. 29, on Beijing TV, Anhui TV and a Tencent online platform, during this year's Spring Festival.
By last week, it had more than 4 billion views on Tencent, with the rating on the site reaching 8.3 of 10.
"TV series targeted at the youth aren't necessarily away from mainstream values," Jiang Lei, vice-president of H&R Century Pictures, which created the series, recently told a Beijing event. "We aim to bring out the essence of traditional Chinese culture and use modern expressions and approaches to attract young people."
The Glory of Tang Dynasty, which focuses on the love story of Li Yu, an emperor, and Shen Zhenzhu, a woman of high birth, is aided by the grandiose historical background of the An Shi Rebellion (755-763), which pulled the empire down from its zenith and pushed it into a long depression.
"We had to conform to basic historical facts while writing the script," says Liu Fang, the scriptwriter of the series. "Then we placed fictional plots into the framework. The romance created a foundation for the story but it also sought to express a love for the country."
Director Liu Guonan says when he first read the script, he felt that romance was the dominant theme. So he asked his team to get the historical context into the picture.
A probable reason for lower viewer expectation initially was that Shen's role was being played by Jing Tian. The 29-year-old actress was most recently seen in Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall, which is still being screened in North America. But most of her earlier works had either flopped or didn't get praised.
Her performance in the series seems to have broken that record, although some say it could be attributed in part to the costumes and script.
When The Glory of Tang Dynasty debuted, it gained about four points of 10 on Douban, China's leading website for film and TV reviews. Now it has increased to seven.
"Though historical TV series have dominated our screens, it's surprising that no big production earlier focused on the An Shi Rebellion, a key event in Chinese history," says Liu Yeyuan, a media professor at the Communication University of China. "Until now, young people's understanding of the time was largely rooted in Tang poetry. The new series offers them a chance to revisit history."
Liu Yeyuan also says the exchanges between China and other countries along the ancient Silk Road can create an emotional resonance today.
Yin Hong, a media professor at Tsinghua University, say: "Making a successful youth-genre TV series doesn't mean just hiring popular young idols. Instead, it means to create figures that have positive energy and echo what young people pursue today."
Both scholars agree The Glory of Tang Dynasty is an effort to make historical TV series look real as opposed to the recent crop of fantasy tales.
Even so, Yin says this production has its drawbacks.
"A good TV series should be able to get audiences hooked no matter from which episode they start to watch," he says. "However, in The Glory of Tang Dynasty, I had to watch from the very beginning to figure out the story."
Perhaps the situation is somewhat like what Dushe (poisonous tongue) Movie, a major film critic on Chinese phone app WeChat, says: "The Glory of Tang Dynastygets so many good comments on WeChat, not because it's great, but because there are so many poor TV series today."