Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through Chinese historical dramas. We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy.
Today, we are discussing the drama, 鹤唳华亭 or Royal Nirvana. The podcast is in English with proper nouns and certain chinese phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese. If you are new to the podcast, please do check out our website chasingdramas.com and feel free to reach out to us on twitter or instagram at Chasingdramas.
This is the first of a 4 part series for the drama and today we will provide a high level overview of what the drama is about, introduce key characters and the actors that portray them as well as some historical insights. As with many dramas, this one is based off a book of the same name which we will also discuss.
Royal Nirvana or 鹤唳华亭 is a 60 episode historical Chinese drama that first premiered in November 2019. It stars Luo Jin and Li Yi Tong as the main male and female lead respectively. We move away from our last two dramas that were primarily female focused and revolved around the trials and tribulations of women during their lifetimes. In this drama, we shift more to the male perspective. Specifically, we observe the challenges of a crown prince desperate to do the right thing and keep his loved ones close to him while contending with both personal and political challenges. At the personal level, he has an older brother that wants to take his crown and a father who is dealing with his own emotional baggage of his deceased wife, the crown prince’s mother that manifests in unfair treatment of the crown prince. At the political level, he must protect his title and his allies from the factions on his brother’s side. Mix all that in with a love interest whose family was wrongfully executed and we have the general conflict of this story.
For me, there are 2 primary reasons to watch this drama.
- Male lead acting and the acting of the seasoned supporting cast.
Let’s get a little more into the first reason by introducing the cast of this drama.
罗晋 饰 萧定权 – Born in 1981 in Jiang Xi Province. He graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and is married to the lovely actress Tiffany Tang or 唐嫣 whom he worked with several times。They are one of THE model couples in the Chinese entertainment industry. He first garnered attention in the 2010 drama 美人心计 Beauty’s Rival in Palace which starred Ruby Lin or 林心如。That was the first drama that I saw him in. He bopped around a few dramas here and there but got his big break in the 2017 hit drama, 锦绣未央 or Princess Wei Yong which he starred as the male lead with his wife Tiffany Tang. It was after that drama that the two confirmed their relationship and started a family.
He solidified his status as an actor with his turn in this drama, Royal Nirvana or 鹤唳华亭 in his role as the crown prince 萧定权。He is the third son of the Emperor but the son of the late Empress which means he has a more legitimate claim to the throne and was named crown prince at a young age. In the drama, he’s supposed to be in his late teens or early 20s which did cause some derision from viewers when the drama first aired because 罗晋 was in his mid 30s while filming this but his acting won audiences over. In this role, he portrays the role of a young man eager for validation and love of those around him but one who is beaten down constantly by his title and responsibility as crown prince. Luo Jin is shedding tears constantly. I don’t think I’ve seen a male actor have to cry this many times in a role in quite some time. You see glimpses of his boyishness when he meets his love interest or when he’s with his friends and teacher but then for much of the drama he has to manage his despair at the unfairness placed upon him due to his responsibilities. It’s quite captivating to watch.
李一桐 饰 顾阿宝/陆文昔- Born in 1990 in 山东 province, she graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy. She got her start in acting in the 2016 drama Demon Girl or 半妖倾城. She landed the title role of 黄蓉 in the 2017 remake of Legend of the Condor Heroes. That show was quite a decent remake. Much better than the other more recent WuXia remakes. 李一桐 has been the female lead of several other dramas such as 剑王朝 or Sword Dynasty and 骊lí歌行 or Court Lady. Most recently her show 特战荣耀 or Glory of the Special Forces just finished airing.
李一桐 is somewhat of an interesting actress. She’s quite good at acting and lands the lead roles in these dramas, however, she’s never really made it to the top echelon of popularity. Her fans might take offense, but I think the overarching reaction to her is, she’s kind of forgettable? The roles she takes don’t really give her much of a chance to shine. It’s either the male lead that gets the attention or else the overall storyline isn’t as good and kind of wastes her talent.
Royal Nirvana and Legend of the Condor Heroes are definitely the most well regarded dramas in her filmography. 李一桐’s character in the drama is a complex one. In the beginning, she’s the intelligent and beautiful 陆文昔. She had a loving family and a bright future ahead of her, namely, marrying well. Unfortunately, her family was dragged into a political scandal. Her father was executed. To save her family, 陆文昔 had no choice but to infiltrate the Crown Prince’s palace under the name of 顾阿宝. She must seek revenge, protect her family, and navigate her complex relationship with the Crown Prince.
Let’s actually move on to the older generation of actors
黄志忠 饰 萧睿鉴 or the Current Emperor.- This guy is a powerhouse actor and you can tell that while Luo Jin does a fine job in his role, it’s the older actors that make this drama even more intriguing. 黄志忠 is one of them. He graduated from the Central Academy of Drama and was born in Tian Jing Province. Overseas audiences might not know him very well as he primarily focuses on war or family dramas that the older generation would enjoy. I was first introduced to him in the 2009 drama called 人间正道是沧桑 or The Road We Have Taken, a Chinese civil war drama which won both the Golden Eagle Award and the Magnolia Award For Best Drama, two of the highest tv drama awards one can receive. (Wow, every time we say these things I totally feel old). Anyways, I didn’t recognize him at first with his mustache in the drama but I was like, hey, this Emperor is a great actor, I’m really impressed. Only to then realize – oh duh, that’s Huang Zhi Zhong.
To be honest, I think he is one of the most interesting characters in the drama. Huang Zhi ZHong gives a powerfully nuanced performance of an Emperor who struggles to balance his authority as an Emperor and love as a father, particularly towards his di chu son who he is conflicted with because of his love towards his late wife, the crown prince’s mother. You want to say he’s a bad father for his unfair treatment of the crown prince but there was a powerful scene where he blows up at his concubine in defense of the crown prince. The key takeaway for me from this drama is that these people all need family therapy. Family therapy will result in a much happier outcome for everyone！
李柏舟 – 张志坚 – He is the Oldest Prince’s father-in-law and one of the most powerful officials in Court. He is played by 张志坚, another powerhouse actor. I think in every show I’ve seen him in, he’s the bad guy. He had a role in The Road We Have Taken I mentioned earlier and is also highly well known from his role in 人民的名义 or The Name of The People. That was a 2017 drama about anti-corruption which broke a ton of viewership records at the time. And 张志坚 was, spoiler alert, the big bad. He even was the bad guy in My Dear Guardian last year in that drama with Li Qin and Huang Jing Yu. Anyways, in this drama, Zhang Zhi Jian is a formidable foe to the Crown Prince.
王劲松 饰 卢世瑜
Born in 1967 in Jiansu province, 王劲松 was trained as a stage actor in the city of 南京. He is most famous for his roles in 大明王朝1566 Ming Dynasty in 1566 (2007), Nirvana in Fire (2015) 琅琊榜, Sparrow (2016) 麻雀, and The Advisors Alliance (2017) 军事联盟. For me, he really rose to fame due to his role as the 言阙 in琅琊榜. He did a fantastic job in that role and the drama really kickstarted his career. If you look at his most recent output, he’s had at least 5 dramas air yearly since 2018. He might not be the lead but he very much gets important supporting roles. Honestly, when he’s on screen, you can’t help but pay attention. That’s very much the case in this drama. He plays 卢世瑜, Minister of personnel and Grand tutor to the Crown Prince. He is the father figure to the Crown Prince and taught him how to become a man. Unfortunately, to protect his beloved pupil, he gave the ultimate sacrifice. The Crown Prince grew up to be a benevolent man, maybe to a fault. Does his teacher regret how his pupil turned out? Perhaps not but maybe this benevolence wasn’t a good fit for a future emperor.
刘德凯 饰 顾思林
Born in 1953, 刘德凯 hails from Taiwan. He was once one of the most popular actors in Taiwan. He rose to fame acting in many 琼瑶 dramas in the 90s, especially the original 一帘幽梦 or Fantasies behind the Pearly Curtain. That came out in 1996 and was a smash hit. Although, ladies and gentlemen, I would NOT recommend that drama for plot purposes. It’s very outdated in my eyes. Like the main character is wrong in every count. In 2002, he acted in 孝庄秘史 or the Xiaozhuang epic. That was an instant classic. The plot, the acting, and the music were all top notch. I highly recommend this drama to anyone today. 刘德凯 portrayed Hong Taiji, the founding emperor of the Qing Dynasty.
He’s had steady output over the past 2 decades so he may be pretty familiar to folks who watch a decent amount of Chinese dramas.
顾思林 in the drama is the Marquis of Wu De 武德. He is the Crown Prince’s maternal uncle and comes from the heralded 顾 family. He is 萧定权’s shield and does his best to protect his nephew. Unfortunately, the Emperor is at odds with the amount of military power the 顾 family wields.
苗圃 饰 赵贵妃
The last of the older generation of actors includes 苗圃 pǔ 饰 赵贵妃. Born in 1977, 苗圃’s parents were both stage performers. She graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and has since had a very illustrious career both in dramas and film. Some highlights include May Sophora Flower Perfume 五月槐huái花香, The Judge in Song Dynasty 大宋提刑官 which both came out in 2005 and Mu Guiying Takes Command 穆桂英挂帅 which came out in 2012. In that drama, 苗圃 and 罗晋 collaborated for the first time. 穆桂英 is a famous female heroine of the Northern Song Dynasty in which she participated in battles against the Khitans. Her story is quite legendary and folks who aren’t familiar with her story should definitely go check it out.
苗圃 has reduced her output in recent years but she’s still a great actress. I do want to point out again the issue that is prevalent in both hollywood and chinese media, namely pairing age appropriate men with women. 苗圃 and 罗晋 collaborated for the first time in 2012, they acted as husband and wife. Less than 10 years later, 苗圃 is now the mother-in-law while 罗晋 is still the main lead now with a romantic relationship to someone 10 years younger. 罗晋 does a great job in this role BUT in the story, he’s supposed to be only 20. Mid-30s is definitely stretching it, whereas 苗圃 is actually age appropriate in this role.
Concubine Zhao is the mother of Xiao Dingtang and Xiao Dingkai. She is power hungry and plots to overthrow the Crown Prince to install her son Xiao Dingtang as the Crown Prince and future emperor.
As for the younger generation of actors, we have
金瀚 饰 萧定棠, the oldest son of the Emperor and is constantly at odds with his brother. A little cliched now in the conflict but Xiao Ding Tang wants the title of crown prince himself and has the backing of his powerful father in law.
Jin Han I thought did an OK job in this drama portraying this prince but last year was ridiculed by pretty much every reviewer after his portrayal of the male lead in Jun Jiu Ling 君九龄 . People would often comment on how he was acceptable in Royal Nirvana but his attractiveness went down several notches for Jun Jiu Ling. That is to say, people prefer Royal Nirvana. Haha
郑业成 饰 顾逢恩 – Cousin to the Prince and his trusted friend. I really like the character in the drama as well as Zheng Ye Cheng as well. He is slowly gaining more popularity with his more recent dramas including My Sassy Princess 祝卿好. Part of the reason is that he has a background in Chinese Opera which means he can do martial arts very well and has a strong level of stage presence. This quality is something that is quite lacking in the Chinese entertainment industry these days so many fans are now recognizing that Zheng Ye Cheng is one of the few who can actually do fight scenes and has good posture. Unlike, unfortunately, Jin Han.
That covered much of the cast! Let’s now move onto a little bit of culture and history!
The name of the drama comes from the anecdote – 华亭鹤唳 岂可复闻乎. It was spoken by a Western Jin scholar 陆机 before his death. 陆机 was born in 261 AD and was a scholar originally from the Wu Kingdom but then headed to the Jin Kingdom after the Wu Kingdom’s demise. 华亭 is actually the historical name for Song Jiang area of modern day ShangHai. He wanted to make a name for himself and was embroiled in the political battles for power. He was too eager to continue climbing and led troops into a trap. Realizing that he was doomed to fail, he resigned himself to his fate and uttered the words 华亭鹤唳 岂可复闻乎 which in plain terms means, Where can I hear again the Heron’s birdsong from Hua Ting. This phrase represents his regret for taking the path to becoming a scholar which led him to his demise. It’s an interesting anecdote and applies to this drama in that the crown prince just wants to enjoy a simple life of love and happiness but his title means this wish will forever be out of his grasp.
Now let’s get onto the second reason why this is an interesting drama to watch:
The drama is set in a fictional world, but it draws heavily from the end of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period to the early Northern Song Dynasty, so 10th Century to 11th century AD. For those listeners who just finished the Story of Ming Lan with us, you’ll see many similarities in dress and customs, especially for men. However, it’s a little bit different for the women.
I’m very happy to be able to have dramas like this show us just how much detail went into recreating this era. As we discuss the drama, we’ll discuss the main events that occur and the historical significance of these events. I’m very excited! The production crew for Royal Nirvana went painstakingly through much research to try and recreate the costumes and customs of that era. In a behind the scenes video, the etiquette coach shares that they created almost 30 types of greetings for each possible character and setting. We’ve rarely seen such detail to etiquette especially amongst men so please keep an eye out on them. Similarly, many events in this drama such as the Crown Prince’s capping ceremony are simply not shown in tv dramas, so it’s a real treat to see it here in this drama. What fascinates me about this drama but also all the dramas we talked about, is that, there’s written accounts of how things are done, but it’s very difficult to tease out how in motion things were done. For example, a bow can be clearly stated as right hand on top for women, but how is that done in action when bowing to the empress, to the princess, to a senior official? There were no cameras back then so it’s up to the drama to work with historians to present this us the audience.
I will say that this drama might even be a little too dense for audiences with just how chalk full of culture and etiquette this drama has.
The drama is based on the book of the same name. The author 雪满梁园 was also a screenwriter for this drama, which is probably why it translated well to the drama. Many of the people and events that were only mentioned in passing in the book are fully fleshed out in the drama. This includes 李柏舟 and 卢世瑜.
The book, published in 2014, is written quite beautifully. It is a much more difficult read than for example the Story of Ming Lan or the book that drama is based off of. The reader does have to be more familiar with the ancient texts that the author references. The dialogue is also much more subtle. I, as the reader, really had to spend time comprehending all of the twists and turns that occur in the book because it’s rarely stated outright. I personally enjoy books where there’s no time traveling involved more. Because the characters really inhabit the world and it’s how they actually react based on the cards they are dealt with. Oftentimes, for books in which the main character time travels, he / she just uses his / her knowledge from her previous life to “win” at this new life. That was basically the case in the book for the Story of Ming Lan. In this book, I really felt the struggles and desires and ultimate helplessness of many of these characters. For this drama recap, I’ll do my best to point out the differences and similarities to the book.
The drama, like the book, isn’t a very happy one.
Well, there are two endings for the drama. Royal Nirvana has 60 episodes and there’s a Royal Nirvana Special with 12 episodes. In chinese it’s called 别云间 which premiered a year later in 2020. It’s essentially content that the director had to cut from the original version of Royal Nirvana but was like meh here you go, I’m going to splice together what I was going to show for the full drama.
Now where can you watch this? Both Royal Nirvana and the special meaning 鹤唳华亭 and 别云间 are available on Jubao TV with english subtitles. If you want to stream it, just head on over to xumo and Select Royal Nirvana. Note! Royal Nirvana first before the special! This drama WILL make you cry but it will also be binge worthy. I literally binged like 20 episodes over 3 days. Not healthy but hey, that’s the joy of Chinese dramas right? On TV, it’s available on xfinity and cox contour. For those of you not in the states, it’s available on youtube as well.
Alright! That’s our introduction to the drama! For the remainder three episodes of our podcast series, we will discuss several cases that span multiple episodes. They are quite interesting as each case is based on an important facet of Chinese history – we will start off with the Crown Prince’s Coronation ceremony case, then move on to the Imperial Entrance Exam Case, and finally the Archery competition case.