The Longest Day in Chang’An
Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy. Well here you have it, due to popular demand, we are kicking off our 4th season, if you will, of our Chinese history through Chinese drama series and starting our discussion of the 48 episode, exquisite Tang Dynasty drama 长安十二时辰 or The Longest Day in Chang’An.
For this podcast, it’s in English and we will be using proper Mandarin to pronounce all names. We are not going to attempt to translate the names into English and we would rather not Westernize the pronunciation. We will pronounce the proper nouns as they are done in the drama. In some cases, if the noun is referring to a Turkish last name, for example, we will still use the Mandarin pronunciation.
In today’s podcast episode, we will provide an overview of the drama and cast as well as introduce the historical individuals that the drama portrays. In future episodes, we will continue on with plot recap and historical analysis as we usually do. This drama is also based off of a very popular book of the same name! Karen and I actually just bought the physical version of the book today so we’re going to provide our comparisons to the book for this drama too!
This is our first extensive foray into the Tang Dynasty with the popular 2019 drama The Longest Day in Chang’an or 长安十二时辰 starring 雷佳音 as the main character 张小敬, 易烊千玺 as 李必, 热依扎 as 檀棋, 周一围 as 龙波 and a whole slew of other actors and characters that we’ll discuss throughout the drama. This 48 episode series aired on June 27 2019 on Youku and was a huge hit in the summer of that year.
Have to put this disclaimer here in that this drama IS different from the other 3 dramas we’ve performed our deep dive analysis on because this is a heavily male dominated drama. As such, the focus is no longer in the confines of a palace or a household. In this drama, the city of Chang’an is the focus and the playground for our characters. Additionally, I want to make clear that this drama is more fast paced and gruesome than the 3 previous dramas we’ve discussed. It’s grittier, dirtier, more complicated and more bloody. This is absolutely a thriller drama. This might be a turn off for many of our listeners and we actually debated what other Tang dynasty drama we should cover instead. But given that this was the clear winner in our online poll and the fact that we cannot deny how amazing the production value is in this drama and how steeped in history this drama is, we would be remiss in not discussing this drama. But, I wanted to give that disclaimer and completely understand why this drama may not be your cup of tea.
So then why should you watch this drama and why are we discussing it today? This drama received widespread critical acclaim after it aired. Let me list out some of its accolades. It was nominated for the best television series and best actor for 雷佳音 at the 26th ShangHai TV Festival Magnolia Award in 2020. It actually won for best cinematography and best production design. For the 30th China TV Golden Eagle Award, the drama won for best television series and best cinematography and was nominated for best director, best screenplay, best song and best actor for 易烊千玺。These are the two most prestigious awards that the drama won awards for. There are plenty of others as well.
And trust me, this drama deserved all the awards for cinematography and production design. I’ve seen a lot of Chinese dramas and this drama blew me out of the water. It was like watching a movie for the entire drama. The attention to detail, the breadth of characters and the overwhelming activity in this drama made me feel like I really was in the Tang dynasty and in Chang’An at that time. The drama was filmed over the course of 217 days, with over 29,918 extras, and crew members of 18,000 people. Primary actors on screen were about 3500. In order to actually replicate Chang’An during the Tang dynasty, they went out and built it over 70 acres of land. It’s evident that a lot of money and care was put into creating this drama and the cast also did a great job given the costumes and intense fighting that took place which meant there was a lot of training and coordination involved too. After watching this drama, you feel like you caught a glimpse of how grand Chang An really was. It’s hard to conceptualize all of this was happening in the 700s AD. A time when the US was still a millenia away from even existing and Europe still in the Middle Ages. This drama is also fascinating in that it isn’t only a Chinese cast, there are ppl from other countries in it as well, another reflection of the diversity in Chang’An during the Tang dynasty. This drama is very dense and is chalk full of history and cultural references. So much so that we’ll probably split episodes into 2 just to discuss all of the nuances that we see.
The soundtrack is also beautiful. The lyrics for each song in the soundtrack is based on prose or Ci by the famous Chinese poet 李白 and is accompanied by a mix of traditional Chinese and modern instruments. My personal favorites are 短歌行 and 清平乐.
At a high level, this 48 episode drama depicts the events in the 24 hours of the Lantern Festival in 744 under the reign of Emperor Tang Xuan Zong Li Long Ji. A terrorist plot was uncovered by Jing An Si (The Department of City Security). The Chief, a young Li Bi, orders the release of a local police captain Zhang Xiao Jing, who was on death row, accused of murdering the local magistrate in Wan Nian county. Li Bi needs a person such as Zhang Xiao Jing who operates in the gray zone between the local law enforcement and underground gangs to uncover the plot. The pair race against time to uncover the terrorist plot and the secret machinations at court before the plot can succeed on the night of the Lantern Festival.
This drama is based on a book by the same name by the author 马伯庸 published in 2017. There are actually a series of wonderful behind the scenes clips that Youku has uploaded that goes in depth on various aspects of the drama. The author, 马伯庸 also provides a 50 min discussion on the history of Chang An which we will be referencing in our discussion as well since unfortunately I don’t see English subtitles for those videos. A fun fact is that in the video, the author shares that one of the earliest inspirations for writing The Longest Day in Chang’An was his visit to the Xi An Museum and seeing a giant sand miniature model of a map of Chang An. The grandeur but also intricate detail for how the city was organized and functioned drove him to create a story around this city. Which is what we have today.
We have only lightly touched up on the Tang dynasty in our discussion of the movie Xuan Zang and the drama discussion of Weaving a tale of Love. Instead, we’ve been focusing our dramas on the most recent Dynasty, the Qing, and another one the Song, so let’s finally turn our attention to another fascinating time period in Chinese history.
Let’s give a brief overview of the Tang Dynasty. The Dynasty was first established in 618 under the first Emperor Li Yuan. The Li family ruled the empire through 907 with an interregnum between 690 through 705. The drama is set very specifically in the year 744 under the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong of Tang. His personal name is 李隆基 but in history, we know him under his Temple Name Xuan Zong. This emperor also has a very popular posthumus name Ming Huang, so if anyone reads 唐明皇, they’re also referring to this emperor.
By 744, we already had over 100 years of rule under the Li family. During that time, we also saw the only female Emperor in Chinese history, 武则天 who reigned from 690 to 705. Li Long Ji captured the throne in a coup in 712 at the age of 27. He ruled until 756, making him the longest reigning monarch during the Tang Dynasty. The An Lu Shan rebellion wreaked havoc on the Empire, leading the Emperor to flee the capital and abdicate the throne. Emperor Tang Xuan Zong lived for another 6 years and died in 762.
A little bit more on the specific setting for the drama. It is set in the historical capital of 长安, now known as 西安. The city is famous for the discovery of the terracotta warriors left behind from the first emperor Qing Shi Huang. 长安 was the capital of 13 Chinese dynasties and kingdoms from the Zhou dynasty in 11th century BCE all the way to the end of the Tang Dynasty in 904AD. Chang An was a global trading hub. During the Han Dynasty, the city began the Silk road and thousands of travelers came and went through the gates of Chang An for trade. We’ll see this fully on display in this drama.
The year 744 was also a very specific choice. This was the 3rd year in era of 天宝 In this year – Emperor Tang Xuan Zong changed how to count the years from using the word 年 to 载. Emperor Tang Xuan Zong wanted to show that he was unique, and decided that, I don’t want to use the word 年, that’s too common. I want to use the word 载, because that’s what the mythical emperors of the past used. As we discuss the drama, I’ll discuss the implications of this change.
In this year, the famous poet and politician 贺知章 retired and left the capital city. We’ll see this character in the show. In this year, the Second Turkic Khaganate was defeated by the Tang Dynasty and the Uyghur Khaganate. The Turkic groups play a big role in this drama. And perhaps finally, the famous Noble Consort 杨玉环 enters the Palace as a consort in this year. We’ve talked quite extensively about her in our discussion of The Story of Yanxi Palace through poems and operas. We only get a glimpse of her in this drama but she nevertheless will have an outsized impact on the empire.
This history and location sets the stage for our drama. If there are specific topics that you’d like for us to cover, let us know!
Let’s talk about our main cast, it really is just 2 main characters. The rest of the cast is huge and we’ll discuss each of them along the way, but let’s focus on our two main characters, who they are, who they’re playing and their historical counterparts.
雷佳音 – 张小敬
雷佳音 was born in 1983 in the province of Liao Ning and is a graduate of the Shanghai Theatre Academy. He got his start in the entertainment industry in the 2004 historical romantic comedy 江湖俏佳人 or my translation the Beauties in Jiang Hu. For the past 2 decades, he’s starred in countless dramas and movies and has steadily built up his reputation as an actor with serious acting chops. He has mainly starred in modern dramas or at least more contemporary dramas. There are exceptions though, such as this drama The Longest Day in Changan. In 2017, he won the Golden Horse best supporting actor award for the movie BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES. He also starred in the hit TV show 我的前半生 The First Half of My Life that year. His next hit really was this 2019 drama the Longest Day in Chang’an. Since then, he’s been in a slew of box office hits and chinese drama hits. His audience is with the older crowd so we won’t see him too much in idol dramas. He’s was also a regular on the hit variety show Go Fighting or 极限挑战 and everyone joked that he’s known as the big head guy because of how big his head is. That’s how I’ve seen him at least and he can be ruthless and also hilarious in that reality tv show.
In this drama, he plays the ex police captain 张小敬. He was put on death row for the murder of a local magistrate but pulled from his death sentence to assist Li Bi and the Department of City Security to foil a terrorist plot. Throughout the drama, we see how Zhang Xiao Jing operates in a gray zone of morality and what he holds most dear to himself. 张小敬 is a historical character but only mentioned once in the Chronicles of events of An Lu Shan or 安禄山事迹 by 姚汝能.
易烊千玺 饰 李必
Jackson Yee – born in 2000, yes 2000! Is a member of the wildly popular Chinese boy band TF Boys. He’s been a member since 2013 and this young boy band, along with Wang Yuan and Wang Jun Kai took China by storm with their catchy songs and charming image. They’ve already accomplished what many consider capstones in their careers. I’ll focus on Jackson. This particular young man has already presented at the grammy’s, had his first film Better Days 少年的你 nominated at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category, had several box office hits, including the Battle of Lake Changjin which grossed over 5B Chinese Yuan which was over $900M USD. Oh, he’s also a regular on the Chinese New Years Gala, has several hit albums, a very talented dancer, and also a graduate of the The Central Academy of Drama. Boy – he’s done a lot. This drama, the longest day in Chang’an which came out in 2019, really was a turning point for him, as people started to appreciate this young man’s turn towards more serious roles in acting
In this drama, he portrays 李必, the chief of The Department of City Security. He was a Chinese Go prodigy, and upon reaching adulthood, became a member of court. He is decisive yet meticulous. His primary goal is the safety of the people of Chang’an but he’s also deeply loyal to the Crown Prince. He’ll do everything he can to protect the Prince’s position. This character is based off of the politician 李泌. While the sound of the names is the same, the words are actually different. 泌 with the B sound, means a brisk flow of spring water. While B in the drama means mus. 李泌 in history also served Emperor Xuan Zong and was deeply loyal to the Crown Prince and subsequent emperor Tang Su Zong. We’ll discuss more about his history throughout the drama.
That’s a wrap for this intro to the drama episode! Please join us as we embark on our journey to the beautiful Tang Dynasty!
If you’re looking for sites to watch dramas and you’re in the US, head on over to our sponsor JubaoTV, that’s J-u-b-a-o TV. It’s a FREE service that has a selection of Chinese dramas and movies to watch. They’ve launched on SlingTV! You can stream it through the website xumo, the platform Plex, or else access it on tv if you have xfinity or cox contour. Again, all of this is free.