Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts Cathy and Karen!
We are beginning our discussion of the Tang Dynasty drama The Longest Day in Chang’An, or in mandarin, 长安十二时辰. Listen to our last week’s episode for a preview of this drama, the characters, and history for this drama.
If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to reach out to us on instagram or twitter or else email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, this podcast is in English with proper nouns and certain phrases spoken in Mandarin. Additionally, we reference translations from what is provided online and we’ll provide our own. If you have any questions or comments, please reach out to us!
For this podcast episode, we are actually only going to cover the first half of the episode because it is sooo dense with information that wil be useful for you to actually make sense of it. And in a deviation of our normal podcast format, we will also discuss the history as we watch the drama in this podcast episode because there’s so much to introduce with regards to the characters, the plot, and most importantly the setting and we wanted to make this episode more fluid rather than trying to cut back and forth. We want to make sure you all are comfortable with where we are in the world and time period because we will absolutely be engrossed in the splendor of the Tang Dynasty. For this episode, we’re also going to sprinkle in book differences and comments from the author to round out this discussion. Haha, I almost feel like this is a directors cut version.
Episode one opens up with a magnificent continuous shot of a morning in Chang An. Today is the Lantern Festival on 天宝三载, the 3rd year of this era under the reign of Emperor Tang Xuan Zong. The year is 744 AD and the Lantern Festival celebrates the 15th day of the first month of the lunar year with the celebration of the full moon. This date can be sometime in February or early March on the Gregorian calendar.
We start with a view of a young woman playing a Tang dynasty style pi pa on the upper floors of a building. Then pan our view out onto the street as we hear the beautiful sounds of the pi pa continue and song wafting through in the background. On the street, we see merchants and workers already starting their day. Lanterns are being strung up and a large one is caught on fire before being quickly put out by quick thinking workers with buckets of water. We then follow an elderly official carrying two banners as he scans his surroundings. There are children playing in the streets, foreign merchants talking in whispers before unveiling his goods – stacks of walnut naan ready to be sold for the day while another man is being dragged forcefully back into a shop he was trying to escape.
By now the elderly official has reached the district gate and hands off the banners to another. A higher status official holding an official proclamation was waiting for him. We observe soldiers preparing to open the gate doors as the official with the proclamation heads upstairs. Drums start beating as the official loudly announces to the waiting crowd on the other side of the gate that on this day of the Lantern Festival, the 14th day of the first month, the Western Market is now open! 开市 is what he proclaims which means, as the youtube translation states, the market is now open! As decreed by the Emperor, the evening curfew for this day will be suspended and activity will be allowed to continue for the next 24 hours until the next morning. All who entered into the city of Chang’’An this day will be able to freely walk through Chang An regardless of where you came from.
Cheers erupt in the waiting crowd as we pan over to see the hoards of people eager to start the trading day. They pack up their materials, load up their wagons, horses and camels, eager to enter the western market.
We are 2 min 33 sec into this drama and we need to take a pause. Let me first marvel at this beautiful singular opening shot from when the drama began with the woman playing pi pa all the way to the official announcing the decree on the gate walls. The choreography it took for everything to fall into place as the camera changes its target to bring us to the gate took my breath away and is an introduction to just how intricate this drama is going to be. In this one shot alone, we see actors and actresses we may never see on screen again but they played their part perfectly.
There are a couple of things we need to explain right off the bat.
Let’s start with time in ancient China because for each episode and indeed every chapter of the book, we will get a timestamp of where we are in the day.
In episode 1, we start the day on the 14th of the lantern festival at the time of 巳正·大荒落. In the youtube translation, they have it at around 9AM. However, in the book, the author has it at around 10AM. During the Tang Dynasty, there were 12 时 or dual hours in a day, starting at 11PM with 2 hour increments to make a 时. In the later part of the Tang dynasty, the dual hours were further divided so that the first hour was 初 and the second hour was 正, which is what we see in the drama. Days are also divided into smaller units called 刻 with each 刻 roughly equating to around 15 minutes.
We start the drama at 巳正. 巳时 is the dual hour between 9-11AM. 巳正, which is the second half of this dual hour, means that the time is 10AM. The phrase of 巳正, 大荒落 万物炽chì盛大出，霍然而落，故云荒落 is spoken by a gentleman later in the drama but let’s discuss the full phrase now. The translation is – Si Zheng – the time of great waste, the world is at its most prosperous, but will soon fall, hence the time of great waste. This phrase comes from the first surviving Chinese dictionary 尔雅 that was most likely written during the 3rd century BC. The phrase comes specifically from the chapter 釋天 – Explaining heaven focusing on astronomy and astrology and specific ways to calculate time. In Chinese culture, 大荒落 or the great waste represented the growth of all things, nearing its peak.
The reason the author chose this time of day especially with the great waste was twofold. Yes, this is when the markets opened, but also, this was a commentary on the Tang Dynasty in general. In this year, the Emperor, who had been fastidious and focused on governing, will begin to turn towards more earthly pleasures. We talked about this specific year in 744 but this year really sparked the decline of the Tang Dynasty.
After we discuss time, let’s chat about the layout of 长安. This will be vitally important to understand the drama and will come up very quickly later on in the drama but we should level set right here and now so we actually understand what is going on. 长安 during the Tang dynasty was a massive city, one of the biggest in the world at that time. It was designed to be in a rectangular shape of approximately 84 square kilometers or approximately 32 square miles. The city measured 9721m from east to west or 6 miles8651米 from north to south or 5.3miles. From east to west there are 14 main streets, north to south there are 11 main streets and they break the city into rectangular shapes, or into a grid city. The imperial palace is located to the north.
Within the city walls, the city is broken into different rectangular 坊. From youtube, the translations say street but that’s not quite accurate. You could consider them almost large city blocks or small rectangular gated communities. Since these 坊 aren’t all shaped like squares, I don’t know if calling them a square is correct. Each 坊 had their own gates or doors, walls and generally their own specific purpose. In 长安, there are 108 of these 坊. For the purposes of this drama, I’m going to keep calling it 坊 f-a-n-g with the 3rd accent. Y’all can learn some chinese with us.
Let’s talk about why this proclamation from the Emperor is important. From the behind the scenes clip from the author of the book, 马伯庸, he shared that back then, the way to for guards and soldiers to keep order was to try to restrict movement, especially at night. There was a nightly curfew as a way to prevent crime. If you were doing business in one 坊 and needed to head home, there were drum beats that would warn you it was time to go home to your own 坊. If you were out after curfew, there would be punishment. If you couldn’t make it back to your own 坊 in time, you would just head over to the nearest 坊 and stay there overnight because each 坊 would have their own hotels. Once curfew was lifted the next day, you can head back home. But, as 马伯庸 explains, the curfew does not mean business completely shuts down. After curfew, the 坊 gate closes but you can still go out and about and do business or hang out in your own 坊 as you please. Party all night if you want to.
This allowed the main streets in the city that divided these 坊 to stay empty and clear overnight. There were no markets on these main streets, only within the 坊.
马伯庸 explains that the Lantern Festival or 上元节 was unique because it was one time where the curfew would be lifted so that everyone in the city could enjoy the beautiful lanterns during nighttime and essentially it was a time to party. And, people could roam around different 坊 without restriction. In the behind the scenes clip, he noted that the curfew would be lifted for 3 days. But in this drama, we only hear about the curfew being lifted for 24 hours.
The Western Market or 西市 is a large 坊 within 长安. We’ll discuss this Western Market in subsequent episodes so we’ll move on from here.
After the opening credits, we are now in 光德坊, home of the fictitious 靖安司 Department of City Security. On the map, it is located one 坊 away to the east from the western market. A disheveled and unkempt man in chains is pulled from his cell and dragged unceremoniously out to a hallway where a female servant, 檀棋 is waiting. She comments that he reeks and next thing we know, he is thrown a few buckets of water somewhere to wash off. After this quick shower, this man, hunched over, clutching an oversized fabric, dragging his feet in chains is escorted to another courtyard.
This man in question is 张小敬，former 不良帅。The translation here gives me captain of the sleuth-hound but I’m not entirely sure that’s correct. 不良帅 itself is an interesting title. Because in Chinese, the direct translation is Captain who is not a good person. 良 generally means good or good willed so 不良 would be the opposite. This is a government official title specific to the Tang dynasty. The purpose of this role is to monitor those not good people. Their primary remit is to capture and prosecute thieves in order to help preserve security and peace. The rank of these 不良帅 isn’t very high but still incredibly useful. 张小敬 was the 不良帅 for 万年县 or county which is the right half of 长安. You can consider 万年 a borough if we’re thinking about New York city. Queens to New York City as a whole. Or if we think about DC, literally one half of DC’s security and safety, falls under the purview of this 不良帅. In this instance, I’m just gonna use the Captain of the sleuth-hound as per the translations from youtube because I don’t have a better translation. The fact that 张小敬 had this title means that he is rather impressive. Without watching further, we know he will be a skilled fighter and highly connected with the comings and goings of the city in order to be an effective leader. He’s been in that role for 9 years.
檀棋 announces that 张小敬 has arrived. 张小敬 seemed to have suspected they wanted something from him because he very plainly states as he sits himself on the ground that he is not the person they’re looking for. He’s committed one of the worst offenses possible and has been sentenced to death by beheading.
A voice of a young man travels through, promptly cutting off 张小敬 stating that he can get 张小敬 pardoned. 张小敬 scoffed at this, turns to where the voice came from and inquires whether or not the owner of the voice has the last name of Li.
檀棋 quickly apologizes to the voice saying that no one ever mentioned the identify of her master. But 张小敬 then impresses all of us with his deduction skills and intimate knowledge of Chang An by directly placing exactly where this place is. A location that has been abandoned for quite some time and rumored to be the secret property of the crown prince’s.
So what 张小敬 assumed about the young man is that he might be the crown prince himself.
The young man swiftly opens the door to correct him. We are now introduced to the young 李必, the deputy chief of the Department of City Security. He makes it very clear that he is not from the royal family, but from the Li family of the Sui Dynasty. That however, is also not quite true in history. 李必 is the 6th generation descendent of a man called 李弼 wow, they all sound the same. 李弼 was a crucial general for the kingdom of Northern Zhou during the early 6th century. His descendents weren’t as cozy to the Emperors of the Sui Dynasty and were somewhat ostracized at court. There’s actually another Li family that can claim that they are the Li family of the Sui dynasty. Anyways – all that to say is, yes this guy comes from a prestigious family, but he’s not royal.
李必 then goes on with his resume which is very impressive but for our purposes the most important is that he studied daoism for over ten years under the master Ye Fa Shan. We’ll discuss all about the other areas of his resume later. Li Bi stands around amongst the crowd from head to toe because Li Bi’s entire attire is daoist. This includes his Jade lotus headcrown in which the hairpin points forward. As a member of court, he was allowed to wear the jade headcrown but also practitioners of daoism could also wear these types of head crowns. In his hands, he is holding a hossu or a fly whisk which is very customary for daoists. His robe is a 鹤氅 hè chǎng or in english, a crane robe, which was also a han robe that had associations with daoists. On the inside, he is wearing what can be literally translated to daoist dress. Please keep his entire getup in mind because we’ll spend time discussing the clothing of other people, but Li Bi is very unique in this regard.
李必 is the head of 靖安司, a new yamen or you consider government entity, that was created just 4 months ago at this location. He again calmly states that he has the authority and ability to pardon 张小敬 so he walks freely starting tomorrow. But today, he has to do a task. 张小敬 asks if it’s the same task that another man 崔六郎 was tasked to do. And if he’s on the job, why do they need 张小敬? 李必 simply answers, he’s dead.
The whole group heads to the coroner’s where we see Cui Qi, the captain of the 旅贲军, mourning over the death of a body, which just happens to be the body that we see on screen. 旅贲军 in the youtube translation is the Royal Escort but it really isn’t. We’ll still use the Royal Escort though to keep it consistent. In history – it was called 虎贲军 or the Tiger Guard which functioned basically as an elite force dating back to even the Han Dynasty. During the tang dynasty, this troop was smaller and just a part of the Crown Prince’s personal guard, so distinct from just a broad Royal escort.
崔器 is clearly distressed over the deceased man, putting a naan in his helmet awaiting punishment from Li Bi as he claims he was the reason the mission failed and 崔六郎 died.
Li Bi dismisses him and asks him to change out of his wet clothes so that Zhang Xiao Jing can examine the body. Zhang Xiao Jing once again acutely deduces that 崔六郎 is 崔器’s older brother. Li Bi gives Zhang Xiao Jing an ultimatum, if Zhang Xiao Jing can accomplish this mission, then he will be spared the death penalty. If not, back to the gallow he goes. Zhang Xiao Jing hears the forensic report and asks to hear exactly what he has to do.
Li Bi turns around and marches Zhang Xiao Jing to Jing An Si or the Department of City Security and we are introduced to the grandeur that is this whole department. This is a new, secret agency with the edict to maintain the peace and security in the capital. This department holds all of the secret documents of all of the other bureaus and agencies in the empire. In another impressive shot, we follow the hustling and bustling of 靖安司 in its normal operations.
We next meet Xu Bin, a member of the ministry of revenue, and also the inventor of 大案牍术, which is a fictitious way to find data / information through scrolls. It was this 徐宾 that helped select 崔六郎 and 张小敬 for this task. Both of them know multiple languages, know how the officials and thieves operate, are motivated and want to live. Thus great candidates. Something that is important to note is that 徐宾 and 张小敬, do not know each other. 徐宾 also is of a position of a government official in only the 8th rank, a rather lowly position. But, 李必 says Xu Bin prefers to be here in order to continue to do what he does.
We get a fabulous explanation of the operations of Jing An Si, with its 35 members, in charge of all of the secrets of the capital. Notably, 李必 confidently says that he trusts all members of 靖安司。We then are introduced to the timekeeper, Professor 庞灵. He will judiciously follow and announce the time. He recites what we mentioned earlier about it being 巳正, 大荒落 万物炽盛大出，霍然而落，故云荒落 or the great waste.
Walking past 庞灵, we follow 李必 and 张小敬 into another room which houses detailed miniature replica models of the entire city of Chang An. Each 坊 has been intricately recreated so that 靖安司 can observe activity in those 坊. These models will certainly come into play later in the drama so that we see where 张小敬 is going but what he questions is that having these models is a pretty big security threat. Anyone wishing to do harm to 长安 only need to get their hands on these replicas and that would wreak havoc on the city. 李必 once again is confident in the safety and security of 靖安司 which will not allow these models to fall into the wrong hands.
Additionally, 李必 points out that 靖安司 is in direct communication with all of the watchtowers in the city. There’s a watchtower located every 300 steps and are manned with soldiers to inform Jing An Si near real time activities happening within every 坊 through runners and codes that can be transmitted through color codes in a panel boxes via the watchtowers. These watchtowers inform of any movement in the city, and more importantly for Zhang Xiao Jing, either will support him on his mission, or will apprehend him if he tries to escape.
In history, the watchtower exists, but mainly for spotting and putting out fires. This method of communication was developed purely for the show. The author originally used a combination of drumbeats and flags but that wouldn’t translate well to the show. So now we basically have an ASCII 12 bit code in the Tang Dynasty to transmit messages!
Finally, Li Bi tells Zhang Xiao Jing his mission. In the 9th month of the prior year, an encrypted message was detailing that a squad of turkish elite forces, 狼卫, or the Wolf Squad, including their leader 曹破延yán mysteriously disappeared in the northwestern regions of the empire. Jing An Si was established to determine their whereabouts and it was only a few days ago that the department discovered 16 people tried to purchase fake identities to enter into the city via the Western Market. The original plan was to have Cui Liu Lang, an illegal loan shark and the man who died, lure the 16 men into an abandoned building, discover their plan, and promptly be execute by 崔器 and the Royal Escort. Everything went according to plan, until it didn’t.
We are treated to a flashback of this action packed scene and it is another marvelous one. The action is in one continuous shot and really shows how quickly everything went down where the Royal guards stormed the hideout. The Royal Escort are able to kill 15 of the 16 members of the wolf squad, but the leader 曹破延yán managed to slip away in the drains that were illegally constructed. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know where 曹破延 came ashore.
We’ll stop here with our recap and history – Li Bi gives his mission. I feel like it’s mission impossible here! Zhang Xiao Jing’s mission, should he choose to accept, is to capture 曹破延. On a day such as the Lantern Festival, where the city’s one million residents will be out and about, stealth will be the only option. Otherwise, there may be unintended injuries and casualties. Thus, 李必 is forced to choose 张小敬 for the task. Zhang Xiao Jing doesn’t really have an option to choose so yea – that’s his mission.
Before anyone can react – an elderly man riding a donkey arrives with an adult man in tow who seems intellectually stunted. The elderly man is utterly distraught and says the phrase 昭昭有唐，天俾bǐ万国 before collapsing off of the donkey. We’ll introduce the man in the next episode and the significance of his words.
That is it for our discussion of part 1 of episode 1 of the longest day in changan! I know it’s a lot of information but we really needed to set the stage!
The music for this episode is 清平乐 played by Karen with sheet music by 崔江卉.