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 in episode 2 of The Tang Dynasty drama The Longest Day in Chang’An, or in mandarin, 长安十二时辰.
For this podcast episode, we’re going to discuss episode 2 and weave the history and book commentary along the way. We’ll probably continue to do this for the first 5 drama episodes or so because there’s still so much history to introduce.
Now, as I watch this drama more closely, read more history about it, the more hardened I become heading into the ending. This drama is one that requires repeat viewings, one all the way through and then back at the top and also knowledge of history for this time period. We won’t aim to spoil too much of the ending since not everyone has seen the full drama but what I think IS important for us to be aware of as we watch this drama is the historical time period. There is a Chinese phrase that I experience over and over again while watching this drama knowing what is to come in history and that is 讽刺. It’s not easily translated into English. There’s components of satire, irony, believing something is a farce or a mockery. It can also mean insulting. Essentially, what I want listeners to remember is that despite EVERYTHING we see in this drama and we’re only on episode 2, the reality is that the Emperor, 李隆基 ultimately brings the Tang dynasty to its knees and near destruction, in part due to his liaison with Consort 杨玉环.
We start episode 2 with the member of the turkish Wolf Squad 曹破延 inside a barbershop getting a shave in order to escape capture. He is hypervigilant at any and all threats that may come his way. As the barber wraps up his shave, he notices that 曹破延‘s inner shirt is wet. The barber quickly calls for a name while 曹破延 is on high alert, believing that the barber is calling for a guard. He nabs the barber’s knife just in case he needs to protect himself. Except, a cute little girl answers. The barber actually tells the young girl to grab one of his clean shirts for this customer to wear. That’s when 曹破延 breathes a sigh of relief and actually shows some tenderness towards the barber and the young girl. After all, the young girl reminds him of his own daughter who we see in flashbacks. He kneels in front of the cute little girl and tells her that she should stay home with her father today and not go anywhere. That’s his kind warning to her, except we don’t know if she’ll listen. This is some crazy foreshadowing so pay attention! It is the Lantern Festival where the entire city is eager to go out at night.
Now it’s 午初 – beginning of the wu period or noon period which is around 11AM. During this time – it’s 阳气炽chì盛 or the Yang of Yin Yang is blazing.
Back at 静安司 or the Department of City Security, 张小敬 is suiting up to take on this mission to track down this Wolf Squad member and uncover what plans they have for the city tonight. He’s given weapons, a new outfit, a new hat etc and I’m like hey, okay, 雷佳音 you look pretty good in this! Though the joke all over China is that 雷佳音 has a huge head so I’m wondering if the costume designers had to make him a bespoke headdress. Hahaha.
As he’s getting suited up, an internal conflict arises when 张小敬 learns that 李必’s promise of setting him free from the death penalty was a lie. This understandably pisses off 张小敬 but Li Bi tries to appeal to Zhang Xiao Jing’s sense of duty by acknowledging the 8th squad or 第八团. By uttering these words though, Zhang Xiao Jing becomes even more angry and actually punches Li Bi.
Then, Li Bi recites a whole lot of words in order to try to get Zhang Xiao Jing on his side or at least understand where he’s coming from.
Li Bi recites the poem – 清平乐, which is the the exact song that the courtesan was singing in episode 1 and is also the song in the ending credits.
Here’s my translation
In the spring day in the forbidden rooms of the palace, the Black-naped oriole has new feathers
Amongst the flowers, two are playing a game with flowers
The pot for the gamble requires baskets of gold and silver
The sky turns dark, she reapplies her makeup that is no longer immaculate
She performs a dance in front of the emperor
Who says this graceful figure and beautiful silhouette cannot garner a smile from the lord?
It was written by the most famous of Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai in the year 743. The poet is in his early 40s right now but only just entered court as a member of the Hanlin Academy to perform secretarial and literary tasks for court. Li Bai’s main job was to write poem and songs to praise the Emperor’s exploits and document the beauty that is the Tang Dynasty. Unfortunately, Li Bai became more and more disillusioned with what he saw at court and especially with the Emperor. The Emperor had started his downward spiral in indulging in earthly pleasures, especially with the favored concubine 杨玉环. We will meet her later in the drama. It was during this time that Li Bai penned this poem or song of 清平乐 as a depiction of a day with the Emperor and the then only concubine 杨玉环. Li Bai himself tired of this court life and turned to drink.
The poem itself, while an accurate depiction of the events that happened, is also a scathing commentary from the poet himself. The Emperor is no longer bothered with the affairs of state and only indulges in the pleasures of his concubine. This poem and song will follow us for the entirety of this drama. I want you listeners to really pay attention why the drama picked this poem as the song. It is 100% intentional to be satirical. We are currently witnessing the grandeur that is the Tang Dynasty. But what about this Emperor who now indulges in his pleasures.
One of our protagonists Li Bi certainly catches on to the scathing commentary that is the undertone of this poem. He dismisses Li Bai’s current position stating that this great poem is only relegated to drinking with the courtesans as he’s lamenting the current regime. He, Li Bi, though, has different ambitions. He then recites this poem.
长歌行（天覆吾）唐 － 李泌
The Long Ballad
The heavens engulfs me, the earth supports me. I am alive in this world – is this on purpose?
Why are there people who prefer to seclude from the world to achieve immortality
Why are there people who seek power and fortune play their games in the capital?
Why won’t someone leave if they haven’t achieved fame and fortune?
To be a man with nothing but spirit?
A man with a pursuit for ambition in every life is the ultimate plan
Look at the history of the past centuries, only a man such as 范蠡 (a political advisor who lived in the 500 BCE) who achieved greatness and then went on to retired to travel the five lakes is worthy.
Through this speech, we understand that this young 李必 has extremely grand ambitions. He wants to be Prime Minister. In order to get there, he cannot have a single blemish on his ledger that would prevent him from getting his goal. He argues that his purpose in life, by being placed on this earth, is to protect everyone in this world. Zhang Xiao Jing walks off after hearing this impassioned speech claiming he’ll come back to ask for payback after he captures 曹破延。Historically, it is unknown when he wrote the poem but the sentiment is still the same.
In the book, 张小敬 only agrees to help 李必 after hearing he’s doing all of this to save the people. In the drama, they’ve highlighted an additional component of politics and more personal agenda. This political angle we’ll see much more fully fledged out in future episodes that complicates this mission even further.
And now it’s time to start the mission. 张小敬 is fully armed and heads out with a 姚汝能 in tow. We haven’t talked about 姚汝能 yet even though he’s been in the background for the last episode. Honestly, he’s one of my favorite characters in the drama. In the drama, he is given the title of 东宫右卫率 or Right Commandant of the Eastern Palace which means he reports to the Crown Prince. His rank is higher than even Li Bi’s. In the book, this 姚汝能 is actually a young and relatively new member of 静安司. He used to be a detective but definitely not in league with the Crown Prince, at least in the beginning of the book. His greatest skill, though, is having a photographic memory which the drama Yao Ru Neng also highlights.
Yao Ru Neng’s current role in both the drama and the book is 1) to aid Zhang Xiao Jing in official matters, 2) oversee him in case he tries to escape and 3) act as a teaching mechanism for us to understand how and why Zhang Xiao Jing acts the way he does. Mostly in the book Yao Ru Neng is like WTF is this guy doing!
Indeed, the first thing 张小敬 does after leaving prison is…Eat! He scarfs down a bowl of 水盆羊肉, asks for another order and also 水晶柿子 or persimmons. This scene actually became rather famous as viewers all became interested in what these foods were. Fun fact, these scenes of 张小敬 eating food in the drama is all the creative choice of the director. From an interview with the author of the book, he said that the director of The Longest Day in Chang An is from 西安 himself and added these shots or scenes to showcase a livelier city. 水盆羊肉 is a classic in Xi An or Water Basin Lamb. The author said that the director took great care in considering the historical setting for this dish because in present day, people usually add peppers or various spices to add more flavor to the dish except those didn’t exist back in the Tang dynasty since many of those spices came from the new world. We’re way too early in history to see those things. Thus, in the quick image of the lamb soup, you don’t see any spices in it.
As for 水晶柿子，these persimmons are native to 西安 and are extremely sweet and soft. That’s why 雷佳音 or Zhang Xiao Jing was able to drink it with a straw. Both of these were interesting additions to the drama that quickly became a craze in 2019 when the drama aired.
姚汝能 is over there in the drama irked that 张小敬 is just being a foodie but I totally get 张小敬。 Modern day 西安 has some of the most famous foods in China and it’s especially well known for its carbs on carbs on carbs. Tang Dynasty Chang An was much the same! He also just got out of prison! Some good food is necessary! There’s like a million ways to eat noodles there so 姚汝能 has just got to back off at this moment!
张小敬 takes this moment to point out that a nearby cosmetics shop is a little odd. Why are only men going in and out of this store made for women? 张小敬 instructs 姚汝能 to go destroy the shop in order to get information which 姚汝能 begrudgingly agrees to and does an awful job at. Zhang Xiao Jing still wolfing down his second bowl of lamb rushes in to take over. Turns out, the clerk in this cosmetics store is actually a devoted spy for Zhang Xiao Jing. Zhang Xiao Jing instructs this spy to put on a show, telling his superiors that someone is looking for whoever sold the detailed map of Chang An. That will give them enough leads to who might be the seller, thus in league with the Wolf Squad.
Sure enough, this spy was able to tell Zhang Xiao JIng that a specific shop selling gold and silverware sold 3 maps in the last 6 months as a lead. They’re eating mint – we’ll talk about mint a lot more in the drama.
Zhang Xiao Jing makes his way over to the shop which is dark and ominous. He questions the elderly shop owner about whether or not he’s sold the map of Chang An. The elderly man denies all of this but keeps highlighting 京兆尹, the police in Chang An. Zhang Xiao Jing doesn’t think too much of it at that moment and turns away after being distracted with news from Yao Ru Neng. As he walks out of the store a couple of steps though, the repeated words of Jing Zhao Yin by the elderly man resonates with him and he runs back to the store. It was clearly a warning by the old man whom Zhao Xiao Jing unfortunately finds dying behind the counter. Clearly, someone was threatening him earlier when Zhao Xiao Jing came in to question the old man. Zhang Xiao Jing’s spy from earlier? Also dead on the ground. In the book, Zhang Xiao Jing is rather distraught that he couldn’t catch this hint earlier, highlighting that he was a little rusty with his street smarts after being locked up for so long.
He investigates deeper into the store that is dark and ominous, a stark contrast to the brightly lit streets earlier. only to find that everyone has been massacred and only moments before. Zhang Xiao Jing, recognizing the clear threat, searches the back store rooms carefully. Suddenly, a lone Wolf Squad member, having stolen something from the store, attacks Zhang Xiao Jing. fter a tussle, the Wolf Squad member escapes in some underground passages.
张小敬 gives chase first through the underground passage then up out into the streets in a heart pumping sequence. On the streets, he shoots an arrow towards a watch tower which then quickly follows his progress. The fast pace drums and deep brass notes give more credence to the epic nature of the chase. What I absolutely love about this scene is that while Zhang Xiao Jing is chasing this wolf squad member in real life, news travels quickly over to 静安司 and Li Bi follows Zhang Xiao Jing’s progress directly in the miniature models of the 坊 in almost real time. The shot is also beautifully choreographed with another decently long shot as multiple players in Jing An Si take and receive orders in regards to this chase.
The escaped Wolf Squad member steals a horse from a scholarly man in order to better escape in the streets. Zhang Xiao Jing isn’t able to keep up but is able to stick some green powder into a bag on the horse in order for the watchtower to keep an eye on the whereabouts of the Wolf Squad member. The watchtower members shoot their own colored arrows into the sky to help direct Zhang Xiao Jing who has taken to the rooftops to get a better vantage point. Meanwhile, back in Jing An Si, miniature figures are placed on the 坊 models to mirror the progress of this chase.
Can we take a second to appreciate the professionalism that the actor 雷佳音 has displayed for this role? While from behind the scenes clips we know that he has a harness to help him through these scenes, the fact that he is still the one running nonstop on rooftops and through streets, jumping down from different floors is dedication.
The chase continues into the next episode as this escaped Wolf Squad member makes his way into the packed 怀远坊. That was a whirlwind of fun for the episode but there is a lot more historical context we need to be aware of.
Let’s turn back to some earlier scenes with Li Bi and his first scene with his teacher, 何执正. We learn that this little capture mission of this rogue Wolf squad member has much larger implications. Because the Department of City Security is ultimately run by the Crown Prince, a failed mission by this department will mean that his opponents will have ample opportunity to antagonize him at court. That would jeopardize his position greatly. We will talk about the main antagonist to the Crown prince in the next episode. Additionally, we learn that Li Bi and He Zhi Zheng are squarely seen as in the Crown Prince’s camp. So if something goes wrong on their end, it would be another hit to the Crown Prince. And lastly, we learn that 何执正 has enough clout at court to smooth most things over. He is the anchor for Li Bi and the Crown Prince at court. Don’t let his drunken appearance fool you!
But there’s an edict from the Emperor that Li Bi takes from his teacher. It shocks him to see the content. It states that the Emperor will give all governing power to the right chancellor/counselor while the Emperor plans to leave Chang An to go stay in the hot springs palace at the Li Mountains.
A very short and quick conversation but, if you know how history unfolds, we get back to how 讽刺 or insulting this line is. We introduced the Emperor Li Long Ji earlier in the drama. While he brought the Tang Dynasty to another zenith in power, growth and expansion, he is probably most well known for his romance with Consort Yang, the An Lu Shan Rebellion that brought the Tang Dynasty to its knees. Both The Emperor Li Long Ji and Consort Yang do show up later in the drama but this Li Mountain that is a throwaway line where the Emperor wants to go? It’s to be with this woman. This Emperor is literally in his late 50s early 60s, and he wants to shirk his responsibility as Emperor to enjoy hedonistic pleasures.
All of this fighting for power between the Crown Prince and the Right Chancellor? Blame the Emperor.
We actually do meet the crown prince later on in this episode in a secret room with Li Bi. Please note the secret code that is spoken – 不知细叶谁裁出. The literal translation – I don’t know who cut the thin leaves. We will discuss this at length in a future episode.
The Crown Prince does also lament his possible actions of his father but the primary concern for Li Bi and the Crown Prince is NOT the actions of the Emperor going off to have fun. But instead, the fact that power will fall to the Right Chancellor. Li Bi informs the Crown Prince that he has evidence from a spy named 影女 that the Right Chancellor is forcing residents in a 坊 to move in order to build a diplomatic residences. These actions are hugely destructive and Li Bi believes that once presented to the Emperor, the Emperor will have to think twice about giving power to the Right Chancellor.
We’ll meet this 右相 in the next episode. I want to go back to 安禄山 and the issues he will pose to the Tang dynasty. In a blink and you’ll miss it piece of dialogue, 徐宾 informs 李必 that 张小敬 is heading into 怀远坊 which will be problematic because that place has strong ties with 安禄山. We are already seeing that this man has a healthy amount of power and is not to be trifled with even by the likes of 李必 who I mentioned earlier has the backing of 何执正 and subsequently the Crown Prince.
We will never meet 安禄山 in the flesh in this drama but it is these sprinkled pieces of information that continue to highlight what a farce all of the actions taken in this drama for this day are. Because, once again, 安禄山’s rebellion is famed in history and causes heavy destruction and death to the Tang dynasty.
The episode ends with 曹破延 meeting up with other members of the Wolf Squad that are hidden in the city and it is not a small number. At first, the wolf squad does not submit to 曹破延 but it’s only after who looks like the second in command 麻哥儿 kneel does the rest do so as well. This will be a point of contention in the future.