Welcome back to Chasing Dramas. This is the podcast where we discuss Chinese culture and history through historical Chinese dramas. I am your host for today, Karen.
We are in episode 6 of The Tang Dynasty drama The Longest Day in Chang’An, or in mandarin, 长安十二时辰. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to reach out to us on instagram or twitter or else email us at email@example.com. 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.
For this podcast episode, we’ll discuss the plot, which in this particular episode is heart racing, and then discuss the history and book differences.
In the last episode, there were 3.5 plot strands concurrently moving forward. Today, we focus on two of them. One includes the mysterious Long Bo. He’s waiting for delivery at a deserted residence. The other plot strand includes our main character Zhang Xiao Jing, in an effort to gain more clues about the token that was found in Long Bo’s residence, went to Ping Kang Fang with Yao Ru Neng in tow to gather more information from a famous courtesan. The only clue that the courtesan provides is that a mysterious Ge Lao will have the answers. With no other option, Zhang Xiao Jing and Yao Ru Neng make their way to the underground of Chang An and the lair of Ge Lao. This is where the episode begins.
We are still in the dual hour of noon but inching closer towards the 1pm time.
The underground of Chang An is a place without law, order, or justice. It’s filthy and crowded, completely different from the splendors of the orderly Chang An we’ve seen so far. The officials have no power or reach down here and the ruler of this underground is one Ge Lao. Yao Ru Neng makes an astute observation that, for the first time, Zhang Xiao Jing seems on edge and asks who is this Ge Lao?
Zhang Xiao Jing explains that he was a slave who was sold to Chang An between 705 – 707 AD, first to a Vice Minister Ge but then was sold to a brothel as a servant. This Ge Lao is a Kun Lun Slave. I’ll discuss more about this. Yao Ru Neng scoffs at the news that Ge Lao is a Kun Lun Slave. They’re all docile and he says – if you asked one to die, he’ll die for you. Zhang Xiao Jing dismisses this thought, asking is that something to be proud of? Remember this answer as he will have to face the exact same thing in the episode.
Back to Ge Lao. Zhang Xiao Jing explains that this Ge Lao is an extremely cunning man. After only 2 years, he was able to convince his master to set him free from slavery and he has since built this underground empire. All of the courtesans are his eyes and ears and he alone knows all of the dark secrets of Chang An. His currency is information, not gold and to get information from him, one must pay with something you hold dear.
One note on this whole scene – I love that the camera shows ZHang Xiao Jing and Yao Ru Neng walking through the alleyways of the underground while discussing Ge Lao because it allows the audience to grasp the atmosphere of this place while also getting an exposition of this mysterious character.
Ge Lao is finally introduced after this build up to be none other than the Beninese-American Academy Award nominated Actor Djimon Hounsou! Zhang Xiao Jing gives Ge Lao a formal bow and presents the token. Ge Lao gives Zhang Xiao Jing some information to wet his appetite. The token belongs to a courtesan called Tong Er. It just so happens that this Tong Er found true love and tried to elope with her lover, a poor scholar. Zhang Xiao Jing doesn’t believe this and indeed, Ge Lao takes the two to the now captured Tong Er and her lover.
On the way – we see another courtesan with a skin illness behind bars. We won’t see her until much later in the drama so we won’t pay attention to her right now.
Tong Er and her lover have been captured. Her lover is currently in a very poor state, beaten and bruised. Zhang Xiao Jing wants information but this is as far as he’s going to get. Ge Lao now wants payment for more information.
He wants a name – A name of one of Zhang Xiao Jing’s spies that are still in his underground. This is such an intense scene because Ge Lao really did pick possibly the one piece of information that will hurt Zhang Xiao Jing the most. At first, one person voluntarily steps out and outs himself. This is actually the man who tried to flee from Zhang Xiao Jing at the very beginning of the episode. The man simply bows and says – is Commander Zhang alright and before anyone does anything, the man is killed.
This does not appease Ge Lao, the bastard. The man volunteered himself, Zhang Xiao Jing did not give his name. Ge Lao gives more clues as to who he wants. Years ago, Ge Lao received intel from one of his courtesans with one of her customers that the powerful Eunuch Guo Li Shi had a stash of untold riches in his private manor. For two years, this customer smuggled fake gold instruments with the real thing and buried them in a hidden location. Ge Lao needed this gold as proof of Guo Li Shi’s corruption and leverage over him. But just when Ge Lao was about to come in for the final kill, the courtesan, her customer, the killers he sent, and the gold were all killed by a mysterious 3rd party. He wants to know who it is.
Ugh – this is such a tough scene to watch. The inner turmoil for Zhang Xiao Jing is real but ultimately, he decides to betray his spy. At this point Yao Ru Neng steps in, if anyone betrays the identity of a spy, then it is an automatic death sentence. He is shocked that Zhang Xiao Jing would do this but Zhang Xiao Jing is not to be swayed. For the greater good of Chang An, he chooses to betray one person.
And who is this person? Xiao Yi – the lowly servant that led Zhang Xiao Jing and Yao Ru Neng to the underground from the brothel in the first place. Ge Lao is shocked at this news. Genuinely shocked. He asks for the first piece of gold he ever earned back from Xiao Yi. This shows just how much he cared for Xiao Yi and cannot believe this betrayal.
With one last greeting to his commander, Xiao Yi greets his commander and asks for a blessing. In Chinese, he says 赐福 which translates to blessing. The english translation on youtube was please grant me death. I like the Chinese phrase better because he doesn’t outright ask for death but for a blessing, however everyone knows what he means.
Zhang Xiao Jing has no choice and kills him with his crossbow. The rest of the scenes here turn very heavy and quite difficult to watch. Xiao Yi’s body is unceremoniously dumped near the courtesan. Ge Lao reneges on his word and requests for Xiao Yi’s eyes as final payment. He relishes in watching people make difficult choices. Surprisingly it is Yao Ru Neng who says – Xiao Yi’s already dead, he’d want you to finish the mission. Zhang Xiao Jing has no choice but to acquiesce. As payment for his dead friend, he cuts off a chunk of his pinky as a reminder of what is owed to him.
Finally appeased, Ge Lao agrees to have Tong Er give the information that Zhang Xiao Jing wants but before she does so, she sings a song for him. The song, we’ll hear during the rest of the drama is snippets of the poem 短歌行 or the Short Ballad.
We end the episode with a flashback to before this all started, when everyone, including Zhang Xiao Jing was still members of the sleuth-hound, with Zhang Xiao Jing as a captain. I love this scene because it’s one long continuous shot that really shows that Xiao Yi was a great technician with the crossbows, the members of the Sleuth-Hound were extremely loyal to their captain, and a captain that cared and loved his team.
It was in this scene that we find out that Zhang Xiao Jing discovered Ge Lao’s intentions to steal the gold and needed a spy. No one was thinking of Xiao Yi, but he volunteered himself by injuring himself and saying that he’s the best cover. Zhang Xiao Jing was fiercely against this from the beginning.
I focused on the plot recap with Zhang Xiao Jing’s plot because it was SO intense to watch.
Turning our attention to Long Bo. A caravan with unknown products arrives at his location, evidently ordered by Long Bo. The caravan traveled all the way from Yan Zhou, which is something that I would like people to pay attention to because it will come to play in later episodes. Based on previous episodes, we as the audience know that Long Bo is planning something nefarious and he indeed says the words 阙勒霍多 or the fire apocalypse. So he must be planning something to do with fire. But how is it possible that this whole caravan was able to enter the city unscathed if the whole Jing An Si or Department of City Security is trying to find anything related to oil?
Unfortunately for the poor members of the caravan shipping the product, they are all unceremoniously murdered by Long Bo’s men and Yu Chang. What a pity that these innocent men died. As for a quick aside, Li Bi is still stuck waiting for an audience from Lin Jiu Lang and time is ticking back at Jing An Si 靖安司 or the Department of City Security to find more evidence.
Phew – ok, this episode was so action packed. We are introduced to Ge Lao. Would you call him an evil person? – yes, maybe? Every single time I watch this episode, I kind of dread it but I just can’t take my eyes off of this episode. There’s so much to learn. So here we go with the history!
First – let’s discuss the 昆仑奴 or the Kun Lun Slaves, which is the origin of Ge Lao. When I first heard the words Kun Lun, I thought oh ok, probably someone from the Kun Lun mountains, which is found in present day western China on the northern part of the Tibetan plateau.
However, in ancient China, Kun Lun sometimes meant the indian subcontinent and the islands in southeast Asia. In the Old Book of Tang which chronicled the history of Tang Dynasty and was published in the mid 10th century, it denotes everyone south of a region in present day Vietnam with curly hair and black of body.
In addition, during the time of the Tang Dynasty, Kun Lun was also used to describe the color black or colors close to black. So during the Tang Dynasty, Kun Lun Slaves, referred to slaves with black skin. What’s interesting, is that archeologists have uncovered black human clay figures amongst Tang Dynasty artifacts which supports the claim that there were people with black or very dark skin known and living amongst the Tang during that time. What is unclear is were these Kun Lun Slaves from Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, or the Middle East. The reason being, records only said that they had black or very dark skin but wasn’t very specific on exactly where they’re from.
So then the questions become, where did they come from and how did they travel all the way east in the 8th century? There’s a couple of theories.
One is that these KunLun Slaves originated from Africa. There are records in the Old Book of Tang stating maritime trade between the Tang Dynasty and cities in ancient Zanzibar or present day Tanzania. So it could be that the KunLun Slaves came from there. It could also be that with the maritime trade between kingdoms of east africa and egypt at that time, slaves could have arrived in China via trade with the arabic and persian empires, then via the indian Subcontinent and then to China.
There’s another theory that the Kunlun Slaves probably originated from southeast asia because as was mentioned in the Old Book of Tang, referenced the area south of modern day Vietnam, which is southeast asia. It could also just be that these slaves came from all over the africa, middle east, Indian subcontinent and southeast asia and in Chinese records, they were simply grouped as people with black or very dark skin.
During the Tang Dynasty, Kunlun slaves typically performed household duties. There were slaves though that were animal trainers, musicians, or worked on the fields. According to some other records, some of them even became pirates! In general though, life for these slaves wasn’t great.
What’s fascinating is that there’s a wuxia romance novel that was written in the late Tang Dynasty or 9th century, that was called the Kun Lu Slave and is a story of how this slave saved his master’s lover. So we can see that KunLun Slaves were very much a part of society during the Tang Dynasty.
Now turning towards our Ge Lao. Let’s give a shout out to Djimon Hounsou! American audiences might be most familiar with him with the movie Blood Diamond where he was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting Actor. He was most recently in Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Black Adam. When he came on screen for this episode, it caused quite a stir because audiences weren’t expecting an African American actor in the role of Ge Lao. This was quite a big get for this production and I think Djimon Hounsou does an amazing job in the role.
Here’s a special easter egg. For those of you who have a good ear, you might find Ge Lao’s dub familiar. Why that’s because the dub is none other than 陈建斌 himself, our Emperor from Empresses in the Palace! When this episode came out, everyone’s like – why do I hear 四郎 or the Emperor’s voice! Only to find that it was him! I think it fits pretty well so let’s enjoy this treat!
There’s some other minor pieces of history introduced in this drama. A new drink called 三勒浆 or 3 Le wine. The 3 Le includes 诃黎勒 Hē lí lēi、毗黎勒 pí lí lēi、庵摩勒 and ān mó lēi. The recipe was recorded during the Tang Dynasty to include plants such as Myrobalan, baheda, Indian gooseberry, white honey, and water. Unfortunately we don’t have that drink anymore but it does sound pretty interesting! This drink was a foreign drink and introduced from abroad.
This was a really heavy episode so let me close out book differences, specifically on the death of Xiao Yi and the audience’s reaction when this episode aired.
In the book – when Zhang Xiao Jing decides to betray Xiao Yi. The character himself didn’t want to die and instead backed away as if ready to flee. Zhang Xiao Jing immediately kills him without exchanging a word and immediately injures himself as payment. We don’t get the whole scene between Zhang Xiao Jing and Xiao Yi in which they acknowledge each other nor do we get the scene in which Ge Lao acknowledges that he views Xiao Yi’s betrayal as a great loss. I personally like how they have it in the drama because it really shows just how loyal Xiao Yi is to Zhang Xiao Jing. Zhang Xiao Jing’s regret with this whole situation and the choice he must make, to betray one person to save all of Chang An or to save that one person and let Chang An burn. Zhang Xiao Jing ultimately chose the former.
This episode caused quite a stir when it aired because Zhang Xiao Jing is no longer a morally good character. For the first 6 episodes, Zhang Xiao Jing has been presented as that morally good character who is willing to fight for Chang An and we see him as this upstanding guy. Sure, he killed a bunch of people, but there must be a reason why everyone respects him. But here he made a choice to betray one of his own. Here, he acted for the greater good to save the million in Chang An. A million who might never know what he did. Was it worth it? Audiences very much grappled with this question and honestly turned people off.
That closes out our discussion of episode 6 of the longest day in changan! What did you think of this episode and Zhang Xiao Jing’s choice? It was intense right? Let us know your thoughts!
The music for this episode is 清平乐 played by Karen with sheet music by 崔江卉.
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