Nirvana in Fire (1) – A Popular Genius

For its faithful depiction of a traditional China in both spiritual and physical aspects, highly acclaimed Chinese TV drama Nirvana in Fire is in fact the best visual introduction to all things Chinese, from customs, costumes, architecture, interior design, garden design, urban design, furniture design to state politics.

31-year old Mei Changsu kept waking up from a recurring nightmare in which his father and his 70,000 good mates were burned to death in fire, while himself falling from the burning clifftop down down down … to an icy snowy valley.

Yet it was not a nightmare. It was his true experience.

The memory was so fresh, that each time he woke up soaked in sweat, he would need to try hard to figure out when this terrible incident actually happened.

It was 12 years ago when the kingdom’s strongest defender and his followers were purged by a suspicious emperor, by a crown prince-wannabe and by a number of corrupt high officials in the court.

This is said to be Mt Langya (琅琊山) in the TV drama Nirvana In Fire, but in fact it is Yandang Mountains (雁荡山) in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province.

The first temple in Yandang was built 1,200 years ago during the South-North Dynasties by a crown prince from Liang Kingdom, the time and the place that the story of the Nirvana In Fire is supposedly occurred.

The real Mt Langya is located in Anhui province and Yu Sunfa (俞逊发 1946 – 2006), China’s best bamboo music composer and player, once created the most brilliant “Langya Charm”.

Langya Terrace Headquarters

It is in fact an ancient temple in Yandang Mountains

In the Mt Langya, there sat Langya Terrace, where the strategy of the Nirvana In Fire was planned and implemented.

Langya Terrace Info Centre

Ancient Chinese info collecting centre – a junior worker successfully retrieved data carried forth by pigeons

This was not a bird farm but Langya Terrace’s information collection platform through well-trained pigeons.

Langya Terrace Information Cave

A Junior worker delivering data to the information centre built deep in a cave

The information collected through the “wireless highway” was then sent to this information centre located deep in a granite cave for process.

Langya Terrace Information Process Centre

Ancient Chinese data process centre – a giant information centre at the Langya Terrace

The Langya Terrace was an information centre, that collected, processed, published and stored data on human resources.

Langya Terrace file storage

Ancient Chinese data (or medicine ingredients) storage unites – file storage units at Langya Terrace information centre

The processed data was then categorized and stored in these traditional Chinese cabinet controlled by the mechanism of a mechanical system.

Langya Terrace open office

An open office at the Langya Terrace

Among its publications, there were several annual rankings, specifying the position of prominent individuals in a scale of achievement or status, which included the top 10 most talented men in the world, the top 10 greatest kung fu masters in the world and the top 10 most eligible bachelors in the world.

Langya Terrace Info Centre CEO

This is Lin Chen, the executive ceo and the son of the founder of the Langya Terrace info centre. He just received a positive feedback from Yan kingdom over the advice he provided to a prince, which instructed the prince to seek help from the man topped the charts for years on Langya’s ranking for the world’s most talented guys.

The prince was considered the weakest among his father’s six sons in terms of his political position and no one ever believed he had the slightest chance to become a crown prince. But he did, after three years hard endeavour, with the help of that top talented man.

Prince Yu at Langya Terrace waiting room

Prince Yu at Langya Terrace waiting room

The news prompted Prince Yu from Great Liang Kingdom, the home state of Langya Terrace, to pay a visit in person to seek an advice on how to optimise his performance in the state politics.

Langya Terrace advice

In the ancient time, the important or prestigious message would be written on a piece of silk cloth instead of paper so it wouldn’t be damaged easily.

It didn’t take long for the advice to be delivered to Prince Yu — because it was a standard answer. Langya Terrace sold the exactly same advice to the prince of Yan Kingdom, to the Crown Prince of Great Liang Kingdom, and now to the Prince Yu.

The advice was short and simple: Mr Mei, the president of Left Shore Alliance, has topped the Langya’s ranking for the world’s most talented guys for years; if you can secure his service, you can secure the top job in your state.

The headquarters of Left Shore Alliance

The headquarters of Left Shore Alliance

Left Shore Alliance, with its headquarter in a subtropical and humid Langzhou, used to be just one of numerous non-governmental organisations in the kingdom; other major ones include Double Demon Gang and Celestial Spring Villa. However, since Mr Mei became the president, the Alliance rapidly expanded into the leading kung fu sector in the world (The Liang Kingdom and its surrounding states).

The office of Left Shore President

Mei Changsu at his office in Left Shore Alliance headquarter. The latticed box is a lighting case, that is now commonly seen in Japanese interiors

Mr Mei with given name Changsu was a rather mysterious figure. Few people ever met him in person, but everyone knew the head of the most powerful kung fu organisation was a physically frail man whose arm was not even strong enough to hold a sword and whose body could not endure cold climate.

Yet he spent three years in frosty northern kingdom Yan to act as a kingmaker. Now he decided to go to Jinling, the capital of Great Liang Kingdom.

Mei Changsu's living/bedding room

Mei Changsu’s living/bedding room

His friend Lin Chen, the executive CEO of Langya Terrace info centre, was extremely concerned for his health and travelled to Langzhou to offer him some parting advices.

The gate of the capital city

A pair of tapered columns are the decorational pillars before the front city gate called huabiao (华表)

Then one day a carriage with the curtains fully drawn arrived at the gate of the capital Jinling. When the carriage just passed a pair of decorative pillars in front of the gate, two men on the horse leading the carriage were greeted by Princess Nihuang, a woman commander of the Kingdom’s border army, with a kung fu lesson.

Mei Changsu in a horse-drawn carriage

Mei Changsu in a horse-drawn carriage

Sitting in the carriage was no other but Mei Changsu. Hearing the woman commander’s voice, he suddenly felt his heart was broken …….

Xie family's guest house

Xie family’s guest house

Once arrived in the capital, Mei Changsu was arranged by his friend, the son of Marquis Xie, to live in his family’s guest house.

Marquis Xie was the emperor’s brother-in-law and the kingdom’s chief military commander.

Kung Fu contest ground within the palace

An ancient Chinese sports stadium: Kung Fu contest ground within the palace

The emperor decided to marry off Princess Nihuang, the daughter of his late friend Lord Mu.

A decree was issued to inform all young men at home and abroad: anybody from a decent family could marry the princess as long as he could win his future wife in kung fu contests.

Ancient Chinese stadium audience

Ancient Chinese stadium audience

At the VIP audience, Prince Yu and Crown Prince finally met Mei Changsu, the alleged kingmaker.

Ever since received the same advice from Langya Terrace, the two princes searched high and low trying to locate the man, but without success, yet at the end he had already lived in the capital without their knowledge. Now while watching the kung fu contest, the two brothers competed with each other in an attempt to secure Mei Changsu’s exclusive service.

A typical Chinese palace pathway: rammed earth walls with stones at the foundation (a structure for lesser important parts in ancient Chinese palace architecture) and traditional Chinese stone lampposts (now commonly seen in Japanese gardens).

During the break, Mei Changsu met an antagonist sent by the brother of Princess Nihuang after he had a walk with his sister under her request. She believed it was his organisation that secretly helped her win a decisive battle against an invading force two years ago.

The kingmaker was saved by his bodyguard Fei Liu, a teenage boy mentally disabled but martial skills highly developed.

While Fei Liu threw the antagonist out, Meng Zhi, the chief commander of royal guards, appeared. He recognized who Mei Changsu actually was and asked him why he returned to the capital after twelve years.

Mei Changsu invited Meng Zhi to meet him at the guesthouse that night.

A moon gate to Snow Cottage

Traditional Chinese garden design: space with a theme

This moon gate is the entrance to the guesthouse, where Mei Changsu lived, in Marquis Xie’s mansion. The characters above the gate read “Snow Cottage”, that is the name of the guest quarter.

One of the unique features in traditional Chinese building design, especially garden design, is its strong emphasis on space themes.

A classic Chinese built space is more than just shapes, colours and other physical attributes in right proportion and good relationship that satisfy both functioning and visual requirements, but further seeks to reflect the spirit of the host.

In other words, by expressing host’s intangible aspirations through tangible objects, the space is given a cultural depth and a soul, thus the lintels over the gates, the couplets on the walls are all considered as quintessential parts of the traditional Chinese built forms as they summarize the theme of the space.

An ancient Chinese lighting system

Lounge area of Snow Cottage

That night, Meng Zhi, Commander General of Royal Guards, sneaked into the Snow Cottage.

Mei Changsu informed his old friend and martial arts teacher he had worked on his plan for 12 years, including 3 years of practice in Northern Yan kingdom, now it was the right time to take action here.

He admitted he wasn’t sure he would definitely win the battle, so he advised Meng Zhi to stay away from his high risk political games.

Meng Zhi rejected the advice. He didn’t like Mei Changsu’s hellbound endeavour but since they were friends, he was willing to go to hell with him.

Royal Conference

A traditional Chinese political consultative conference hosted by emperor

Inside the meeting hall in the royal palace, a conference hosted by the emperor was taking place.

The kung fu dating had produced an undesirable result: a man from Northern Yan became the top candidate, and if Princess Nihuang couldn’t defeat him in the final contest, she would have to marry him.

Since Northern Yan was one of Lang’s chief antagonist states, the emperor could not afford of the risk of marrying off one of his best military generals to a Northern Yan warrior.

Despite being too frail to even defend himself, Mei Changsu offered to train three kids in five days, and in the end his five little kung fu disciples magically knocked off the foreign warrior’s feet.

He saved the princess from an unwanted marriage and Liang Kingdom from a disastrous liaison.

Lounge area in a Snow Cottage

The interior of the guesthouse Snow Cottage: the white parts in the traditional Chinese lattice windows were not glasses but silk gauzes (for luxury home like this) or white paper (for ordinary residences).

The emperor had many wives therefore many sons. Apart from Crown Prince and Prince Yu who fought against each other for the throne and for Mei Changsu’s service, there were also a handicapped prince, a dummy prince, a child prince and Prince Jin, an army general.

One of the three boys who Mei Changsu trained to knock down the foreign warrior was under Prince Jing’s secret care, so during the training, he visited Snow Cottage.

Prince Jing asked Mei Changsu, of Crown Prince and Prince Yu, whom he was going to make the king.

“None of them,” Mei Changsu replied, “but you, Prince Jing.”

Prince Jing's mother's chamber

Prince Jing’s mother’s royal chamber

Prince Jing’s mother, a low ranking royal consort, was doing her needlework at night, making small silk bags that could be carried around like a pendant, as her gifts to some senior female royal members.

The bags commonly contained dried herbs and flowers with special scent or healing effect. In the old days, Chinese girls loved to make such bags for their men, sometimes inserted with a love note.

Among all the bags Prince Jing’s mother made, there was indeed one in which she inserted a note with a message, not about love but, an urgent warning over a nasty conspiracy against Princess Nihuang.

Marquis Xie's wife's chamber

The chamber of Marquis Xie’s wife: candle lighting arranged in a style like the tails of peacocks

Marquis Xie’s wife, who was also the emperor’s sister, received an embroidered silk bag with that urgent message. She took the action immediately.

Having failed to warn Princess Nihuang in person, she returned home and prepared to pay a visit to her family’s guest house, the Snow Cottage.

Traditional Chinese garden light and torch

Traditional Chinese garden light and torch

Marquis Xie’s wife sneaked into the guest house in the dead of night to meet Mei Changsu and asked him to save Princess Nihuang from being tricked into an undesirable political marriage.

Crown Prince's mother's chamber

Crown Prince’s mother’s chamber with lavish use of soft partitions

But it was all too late. Due to a misjudgement of the situation by both Mei Changsu and Princess Nihuang, she found herself trapped in a pit hole dug by Crown Prince and his mother.

She was drugged and was about to be taken away by a man whom the Crown Prince and his mother wished to become Princess Nihuang’s husband thus to win the allegiance of her army.

Crown Prince was taken hostage by Prince Jing

Crown Prince was taken hostage by Prince Jing in the fight to rescue Princess Nihuang

Prince Jing was urged by Mei Changsu through his secret agent, Palace Guards Commander Mengzhi, to rescue Princess Nihuang.

The empress and the emperor’s grandmother were also informed through Menzhi to backup Prince Jing.

After a bloody showdown, which involved sword grabbing and arrow shooting, and thanks to the timely arrival of the empress and the emperor’s grandma, Princess Nihuang was saved, and Crown Prince and his mother were subsequently punished by the emperor.

The emperor's studio

The emperor’s studio

Since the Northern Yan warrior was defeated, it wasn’t difficult for Princess Nihuang to claim the victory over all contesters in the kung fu dating, therefore once again successfully retained her single status.

The emperor was quite upset for failing to force the princess to get married thus to retire from the military service. She was too popular among her generals and soldiers, which the emperor considered as a threat to the throne.

The interior of the guesthouse Snow Cottage

The interior of the guesthouse Snow Cottage – hard and soft partitions and paving floor

After the farcical dating game, Princess Nihuang’s friend Xia Dong, a high-ranking detective agent with Hanging Mirror Bureau, i.e. the Royal Discipline Committee, paid a visit to the Snow Cottage.

Mei Changsu

Xia Dong thanked Mei Changsu for saving her friend and asked if he did so out of love for Princess Nihuang.

Mei Changsu told her he was physically so unwell that he might not be able to live long therefore did not prepare to have his own family.

Xia Dong wasn’t convinced and further asked why two years ago he sent his man to help Princess Nihuang’s army to defeat an invading force in the southern border.

Mei Changsu was rather disturbed by the question.

“I never expected I would be demanded the reason for defending my own country,” he replied, “Has the moral ground in the capital descended to such a low level?!”

Nirvana in Fire (2): A Wanted Man

Nirvana in Fire (3): Chinese New Year Festival

Nirvana in Fire (4): A Birthday Party

Nirvana in Fire (5): A Plot

Nirvana in Fire (6): A Rescue Operation

Nirvana in Fire (7): A Hunting Excursion 

Nirvana in Fire (8): A Military Coup

Nirvana in Fire (9): A True Identity Exposed

Nirvana in Fire (10): A Delayed Justice

Nirvana in Fire Theme Song: When the Wind Blows

Full episodes of the tv drama can be viewed at:
https://goo.gl/9Qbxss

10 comments

  • princess_sweetpea

    Hello Awen! Thanks for making such a true and beautiful translation of the story- Nirvana in Fire is the first Chinese TV Series I watched till end, and I’m re-watching it for the fourth time already. I already finished reading the novel. There are some very fine adjustments made, which I think make the whole plot more detailed and convincing.

    Are you Chinese? Your English is beautiful, but your understanding of the TV series is also so detailed that it is hard to imagine if you did not understand Chinese. Thanks for spreading this wonderful TV series to the world!!!

    • Awen

      Dear Princess, your review of both the TV series and the novel is very insightful. Yes, I can read Chinese, and I also visit China quite often and live there from time to time.

      I haven’t read the novel. I believe it’s a masterpiece, but I also learned the author was in her twenties when she wrote the book, and her description of the male characters was rather feminine, which for a while led many readers to suspect Mei Changsu’s biggest secret was about his gender (a woman disguised as man, as the novel was published by daily online installment).

      I think the great success of Nirvana in Fire owes a lot to Hu Ge’s delicate yet masculine interpretation of the leading character and a mainly-male crew’s revision.

      Just like you, I’ve watched the series for more than once. I’m grateful for Nirvana In Fire which helps me to discover that China has world-class actors (such as Hu Ge) and terrific TV products (Nirvana in Fire is certainly one of the best TV dramas I’ve ever watched, matched only by Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes and William Shatner’s Star Trek).

  • Jamie

    Nirvana certainly shows the Chinese in a completely different light to what I see now. Fascinating reading, would love to see China as depicted here. What era is Nirvana set in? The scenery in some of the photos is as good as you see anywhere. Certainly a fascinating culture, cheers Jamie

    • Awen

      Thanks Jamie. The story is roughly set in the fifth century, but there are some elements from later eras involved, such as the teapot and tea cups. But the drama does faithfully present what the classic China looked.

      Such a China existed until the middle 17th century then it was corrupted almost beyond repair by an alien culture of Manchu originated from far north and still dwelling on a raiding and slavery-based system at the time.

      Yes, I wish such a classic China can be revived (not in every aspects surely), combined with the modern development and the positive input from other cultures in the world.

  • cristina

    looks like a nice film. I always like to learn more about different countries’ cultures and history and I think the Chinese culture is very rich.

    I will try to find the movie with subtitles of course:))) and as soon as I watch it I will tell you my impression:))

    Thanks for giving me a nice idea how to spend my evening:))

    Cristina

  • Louis

    Hi Awen,

    I like your sharing. It’s nice and interesting. I have never thought about understanding the Chinese culture and different aspects when watching a TV drama or Movie from China. I would like to wait for your coming posts and more interesting sharing in a short future.

    Thanks

    Louis

    • Awen

      Hi Louis, images have no language barriers, so I always believe they are the best tools to communicate between cultures at the initial stage.

      I’m encouraged and will continue to post, sure.

  • Marilyn

    What an interesting story! It was great to see many aspects of China displayed throughout the story. I must confess to not having that great an understanding of the Chinese culture, so it was good to at least get a feeling for it as I read.

    Thank you for sharing this… I see it’s to be continued… oh, I wonder what happens next?

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