When I started writing a blog, I didn’t anticipate that I would end up reviewing a Chinese TV series filmed in the early 1990’s. The reason I decided to write the review is that, like a lot of expats living in China, I had viewed a lot of homegrown TV with a kind of resigned condescension. The predictable mix of comedic game-shows with idiotic ‘Tom and Jerry’ background noises added, the ludicrously OTT melodrama with heroines wailing ‘wei shenme!!???’ through cascades of tears, and of course the war-time movies featuring ‘The Old Enemy’.
Anyway, my girlfriend cajoled me into paying a bit of attention to this certain Song Dynasty based series called ‘Bai She Zhuan’ – Story of the White Snake. With a little explanation of the background I actually found the storyline quite accessible.
It’s basically a love story, but although the two central characters love each-other to the point of death, and beyond, things naturally get a little complicated. The heroine is in fact not a person, but a ‘yao’ – an animal spirit endowed with supernatural powers. When she was younger, and a mere little white snake, an old man happened upon her and tried to kill her. Fortunately a kind-hearted young boy who was passing implored the man not to needlessly kill the snake, saving her scaly skin. Full of gratitude, the little white snake spirit vowed to pay the boy back by marrying him and bearing him children.
To make good on her vow, she meditated and cultivated her powers for 1000 years, until she was strong enough to take and maintain a human form; the beautiful Bai Niangzi. By this time, the little boy had been through several re-incarnations, and was living life as Xu Xian; an innocuous apothecary/physician in the Hangzhou/Suzhou area.
So, they meet, fall in love and marry, all the while Xu Xian has no idea that his wife is in fact a supernatural being who can fly, do magic, and turn into an enormous white snake. In the meantime, the old man has also been re-incarnated, and provides a pantomime-esque villain in Fa Hai, a Buddhist monk who lives for hundreds of years, and is devoted to hunting down Bai Niangzi and punishing her for presuming to trick a mortal into marrying her.
The many episodes weave images of Song Dynasty China, with beautiful costumes, old-fashioned idioms and forms of address, and a stylized performance heavily influenced by Chinese Opera. The acting is exaggerated, yet full of pathos, and the key characters are three dimensional (within the limits of the form), not just a paper cut-outs like in other ‘Classical Period’ dramas. The plot transmits a number of themes relevant in the period, and to anyone interested in Chinese history and culture:
1. Religion. Taoism and Buddhism co-existed at this time, with a duality in the public consciousness which on the one hand embraced superstition and the concept of man struggling against fate and imploring the heavens for divine/supernatural intervention; while on the other hand vilifying power-mongering priests like Fa Hai, and mendicant Taoists, who used their spiritual authority and privilege to further personal ambitions.
2. Filial piety and Confucian values. The behaviour of the central characters is often dictated by concepts of duty to family, and sacrifice.
3. Class relations, equality and justice, behind so many of Classical China’s up-heavals; are visited in vignettes discussing the fairness or otherwise of people in privilege abusing the freedoms of the un-privileged.
With a fantastic supernatural plot to rival Terminator and the Matrix, endearing 90’s special effects, but with the tear-jerking romance of Romeo and Juliet, I found Bai She Zhuan great fun to watch. Accepting a marginal risk of being called a ‘Big Cream Puff’, I recommend this series to anyone who is interested in accessing a bit of Chinese pop culture. It’s imaginative, easy on the eye (unless you cried at Titanic), and actually fiendishly addictive (this coming from a veteran of the old US series ‘Dallas’). I usually can’t stand musicals, but find myself humming the repetitive tunes on my way to work.
The only problem is that Zhejiang TV have just stopped showing it. Sorry. Try Baidu if you can, to watch it on-line, or look for the DVD. Or just be patient, as apparently it is re-run on a regular basis.