Quality period dramas grounded in refined aesthetics

Period dramas need to elevate the aesthetic sensibilities of the audience
By By Shu Min / 03-07-2016 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Sun Li portrays Miyue, daughter of the King of Chuwei, in the hit period drama Legend of Miyue.


As an ancient civilization, China has a significant advantage when it comes to creating period dramas. Chinese history, preserved in multi-volume books, is full of complexity, and provides a great resource for creators of period dramas. However, there are few high-quality works in this field, prompting reflection on the reason.

A general survey of today’s televised Chinese period dramas reveals many undesirable tendencies. For example, some period dramas, though loosely based on the stories of real historical figures, distort history and fabricate plots. Though these dramas may gain high audience ratings, such distortion harms the creation of dramas in the long term.

Some works, following the dictum of Italian idealist philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce that “all history is contemporary history,” show historical figures expressing certain thoughts and opinions in a far-fetched and rigid way. What is worse is that some so-called historical fiction lacks any historical foundation. Facts and characters are concocted, deviating too far from the historical truth.

A closer look at the genre is needed to find ways to make excellent period dramas enjoyed by audiences.


National aesthetics
It is important that the creation of period dramas should carry forward the notions of national aesthetics.
Some creators overemphasize the subjectivity of drama and transform the television art into sheer visualized essays on philosophy, diluting the poetic flavor and detaching it from aesthetic ideals. This apparently neglects the artistic tradition of Chinese national aesthetics: implication, vividness and ethereality.

This also discards the uniquely Chinese cosmic spirit that has been inherited from the drama performers of the Song and Yuan dynasties. There is much meaning in the merry laughter, irony and lack of restraint. By neglecting these traditions, many thoughtful ideas are turned into monologues with superficial content and exquisite made-up cover. In addition to reasons resulting from national conditions, the inferiority of current period dramas is also caused by the lasting influence of Western schools of literature and art. This does not mean Western theories should be rejected, but the way that the Chinese academia accepts such theories should be reconsidered.

Directly grafting Western aesthetics onto Chinese television drama would make a diametrical difference. For example, considering the popularity of American television series among some young Chinese audience, some producers have said that the American styles provide a template for Chinese television series to follow, resulting in some far-fetched and nondescript works that are neither in Western nor Chinese style. The fact is, programs that merely integrate the experience of American television series uncritically while failing to consider the receptivity of the targeted audiences and their cultural backgrounds have little chance of success.


Narrative skill
The period drama, a type of “genre drama,” needs to be distinctively unique. Artistic truth is extracted from historical truth, which is closely correlated with narrative skill. In other words, what is important is not only “what to tell,” but also “how to tell.” A good case in point is the recent popular television play Legend of Miyue which enjoyed record ratings. The play is narrated with great care and superb skill, creating strong but real, reliable dramatic conflict.

In the play, after Miyue became the ruler of the Qin state, she attempted to implement a series of radical reforms, which were later thwarted by the Lord of Yiqu and his subordinates. It was her beloved on one side but the national interest on the other side. Miyue, as the main character, was placed in a dilemma, which gives the audience a strong sense of dramatic conflict. As Georg Hegel put it, “The tragic resolution is constituted by a fundamental contrast.” In the end, Miyue chose to safeguard the national interest. The climax of the story came when the Lord of Yiqu was killed, which makes the audience gasp at the tragic but stirring destiny of the great figures in the play. They are subdued by the highly proficient skill of the narration that the scriptwriter uses to deal with the relationship between characters and history.

There is no doubt that period dramas serve not only to narrate and present history but also to guide the aesthetic psychology of the audience. Gestalt psychology, a theory of mind of the Berlin School of experimental psychology, reveals that the way objects exist is subtly related to the psychological activity of humans. Therefore, for any type of literary and artistic work, audiences have specific expectations for the aesthetic effect that the works display. When the content of historical period dramas satisfies such expectations, strong chords are struck within audiences.

For instance, Nirvana in Fire, which was recently adapted for the screen, was quite popular online despite relatively tepid television ratings. The series met the psychological demands of young online users and was thus successful. It appealed to the admiration of intelligence and talent. In the play, the intellectual Mei Changsu depends on his brains and wisdom to gain power and prestige in the imperial court. Today, the market economy in contemporary society brings both competition and opportunities to those eligible, which means there are many chances to alter one’s fate in a short amount of time. Therefore, everyone aspires to be Mei Changsu—to defeat rivals one by one and grow strong in society.

But it is not simply an admiration for intelligence that makes the series a success. What is the most valuable in Nirvana in Fire is that it defines a clear and correct road for one to achieve power. What Mei Changsu does is not only to contend for power and profit. He has a more far-sighted target—to uphold justice. In contemporary society where idealism has been lost in some sense, such a value orientation infuses energy into the audience and excites them.

In the play, the Lord of Jing says repeatedly that the schemes and underhanded tactics should only be employed when one has no other choice. And once employed, they should be moderate. In addition, good men should not become the target of conspiracy. Such concepts, together with vivid depictions of characters, produce strongly influential charisma of personality. Compared to those historical period dramas that are lopsided in depicting the struggle for power and profit, the play has higher aesthetic sensibilities that speak to most people’s aspiration for justice in a larger sense.


Aesthetic taste
Moreover, drama creators need to constantly enlarge their cultural common sense and improve aesthetic taste. In some popular period dramas, there are historical anachronisms, such as people in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) being depicted using stainless steel kitchen knives. This also reveals that some creators lack a basic knowledge of history and rigorous attention to detail. As the saying goes, an interpretation of poetic art is beyond poetry. What is conveyed in the works is the creators’ artistic taste and state of mind. The skill of the drama can be learned and universalized, but there is a ladder of ascent within the state of minds.


To engage in period drama creation, a rational view of history and refined aesthetic tastes are required. As Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out in the forum on literature and art in 2014, those in the creative industry should aim high and have far-sighted aspirations. Artists with ambition and dreams are not content with simple storytelling in their works. They have a faith in humanity that conforms to social values so their works age well like the stories of Dickens and Shakespeare, who wrote about current affairs but enriched their stories with timeless charm.


Shu Min is from the School of Art at the Communication University of China.