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”.
It is in fact an ancient temple in Yandang Mountains
In Mt Langya, there sat Langya Terrace, where the strategy of the Nirvana In Fire was planned and implemented.
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.
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 the process.
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.
Ancient Chinese data (or medicine ingredients) storage units – file storage units at Langya Terrace information centre
The processed data were then categorized and stored in these traditional Chinese cabinets controlled by the mechanism of a mechanical system.
An open office at the Langya Terrace
Among its publications, there were several annual rankings, specifying the position of prominent individuals on 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.
This is Lin Chen, the executive CEO and the son of the founder of the Langya Terrace info centre. He just received positive feedback from the 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 of hard endeavour, with the help of that top talented man.
Prince Yu at Langya Terrace waiting room
The news prompted Prince Yu from the Great Liang Kingdom, the home state of Langya Terrace, to pay a visit in person to seek advice on how to optimise his performance in state politics.
In the ancient time, important or prestigious messages 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 exact same advice to the prince of the Yan Kingdom, to the Crown Prince of the Great Liang Kingdom, and now to 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
Left Shore Alliance, with its headquarter in a subtropical and humid Langzhou, used to be just one of the 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).
Mei Changsu at his office in Left Shore Alliance headquarters. 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 a cold climate.
Yet he spent three years in the frosty northern kingdom Yan to act as a kingmaker. Now he decided to go to Jinling, the capital of the Great Liang Kingdom.
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 advice.
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
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
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.
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
At the VIP audience, Prince Yu and Crown Prince finally met Mei Changsu, the alleged kingmaker.
Ever since receiving the same advice from Langya Terrace, the two princes searched high and low trying to locate the man, but without success, yet in 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 at 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 with 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.
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”, which is the name of the guest quarter.
One of the unique features of 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 the 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 the 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 quintessential parts of the traditional Chinese built forms as they summarize the theme of the space.
The 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 the Northern Yan kingdom, and 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.
A traditional Chinese political consultative conference hosted by the 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 the Liang Kingdom from a disastrous liaison.
The interior of the guesthouse Snow Cottage: the white parts in the traditional Chinese lattice windows were not glasses but silk gauze (for luxury homes 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 was 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 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 a 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.
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 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
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 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 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 back up 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
Since the Northern Yan warrior was defeated, it wasn’t difficult for Princess Nihuang to claim victory over all contestants in the kung fu dating, therefore once again successfully retaining her single status.
The emperor was quite upset for failing to force the princess to get married thus retiring from the military service. She was too popular among her generals and soldiers, which the emperor considered a threat to the throne.
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.
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 and 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 on 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?!”